They called him the Gypsy Coach. He was never one to hang his hat and overstay his welcome. Lou Saban would ride in on a white horse, save a football program and be gone in a flash. That was his nature. Saban has been a head coach of so many teams that even he probably cannot recall all of them in one sitting.
Lou Saban, the only coach in the history of the Buffalo Bills to win a league championship, will never see his name placed on the Bills Wall of Fame. Marv Levy's name was put up while he was still coaching. Levy took the Bills to four straight Super Bowls, but lost every one. Saban took the Bills to two straight AFL championships but never will find his name honored amongst the top Bills players and coaches on the wall.
Jack Kemp, one of the best quarterbacks to ever play under Saban, still has a strong admiration for his former mentor.
"What kind of a coach was Lou Saban," Kemp asked. "Having played for several coaches in my nine years of pro football, I think I've a good yardstick to judge by. While I can't speak for all, Lou was the finest coach for whom I've ever played. I'm not saying that he had the strategic genius of a Vince Lombardi or the organization-al genius of a Sid Gillman, but overall he combined more talents into his coaching ability than my previous coaches.
"Coaching is much more than just teaching a team some plays and then sending them on the field with a game plan. It is managing, teaching and in-spiring 38 young businessmen in a most insecure and competitive enterprise."
Lou Saban's record is a direct reflection of his coaching. For he enjoyed as much success in his brief tenure with the Bills as most coaches accomplish in a lifetime.
Kemp, along with backup quarterback Daryl Lamonica, would form the 1-2 quarterback punch that led the Bills to their two AFL championships.
"I recall vividly my first meeting with Lou," Kemp reflected. "I was to meet the Buffalo team in Dallas on the first of its two-game Texas road trip. Dallas, the forerunner of the present Kansas City Chiefs, later that year was to go on to win the 1962 AFL championship.
"On the eve of the game, I walked into Lou's motel room and he was seemingly unconcerned about his game with the Texans. He greeted me warmly and then said: ‘Jack, we've lost three straight games. but we have the nucleus of a fine team and will soon be contenders. You've got a home here as long as you produce.'
"Those words and his basic philosophy appealed to me. It had always seemed a bit ludicrous for coaches in the pro football business to treat their men as school-boy athletes. Pro football is fiercely competitive and now it seemed I was to play for a coach who treated his team like businessmen."
To Kemp, Saban may have seemed like a CEO, but to most players who played for him, he was as tough as a Marine drill instructor. Take for example how he would run a Bills training camp. In Saban's first stint with the Bills, an observer of his training camp might easily confuse the Bills camp to Paris Island.
Everything was done like clockwork. Take the offensive linemen, who got so much time dedicated to hitting the seven-man sled that they would be exhausted after that workout. The time schedule had to be maintained to keep Saban happy. The defensive backs were given a particular time frame to practice reactions to receivers, while the defensive backs had a particular time slotted to practice techniques.
When the time frame was up for all groups of players, Saban would blow his whistle. When his whistle blew, everyone knew what to do. The linemen (both offensive and defensive) would head on the double to the line coaches.
During a normal Saban practice an allocated amount of time was then spent on pass patterns and pass blocking by each group, until Saban's would again sound his whistle and the entire squad would then get together for a full-team dummy drill.
"Let's go over it again," Saban would yell, as a ball-carrier may cut a hole too tight or a receiver runs a pass pattern too shallow.
During an 1 ½ to 2 hours the players would practice, the team would get in all its required drills. Now the specialists, the punters, place kickers, punt returners, et al, would have their time in the sun. But not too much as Lou wouldn't want anyone stale by game time.
After the practice, everyone swarmed into the dressing room for a shower and a short while later the players were required to attend a meeting where movies were studied, plays discussed, shortcomings corrected. Then the players would go home. But the coaches' work had just begun. The assistant coaches would study films of the opposition's offense. Then they would break down, study and grade the films of their own units during the previous game.
It would not be until around midnight that Saban finished his review of the practice or game films. However, his work wasn't done even then. On certain occasions, Saban would make a phone call to another coach, to talk trade or to get information on a upcoming opponent.
By 1 or 2 in the morning, Saban would then think about getting some shut-eye. By the time he finally would get home and his head would hit the pillow, he was so wound up in the details of being head coach that a sound sleep would sometimes be impossible. He would replace sheep with pass patterns, X's and O's.
