For years, many have questioned the inner workings of the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame committee. The group is composed of team leaders, community members, and media voters who privately hash out the next member of the exclusive club. Milt Northrop, a committee member and writer for The Buffalo News, is the first person to publicly write about Ralph Wilson's influence over the committee.
"The sentiment seemed to be: It's his Wall of Fame," wrote Northrop on Sunday about snubs. "Besides there were several other deserving candidates, so let's move on."
The snubbed candidates most often referred to are Lou Saban, the head coach of the two AFL Championship teams in the mid-1960s, and Cookie Gilchrist, the enigmatic running back from the early AFL days. Their accomplishments on the field speak for themselves but their off-the-field problems have kept them from their spot on the stadium named for the team's founder and owner.
"It's always been assumed that Ralph blocked the election of Lou Saban and Cookie Gilchrist from inclusion on the Bills' Wall of Fame. I don't recall an outright Wilson veto, but on more than one occasion, Ralph would explain why he felt Saban did not deserve to be honored. It was because Lou had walked out on the team twice, and Ralph viewed that as disloyalty."
Saban had a history of moving around every few years. He coached three different AFL/NFL squads - including the Bills twice - and never stayed longer than five seasons. He abruptly resigned following the second AFL Championship to take the top coaching job at the University of Maryland only to become the head coach of the Denver Broncos 11 months later. He re-joined the Bills in 1971 but resigned five games into the 1976 season after turning around O.J. Simpson's career and taking the Bills to their first NFL playoff game.
GIlchrist and the Bills owner frequently butted heads over the running back's contract. Gilchrist would ask for appearance fees, wanted partial ownership of the team, control over merchandise with his likeness, and even asked for percentage of the concessions sold at games. That and friction with Saban led to Gilchrist's trade prior to the 1965 season.
For years, it was unclear if Wilson was suggesting the names worthy of enshrinement or merely just not arguing with the committee. Northrop also chimed in on two instances of the team owner suggesting two names - worthy of inductions surely - and little resistance from the committee.
"On two occasions, Ralph came to the Wall of Fame committee meetings with a candidate in mind. First, it was trainer Ed Abramoski. Ralph called us out of the room to talk about it because Abramoski was present as a member of the committee. He got no argument from us."
Abramoski retired as the team's trainer in 1996 and was inducted three years later after joining the team prior to their inaugural 1960 season.
"On another occasion, following the season when Marv Levy had undergone his prostate surgery, Ralph proposed Levy's enshrinement. It was an easy choice. With Marv it was only a question of when his name would go up on the wall. Ralph thought that was the time and the committee went along."
Wilson was selected by the committee in 1989 followed by the 12th man in 1992. Levy became the first and only person drawing a paycheck from the team at the time of his enshrinement. The future Hall of Famer had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
While Mr. Wilson may have only brought two names to the selection committee and never forced the committee to not consider a candidate, it's clear that he played an active role in who received recognition and who did not.