By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
I had a good-sized smile on my face as I read the 15 parts of The Buffalo News series on some of the great “What ifs?” in Buffalo sports history.
That’s because not only did I like the idea – it’s a perfect way to fill space right now in a sports world that doesn’t generate much news – but because I almost got there first.
About 15 years ago, I had the idea of doing a story for The News on Buffalo’s best sports “what ifs.” I talked to a bunch of media types about my choices of some of the best ones in history. It wasn’t difficult to come up with a list.
For example, if you’ve ever known anyone who graduated from St. Bonaventure, you know that the Bonnies were clearly headed to a national championship until Bob Lanier was hurt in the regional final. I was a lone voice in opposition locally, saying that UCLA had a ton of talent during that era and it would be difficult for one guy to beat five. Then again, I was a UCLA fan back then. Mark Gaughan made the point that Lanier would be a major handful for the Bruins’ big men. It would be easy to give Bona a chance of winning if Lanier could have a big day and get UCLA’s front line in foul trouble.
I also quoted a local football reporter when asked what would have happened if Scott Norwood’s kick had been good. His quick reply was, “There is absolutely no way that the Bills go back to the next three Super Bowls if they win the first one.” I think he’s right.
I wrote up the good-sized story, and submitted it to the sports editor. I thought it might be a way to fill some space on a slow summer day or go to the Sunday magazine we had at the time. He read it over and told me that he didn’t publish imaginary stories. And if he did, he didn’t want experts other than those from the Buffalo News in it.
I wonder if a pandemic would have changed his mind.
In any event, I thought there were two good “what ifs?” that were overlooked in the series. One is an old one that I considered back then, the other is relatively new. Let’s take a look.
Canisius joins the Big East
The Big East Conference came together in 1979. The idea was to get the basketball powers of the Northeast together to form a conference that could capitalize on the large television markets in the region. The original lineup was Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, Syracuse, Seton Hall, Connecticut, and Boston College. They were soon joined by Villanova (1980) and Pittsburgh (1982). The idea was a case of marketing genius from Providence’s Dave Gavitt, perfectly timed with the rise of ESPN. The Big East became a Beast in a short time.
But a seven-team league is a little awkward. An eight-team league would have been better. What about a team from Buffalo to fit that spot?
Buffalo had a bigger TV market than either Syracuse or Providence, so you’d have to think that might have been attractive. It had a building downtown that seated 18,000 for basketball, so that wouldn’t have been a problem. The Braves were gone, so there was a space on the winter sports calendar.
What it didn’t have was a college program ready to jump into that level of college competition.
Canisius was the most likely choice, since it was in the middle of the population in downtown Buffalo and already played in Memorial Auditorium. But its program had suffered major problems in the 1970s, falling to 3-22 in 1976-77. The wins were against St. Michael’s, Colgate and Niagara. Nick Macarchuk arrived the following season and got the Golden Griffins to 7-19 in 1977-78, and 12-14 in 1978-79.
Macarchuk took the job because he thought the program had potential, and it did beat Pittsburgh and Providence in 1979. Still, it probably would have taken a huge financial commitment to keep up with some of the big boys of the Northeast in the sport. It’s tough to picture Canisius anxious to take that step at that point in its history.
Meanwhile, Niagara wasn’t ready for that sort of move, Buffalo couldn’t imagine such a bid at that point in its athletic history, and St. Bonaventure was in too small of a city to be considered for a league driven by television market size. So Buffalo didn’t have a great candidate and was passed over. Second chances don’t often come in such matters, and it didn’t in this case.
Canisius wouldn’t have lasted in that group, as the football schools eventually split off on their own and landed elsewhere. The Griffs might have wound up with Providence and Georgetown in the revised Big East. Still, think of having the Big East Conference playing at the Aud in the 1980s. Our Saturday nights would have featured Patrick Ewing, Pearl Washington and Chris Mullin. We would have had a ringside seat on the Greatest Show in College Basketball.
Donald Trump buys the Bills
This is interesting on two levels – the football version and the government version.
You might recall that there were three bidders to buy the Bills after Ralph Wilson died. On September 9, 2014, it was announced that Terry Pegula had the winning figure at $1.4 billion. Trump along with a Toronto group that included musician Jon Bon Jovi were the two losers.
What did Trump have to say in hindsight about buying the Bills. He said this to Sports Illustrated in 2016: “I’m glad [I lost the bidding], because if I bought the Buffalo Bills, I probably would not be [running for president], which is much more important.”
But if Trump had bought the Bills, the team’s history certainly would have had a different arc. The franchise signed a lease to stay in Buffalo for ten years starting in 2013, so it would have stayed put for a while. Trump had tried to buy the Cleveland Indians in the early 1980s and immediately move the team to Tampa Bay, but his offer was not accepted.
That might have important to remember when considering the fate of the Buffalo Bills as a team here. The Los Angeles market was still open in 2014, as the Rams didn’t move there from St. Louis in 2016. Trump, or any other owner, might have increased the value of the franchise many millions of dollars by moving it from Buffalo to Los Angeles. The revised lease might have scared a new owner off … or it might have been worth it to try to break it and pay the penalty.
It’s a little difficult to say what a Trump-led Bills organization would be like, even when you look at his days as an owner in the United States Football League. Let’s just say that the team might have gone after some big name stars whenever possible, and that team management might not be particularly, um, stable. At the least, it wouldn’t have been boring. Can you picture Donald Trump giving Rex Ryan orders?
In the meantime, with Trump at One Bills Drive, we have to go looking for a new successor to Barack Obama in the Oval Office. If you take Trump out of the Presidential sweepstakes in 2016, you get an entirely different dynamic.
John Boehner, former Speaker of the House, said in 2016 that only Hillary Clinton could lose to Donald Trump, and only Donald Trump could lose to Hillary Clinton – because the negatives on both of them were so high. If you consider that Trump lost the popular vote and Clinton lost the Electoral College, he’s right. A change in the matchup could have gone in many directions. I asked political analyst Jeff Greenfield, who has written a couple of books on alternative histories, about this, and he said there were too many variables to make any definitive conclusions.
Clinton still would have won the Democratic nomination without Trump around, but the Republican side would have been wide open. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were the last remaining major contenders until Trump wrapped up the nomination. They probably both would have had a chance to beat Clinton. Still, both would have had to have won states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to have had enough electoral votes to get to the needed 270.
My guess is that Rubio would have had the better chance to do that. Maybe in this situation, the Republicans eventually unite around him as the field narrowed. Cruz had his own collection of negatives to worry about, starting with some personal unpopularity among Republicans. In the long shot division, Jeb Bush’s campaign might have done better without Trump around, but I’m not sure that America was ready for another Bush under most circumstances.
But no matter who won the election, it’s fair to say that the period from 2017 to 2020 would have looked much different in this country. You can decide whether it would be for better or worse.
Did the sale of the Bills to Terry Pegula mean that Marco Rubio was no longer destined to be President in 2016? Now there’s a “what if?” for the ages.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)