That was a day in the life of Lou Saban. A day full of intense activities, of sweat, of anguish. No matter how bad it got, how his team was playing, Saban never wanted to completely leave the coaching ranks. In all his travels, only once did he change careers. That was when he was named president of the New York Yankees by his friend George Steinbrenner. He remained in that elite position for a couple years before he returned to his true love, coaching football.
Saban grew up in La Grange, Illinois. While attending Lyons Township High School, he partook both track and football. During the beginning of World War II, Saban attended the University of Indiana. During two different seasons with Indiana, Saban was named All Big Ten Quarterback and in the other All Big Ten Fullback. In 1943, Saban captained Indiana and was named the most valuable player during that season.
Saban began his professional football career with the Cleveland Browns of the All-American Football Conference. The Browns dominated the AAFC in all four years of the leagues existence and Saban was the captain for the Browns during those championship years. Although only weighing 200 pounds, Saban was twice voted to the league's All-Pro team as a linebacker. When the AAFC merged with the NFL, Saban decided to go into the coaching ranks where he took the position of head coach of Case Institute. After directing the football program at Case for three seasons, Saban took an assistant coach's job at Northwestern. In 1955, Saban was named as the head coach of Northwestern. Two years later, Saban moved on to Western Illinois University where he would remain as its head coach until he entered the pro ranks to guide the Boston Patriots of the newly formed American Football League. In his last season at Western Illinois, his team had a perfect 9-0 record.
It was October 27, 1961 when Saban would first join the Buffalo Bills organization as director of player personnel. After two years under the realm of Buster Ramsey, Bills owner Ralph Wilson decided to hire Saban as his second head coach on January 18, 1962. When Wilson fired Ramsey , Saban was the most likely choice to replace him. Saban took that Bills team to their first winning season ever as they recorded a 7-6-1 record during the 1963 season. However, the Bills lost a playoff game at home against his former team, the Patriots by a score of 26-8.
A lot of thought and ingredients go into the making of a championship football team, at any level whether it's high school of pro football. The most obvious are talent, coaching, scarcity of key injuries, luck and performance - and not particularly of that order.
Other ingredients are pride, desire, confidence, determination, patience and most of all planning. In 1964, the Buffalo Bills seemed to have them all.
Saban started on his goal towards an AFL championship the day he was hired by the Bills as director of player personnel after being fired as Patriots coach on October 27, 1961.
Saban charged into the job, trying to find new talent and, when he was able to have a hand in the Bills draft, he helped select two stellar players that would help shape the Bills future when the Bills selected Tom Sestak and linebacker Mike Stratton. The personnel job was handed over to Harvey Johnson, and other players drafted were Dave Behrman, Jim Dunaway, George Saimes, Gene Sykes and Daryle Lamonica.
Seeking to fill in gaps and improve the team, Saban also picked up veterans. Saban and the Bills were able to snare such players as Jack Kemp, Cookie Gilchrist, Ernie Warlick and John Tracey.
Saban used the preseason and training camp to get the right mix together.
It was Meet The Bills Night at Buffalo's War Memorial. After giving the lineup for the intra-squad game, the voice over the loud speakers introduced the Bills' Head Coach Lou Sabin. What followed was the most unmerciful booing ever given to Sabin or any other hometown coach by Buffalo fans. It would take a full season, two championships, and a standing ovation before he would allow his introduction in that stadium again.
The reason for the booing was the playoff game the Bills had lost to the Boston Patriots for the Eastern Division championship the December before. The fans were tired of having a loser. They felt that Sabin had done a poor job in coaching the team, and that he was responsible for the Bills failure. Everything he did seemed to turn against him. Little did the fans, nor Sabin know that this luck would completely reverse itself.
Lou Sabin had a new and different plan for the upcoming season. Instead of playing his regulars in the preseason games as he had done in the past, he decided to give the rookies as much a chance as possible to prove themselves during the exhibition games.
"I don't care what our preseason record is," Saban said when training camp would open. "I intend to take a long look at the new faces. We know which veterans can do the job. I want the best 34 we have available ready when the season starts."
Saban's words sounded like a politicians, a lot of proclamation and not enough meat. The Bills entered the 1964 regular season with 2 wins and three losses in preseason.
"I saw what I wanted to see," Saban said to his critics.
