January 18, 2011
On January 18, 1962 the Buffalo Bills of the AFL hired Lou Saban to be the team’s second head coach. The Bills had gone a combined 11-16-1 in their first two seasons under Buster Ramsey, and owner Ralph Wilson decided that a change was in order.
The 40-year-old Saban had been the original head coach of the Boston Patriots and was dismissed in favor of assistant coach Mike Holovak during the ’61 season. Immediately hired by the Bills as director of player personnel, he was Wilson’s choice to replace Ramsey. General Manager Dick Gallagher, who had been an assistant coach with Cleveland under Paul Brown when Saban was a player, also strongly supported the decision. Harvey Johnson took over Saban’s player personnel position.
Saban had played professionally with the Browns in the AAFC for four seasons until a shoulder injury forced his retirement in 1949. Prior to entering the pro coaching ranks, he was head football coach at Case Institute, Northwestern, and Western Illinois.
“I don't feel I have to prove myself as a coach,” Saban said upon being introduced. “What happened in Boston is behind. It was the best I could do under the circumstances and I make no apology for our record (7-12) or anything else.”
“There are no big mysteries to coaching pro football,” he added. “It's basically a game of blocking and tackling and working towards the goal of securing the best available talent together to get the job done.”
With regard to securing the best available talent, the Bills had a major void at quarterback. Veteran Al Dorow was obtained from the New York Titans and started the first four games of the season before yielding to young holdover Warren Rabb. The issue was decisively resolved during the 1962 season when Jack Kemp, who had twice led the Chargers to the AFL title game, was put on waivers due to an injured hand in order to make room on the roster (injured players had to be carried on the active roster in the AFL at that time). While it was reported that there was a so-called gentlemen’s agreement in place with regard to injury-waiver situations, several teams claimed Kemp, including the Bills. Commissioner Joe Foss awarded the quarterback to Buffalo for the $100 waiver price, and once the injury healed late in the season, Kemp became the starting quarterback.
Another key pickup on offense was FB Cookie Gilchrist, an eight-year veteran of Canadian pro football. The 250-pound power runner had a reputation for wearing out his welcome with several Canadian clubs (something that Saban would find to be true in Buffalo as well), but in ’62 he led the AFL in rushing with 1096 yards and scored 15 touchdowns. He also handled the team’s placekicking.
Beyond adding Kemp and Gilchrist, Saban revamped much of the lineup. Stew Barber was moved from linebacker to offensive tackle and Tom Day from defensive end to guard to supplement the group of young starters that featured G Billy Shaw, C Al Bemiller, OT Harold Olson, flanker Elbert “Golden Wheels” Dubenion, and split end Glenn Bass. Ernie Warlick became the tight end and led the club in receptions.
On defense, which was already a decent unit, several rookies immediately moved into the starting lineup with good results, including DT Tom Sestak, LB Mike Stratton, CB Booker Edgerson, and safety Carl Charon.
The Bills got off to a sluggish start in ’62, losing their first five games, but went 7-1-1 the rest of the way to finish with the first winning record in franchise history (7-6-1). It set the stage for high expectations in 1963, but instead came another 7-6-1 season, although that was enough for the Bills to tie for first in the mediocre Eastern Division - they lost the resulting playoff to the Patriots. However, in 1964 and ’65 it came together when Buffalo won consecutive AFL Championships.
Saban displayed coaching acumen in building the club into a contender. He went from inheriting a weak situation at quarterback to having impressive depth when Daryle Lamonica joined the team in ’63 as a rookie out of Notre Dame – in backing up the capable Kemp, Saban frequently used him in relief with good results. The defense was superb, perhaps most significantly evidenced by the two title game wins over the quick-striking Chargers, and in particular the second, a shutout in San Diego. There was also the added innovation of Pete Gogolak, the first soccer style placekicker who joined the team in 1964 and became a reliable producer of points. Even when the running game sagged in ’65 following the trade of Gilchrist to Denver, the Bills had enough to keep winning.
Saban’s coaching career was marked by frequent departures, and after four years in Buffalo and having twice reached the pinnacle in the American Football League, he quit to become head coach at the University of Maryland. He didn’t stay away from pro coaching for long, however, as he returned to the AFL in 1967 amid much fanfare to run the Denver Broncos. Saban failed to lift the Broncos out of the doldrums, however, and he resigned in 1971, barely half way through his ten-year contract as head coach/general manager.
The veteran coach returned to Buffalo in 1972. The Bills had fallen on hard times, and under Saban’s guidance put together three straight winning seasons, albeit with just one playoff appearance. He departed in ’76, ending his last stint as an AFL/NFL head coach.
Saban’s career took off on an eclectic course thereafter. He was at the University of Miami for two years and moved on to West Point to coach Army for a season, and then switched gears and became a major league baseball executive. Years before, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had been an assistant coach under Saban at Northwestern, and he returned the favor by making Saban the president of the Yankees, a post he held in 1981 and ’82.
After that, it was a whirlwind of short football coaching stints at various levels, from college (University of Central Florida, Peru State in Nebraska, SUNY Canton), to high school (Georgetown High in South Carolina), semi-pro (the Middle Georgia Heat Wave), and arena football (Milwaukee Mustangs). His last stop was Chowan University, where he coached in 2001 and ’02 in his early eighties.
Being that he typically took on either rebuilding projects or new programs, his overall record was not impressive. Saban was 41-52-3 as a college coach and 94-99-7 in the AFL and NFL combined. By far his most successful stop was Buffalo, especially the first stint from 1962 to ’65 where he compiled a 36-17-3 tally, won two of three postseason games and two league championships.