By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Every so often, the Buffalo Bills under owner Ralph Wilson needed to hire a coach for his football team. Usually, they were less than household names without much experience. Jim Ringo? Kay Stephenson? Hank Bullough? Dick Jauron? Chan Gailey? Get the idea?
There was one major exception to that rule during the Wilson Years: Chuck Knox. On his passing on Sunday, we should remember that Knox brought the Bills into the modern era of football in some ways.
The Bills were a terrible franchise before Knox arrived. They had gone 2-12 in 1976 under Lou Saban and Jim Ringo, and 3-13 in 1977 under Ringo. In ’77 the Bills were outscored by 177 points, which included a 56-17 loss to Seattle which – believe it or not – was worse than it sounds. Buffalo had three home crowds under 30,000 that season, as Rich Stadium looked really empty in such circumstances. O.J. Simpson wasn’t even around to provide excitement that season, as he only played in seven games because of injury.
Meanwhile, Knox had just finished his fifth year as the coach of the Los Angeles Rams in 1977. He came out of Sewickley, Pa., near Pittsburgh – somehow with a slight Southern accent – and served as an assistant coach with the Jets and Lions. He had never won less than 10 games in a season, and was coming off a 10-4 record with Pat Haden as his starting quarterback. The problems with Knox were that the team never could make it to the Super Bowl, and that the style of play was boring. He also didn’t get along with the Rams’ owner, Carroll Rosenbloom.
Knox departed after one last loss in the conference final, and Wilson paid the price for a proven winner to come run his team – a reported $1.2 million over six years. Good move. Knox brought along his own crew to help with the Bills, people like scouting director Norm Pollum and a bunch of assistant coaches. He also sent Simpson to the 49ers for a bushel of draft choices, which was much more than the running back was worth at that stage of his career. The team improved to 5-11 in 1978, and to 7-9 the year after.
NOT TOO QUOTABLE
Knox quickly established a reputation for being a solid professional in his business, as well as someone who didn’t say much to the media if he could help it. He wasn’t Bill Belichick, but he was very guarded. One time he said in a news conference before a Chicago game that the Bears of that era had three legitimate NFL quarterbacks on the roster, when the reality was they had none. Knox’s one slip came when someone asked if Merv Krakau would start at middle linebacker on opening day in 1978. “Who else have I got?” he replied. Merv’s days in Buffalo were numbered.
But help was on the way. The Bills had a great draft in 1979, even if some front office bungling let No.1 overall pick Tom Cousineau leave for the Canadian Football League. Buffalo still added Jerry Butler, Fred Smerlas, Jim Haslett and Jeff Nixon. When 1980 rolled around, Knox and the Bills were ready to show the NFL they had arrived.
The first sign of that came in the opener, when they beat the Dolphins for the first time in a decade. It was one of the great postgame parties in the history of the team, as fans engulfed the field. Buffalo won its first five games and did enough the rest of the way to finish 11-5 and win the AFC East. Some can picture Joe Montana’s last-ditch pass for the 49ers falling incomplete on the last play of the last game of the season, giving the Bills the division. Buffalo lost to San Diego in the playoffs, in part because of an ankle injury to Joe Ferguson, but Knox had made the Bills relevant again.
It was almost as good in 1981. A four-game winning streak got the Bills to a wild-card spot in the playoffs, and this time Buffalo got a postseason win to its credit – the first since 1965. The Bills almost blew a 24-0 lead, but Bill Simpson’s last-minute interceptions allowed the team to escape Shea Stadium with a win over the Jets. Alas, the Bengals protected an early lead in the next round and knocked off Buffalo.
By this time, Knox’s phrases had become repeated enough to be popular with the media and fans. “Play the hand you’re dealt” and “toughness base” were part of the vocabulary. Knox used to say before every draft that the event was something like Christmas morning – coming down the stairs, you knew you’d get something good but you didn’t know what. One time Knox simply handed out Christmas cards to the media at the draft news conference; we got the message.
The Bills started the 1982 season with two wins, and then everything blew up. The players went on strike for more than two months, and nothing was the same after that. Knox couldn’t keep the locker room together, and the Bills lost their last three games to fall short of qualifying for the 16-team Super Bowl “tournament.” Then Knox and Wilson couldn’t agree on a contract extension, and the coach was off to Seattle where he turned around the Seahawks in the next few years. The Bills turned into bumblers again, and didn’t reverse their fortunes until Bill Polian and Marv Levy arrived a few years later.
We always sort of thought some interesting things were going on in Knox’s head along the way. He proved that when he wrote his autobiography, “Hard Knox.” Even Chuck said he was surprised how candid he was about his life in that book. If you are interested in the era, go read it.
Knox might have been a Super Bowl winner and a Hall of Famer in a different set of circumstances. He may have wanted that first part a little too much late in his career. One Bills’ player said that Knox went around to the players in the locker room before a playoff game, saying “Don’t make a mistake!” Maybe that wasn’t the right approach under the circumstances.
Still, Chuck Knox brought a lot of joy to a lot of football fans in Buffalo, and he was a true professional. That’s a pretty good legacy.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB.)