The best example of the "Sabin rookie Theory" would be Buffalo's exhibition game with the Oakland Raiders. The Bills were out in front 31-7 with 5:19 remaining in the third quarter. Sabin substituted the defensive unit with three rookie defensive backs, three rookie linemen, and several second stringers. Rookies Hagood Clarke and Butch Byrd were, at separate times, put one-on-one against All-Pro End Art Powell. The result was three touchdowns by Powell and a Raider victory. But it was better that the rookies make their mistakes in the exhibition games rather than during the regular season.
Sabin's theory turned out with the best possible results. Butch Byrd and Clarke became the backbone of the secondary and rookie tackle Tom Keating was just coming into his own before he received an injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Other rookies like Bobby Smith, Joe Auer and Pete Gogolak contributed greatly toward Buffalo's best season in history.
Never before had the AFL Buffalo Bills won an opening game. Four seasons of opening day frustrations exploded in a 31-point first quarter outburst as the Bills went on to beat the Kansas City Chiefs 34-17. It was a sign of things to come as the Bills would become the team with the best record in pro football as they roared to a 9-0 record.
As the season wore on, it became apparent that Saban's "Hot & Cold" quarterback system was a fantastic success. In seven out of the Bills' first nine victories, Daryle Lamonica came in and bailed out veteran Jack Kemp after he had gotten into trouble. So in those seven games, Lamonica either saved or won the game for the Bills. (He became such a great reliever, that there were rumors that the Yankees had scouts at the games)
Buffalo's first nine games were like a dream come true. No game was alike, and each was an adventure. The Bills won both the tough games and the easy ones, just like real champions. But the main thing was that they kept rolling along, as the only undefeated and untied team in professional football. Buffalo came ever so close to defeat when they played their first game with the Oakland Raiders. The lead exchanged hands 4 times, and Buffalo was ahead 23-20 near the end of the game. But the Raiders had the ball in Buffalo territory and was driving closer to the endzone. Billy cannon received a pass and was running to get out of bounds and stop the clock, but he slipped and fell short of the boundary line. The final gun sounded 3 seconds later, just as the Raiders were trying to line up again and get the snap off before the clock ran out.
The Bills visited the New York Jets with an 8-0 record. A crowd of 61,929 turned out at Shea Stadium to see Buffalo extend its victory skein to 9 straight. Just about every Bill starred in that game except Jack Kemp. Kemp was taken out earlier than he had ever been in the season. He just didn't have it that day, and Lamonica came through in great style as the Bills won going away 20-7.
Even though the Bills blew the Jets away, the offense was showing signs of wear and tear. Saban continued to use his two-quarterback system with Kemp starting and Lamonica being the Bills' version of a baseball reliever. Lamonica was replacing Kemp earlier and earlier.
The tenth game of the season was in Buffalo's War Memorial Stadium on November15, 1964 against the Boston Patriots. Boston blitzed both Kemp and Lamonica, and Gilchrist was a mental no-show that day. Apparently, Gilchrist had been seen drinking at a local watering hole just hours before sunrise and he seemed to be suffering from an apparent hangover on the playing field. He took himself out of the game and told second stringer Willie Ross to cover for him.
The day after the Bills first loss of the season, Saban took the bull by the horns and suspended Cookie Gilchrist. Gilchrist had taken himself out of the game and did not provide quarterback Jack Kemp with any blocks when he did play, resulting in a couple of crucial sacks.
After Gilchrist was suspended, he appeared before his teammates and asked for their forgiveness. The team then voted almost unanimously to have him reinstated. Saban and Gilchrist huddled for two hours and then the coaches got together to make the decision.
Saban held a press conference where he said, "Because Cookie has asked the forgiveness of his teammates and admitted to me he has been 1000% wrong in incidents leading to his dismissal, I have reconsidered and will give him an opportunity to prove he is a part of the Buffalo Bills team. I do not anticipate further difficulty."
Gilchrist played his heart out the rest of the season and helped the Bills win the AFL championship. Right after the season ended, the Bills traded Gilchrist to Denver for fullback Billy Joe. Saban had gotten the cancer off his team.
With the victory over the Bills that mid-November, the Patriots closed the ranks and made the AFL East a race again. It would go down to the wire and the Bills and Pats would meet tied for first place on the last game of the regular season to decide who would face the San Diego Chargers for the AFL Championship.
Like the previous year, a "playoff game" had to decide the Eastern Division champion. Buffalo had hosted the official Eastern Division playoff game in 1963, only to lose miserably to the Patriots. In his plans for the 1964 Eastern Division championship game with Boston, Sabin decided to start Glen Bass. He also gave Wray Carlton the starting position at halfback, figuring that he, along with Gilchrist, could block Boston's blitz.
After studying films of the Patriot defense, Sabin said, "We know that they haven't used the safety blitz nearly as much this year as in the past, but if they try it Sunday, we'll be prepared for it."
A snowstorm struck the city of Boston during the morning of the Eastern Division championship game. But that didn't dampen the spirits of the 38,021 who snuggled into Fenway Park. They were just waiting, as the game was delayed a half hour so that the plows could remove the snow and hay which was spread on the field, for the Patriots to "destroy" Buffalo. The Boston newspapers had been using propaganda against the Bills the entire week before the championship game. They stated how "Buffalo just didn't have the talent to win" and how "lucky they have been to have gotten this far." stories like these were appearing day after day in the Boston press until game time.
Lou Sabin, playing his own little game, didn't announce (before the game) who his starting quarterback would be. Jack Kemp was given the nod just as the game started.
The snow was finally cleared off the field. And the Bills forced the Pats to punt after their first possession. After Cookie Gilchrist ran for a yard gain, Kemp went back to pass. As he did, the Boston blitz was on and - wham, wham - Gilchrist and Carlton stopped it like a brick wall! This was to be the case for the entire game, as Buffalo's big backs gave Kemp all the time in the world to throw. With time to think, Kemp spotted Elbert Dubenion in the clear. His toss reached Dubenion just as he crossed the Patriots 20 yard line. With a quick twist to the left, he was out of Chuck Shonta's reach and was on his way toward pay dirt (or snow in this case). The play covered 57 yards in all and Buffalo was in front 7-0.
The Patriots came right back, going 72 yards in seven plays, to score. Knowing that a tie would cost them the game, Boston went for the two-point conversion. Babe Parilli, Patriot quarterback, got behind his center and took the snap. He rolled to his right, looking for Gino Cappelletti and found him heading toward the right corner of the end zone. The ball went sailing in that direction, but no one was there to catch it - Cappelletti had slipped and fallen on the snow. That was the turning point of the game, and actually the turning point of the season. From there on, the Bills were in complete control.
Jack Kemp, playing in temperatures he wasn't too familiar with (he's a native southern Californian), had his greatest day of his life. Completing 12 of 24 passes, Kemp's main weapon was the long bomb. After the first Buffalo touchdown, he threw a pass of 52 yards to Dubenion to set up another scoring opportunity. But Kemp didn't cash in on this, however. With third and goal at the Boston four, Kemp threw when it appeared he had clear running to the end zone. The pass went right into Patriot Ron Hall's hands.
Kemp made up for it, though. In a little more than a minute, the Bills had retained the ball. The 9 year veteran quarterback quickly hit tight end Ernie Warlick for 44 yards and another first and goal. After Gilchrist hit for three yards, Kemp carried the ball twice - scoring on his second try.
Kemp had one more successful long pass. This one was to split end Glenn Bass, who raced 33 yards before receiving the ball. The Bills couldn't move against the Boston wall, so Pete Gogolak came in and booted a 12-yard field goal to up Buffalo's lead to 17-6, and actually win the Bills the Eastern Division championship on that kick.
The Bills wound up with a 24-14 victory over their arch-rival Boston Patriots. No one was happier, after the game, than Sabin. Lou had been fired as head coach of the Patriots during the middle of the 1961 season. And he had never won a big game against his former team, until now.
"My everlasting thanks to you (the players) for beating Boston," screamed Sabin when all his players arrived in the dressing room. "This is the greatest victory I've ever had, especially after all the nonsense from this city. There will never be another victory like this for me."
When Saban had settled down to analyze the game, he said, "We neutralized their best blitzer, linebacker Jack Rudolph, by running to our offensive left. That meant that Rudolph ad to play head-on with our tight end, Ernie Warlick, and that Tommy Addison (Patriots' outside linebacker) had to do a lot of the blitzing.
"And out pass protection was fantastic. We picked up everything they threw at us."
For the Bills running game, Saban said, "Actually, we felt all along that we could run on them if we went ahead and played the type of all-around football we are capable of playing."V The biggest stroke of genius by Saban was keeping the Patriots second guessing on who would start at quarterback.
"The week preceding that game, he dodged all questions from the press as to who would be his starting quarterback," said Kemp. "But he knew that the tandem quarterbacking that had been so successful would not work in this biggest game of our lives.
"I felt all that week that we would win and that I could do the job if left in long enough to weather the storms that occur in every game and to every quarterback. Just before game-time, he called me into his room in our downtown Boston hotel. He said quite simply: ‘Jack, this is your game—all the way. Just do the job you and I both know you can do.'
"Those few words meant more to me and my future than any I'd ever heard, and give a good insight, I think, into the type of Coach Lou Saban is. He never once doubted himself, our team or me. and his calm assurance he imparted to the team. It was just what we needed to win that game. And that game, played on a snow-swept. half-frozen Boston turf, signaled the arrival of Lou Saban as a great coach and of the Buffalo Bills as a great team."
A victory over the Chargers would only be anti-climactic (or such was the feeling in the dressing room at that time). This was the feeling the Bills had when they entered their first American Football League championship game in War Memorial Stadium the following week.
The Bills were still in a post-celebration haze when Keith Lincoln romped 38-yards on an opening draw play. It took only three more plays before San Diego had 7 points on the scoreboard. After learning that it had taken the Chargers only 2 minutes and 11 seconds to score, Sabin shook his head and said, "That didn't take long, did it?"
Then came the play that reshaped the game and gave the Bills the actual championship. The Chargers had regained the ball and had a second down, when Tobin rote, San Diego quarterback, decided to go to the air. Mike Stratton, Buffalo's big, blonde linebacker, was covering the area in San Diego's left flat.
"I keyed on Rote," explained Stratton. "I could see that he was looking for a receiver down field, but couldn't find him. As soon as I saw that, I sprinted for Lincoln."
"One second earlier and it's pass interference," Stratton said. "One second later and it's a missed tackle."
"He rolled over and I heard him groan. I thought he had the wind knocked out of him. But then, when he didn't get up, I knew he was really hurt."
Lincoln had a broken rib and was through for the rest of the season.
That was the spark that ignited the engine. The Bills knew they had the Chargers. From then on it would only be a matter of time before Buffalo had its first AFL championship. The score was still San Diego 7 and Buffalo 9, but the Bills knew that victory was theirs.
With the loss of Lincoln, plus the fact that All-Pro Lance Alworth was out with a "hyper-extension" of the left knee resulting from a collision with another player in the last regular season game, the Chargers were just too weak to score again.
Meanwhile, the Bills played a ground control type of game. Thus, they gnawed away at the San Diego defense and ate away time in doing so.
Pete Gogolak got Buffalo on the scoreboard with a 12-yard field goal. It came after a long Buffalo drive that was halted by the San Diego defense in goal-to-goal territory.
The game winning touchdown for the Bills came after a drive of 56 yards in 8 plays. It was first and goal on the Charger four yard line. Jack Kemp handed off to Wray Carlton, who, aided by blocks from Gilchrist and Billy Shaw, went in for the six pointer. Form then on, it was just a matter of minutes and seconds. The Bills eventually wound up with a 20-7 victory and their first American Football League championship.
"I really believe that the confidence instilled in the Bills by Coach Saban and that victory (the Boston win) virtually assured our victory over San Diego in the championship game a week later," said Kemp.
The Buffalo Bills proved. during the 1965 football season that they are worthy of the title "WORLD CHAMPIONS" - Green Bay Pack-ers notwithstanding. Any team that goes through a season without their top two receivers, their regular strong—side safety, and have to depend on an ailing quarterback - and still win the league championship — deserves this acclaim. On the following pages is a portfolio of the Bills during their most exciting moments of the 1965 regular season. Included are excellent action—packed. snapshots of the Bills in both victory and defeat during their Courage is the mark of the true champion, and it was this facet which enabled the Buffalo Bills to defend their American Football League throne in 1965.. The Bills had to prove that their winning of the AFL championship in 1964 was no fluke, as the other teams in the league had claimed. They had to accomplish this feat without the services of Cookie Gilchrist, the ‘64 AFL rushing champion, who had been traded off to Denver. Most experts felt Buffalo would drop down to second because of this trade.
If the experts felt the Bills chances were slim without Gilchrist, they really gave the Bills poor odds when other stars started to fall by the wayside. In the third game in the regular season against the Jets, disaster struck. It was Buffalo's ball on the New York eleven, and the Bills were driving for a touchdown. Bills' quarterback Jack Kemp dropped back into the pocket to throw. He waited for his receivers- to open up' when he saw Dubenion outmaneuver Jet cornerback Willie West to get free in the endzone. Kemp threw right on target and Duby caught the bail for the touchdown. West had leaped to break up the pass, but was too late. He landed on Elbert and caused him to bend his left knee the wrong way. By doing so, he tore ligaments in Duby's knee that forced an operation that night. Elbert Dubenion was finished for the year.
If this blow wasn't enough to demoralize the defending world champions, a bigger one was in store the following week. This time the Bills' opponents were the Oakland Raiders. Glenn, now that Dubenion was out, would have to take the major burden of the Bills receiving duties. This burden was short lived, however. Against the Raiders, Bass leaped high into the air to try and catch a pass near the left sideline. As he came down, Bass twisted his left ankle and tore some ligaments. Saban's worst nightmare had come true: Bass, along with Dubenion, would have to be spectators for the remainder of the season.
Buffalo would now have to go with reserves Ed Rutkowski and Charley Ferguson. How would the Bills a fare without both Bass and Dubenion in the lineup? The San Diego Chargers quickly answered this question with a 34-3 lacing of the Bills in the very next game. In this game, Kemp was on target on almost every pass, but the Bills' receivers dropped the ball so many times, one would swear that Kemp must have been throwing fire balls.
At this point of the campaign, Saban was really scratching his head trying to find a solution for his depleted receiving corps, and he didn't know where to turn. He suddenly remembered that Oakland flanker Bo Roberson was playing out his option and the Raiders wanted to give rookie Fred Biletnikoff a try at that Robinson's flanker position. Saban called Raider coach Al Davis and offered him sophomore tackle Tom Keating in a straight man-for-man deal. Davis agreed and told Saban to announce the trade after that Sunday's game with the Chiefs.
Saban was talking over the agreed deal with Kemp when he saw another disaster transpire out of the corner of his eve. There was Tom Keating laying on his back. On the opening kickoff of the Buffalo Bills- Kansas City Chiefs game, former Bill Chuck Hurston gave Keating a blistering block and impact caused Keating a serious knee injury. Examinations after the game showed that Keating had, what else, torn ligaments. Keating joined Dubenion and Bass on the sidelines for the remainder of the season.
As soon as the airplane carrying the Bills touched down at Buffalo International Airport hours after the K.C. game, Saban dashed out of the plane towards the nearest telephone booth. He had to see if the deal with Oakland was still on. Davis said he would have to send another player along with Keating, now that Tom was injured. Lou, who was in practically no position at all to bargain, agreed to the new terms set by Davis. He announced the trade to AFL Commissioner Joe Foss at 11:59 that night, lust one minute before the AFL trade deadline.
"1 don't recall doing anything like this before," said Saban in a nervous laugh. "I had trouble finding a dime for the phone call."
The Raiders took Keating and a reserve guard George Flint after the season.
The Bills were 5 and 1 after the Kansas City game and their closest pursuers, the Houston Oilers, were 2 ½ games behind. So Buffalo now had time to experiment and get its offensive gears in tact. From this point on, the Bills were 5-2-1. During this time, Jack Kemp proved himself as the AFL's Most Valuable Player, despite such ailments as a separated shoulder, a bruised knee and a twisted ankle. Kemp led the Bills to their second straight Eastern Division and AFL title in spite of all these injuries.
With the Bills injury list for the 1965 season, it seemed as if the Bills had been on the battle fields of Viet Nam rather than the gridiron. Here are some of the other key injuries the Bills had to contend with as the season wore on: Safety Gene Sykes was sidelined for the season. Hagood Clarke, the man who replaced Sykes, played most of the season with a pulled left leg muscle. Charley Ferguson, filling in for Bass at split end, suffered a pulled left hamstring muscle against Houston three weeks earlier and was put on the injured deferred list for the remainder of the 1965 campaign.
The Bills suffered another big blow during the week of the AFL championship game. Dave Behrman, the team's regular center, seemingly slept in the wrong position one night and he couldn't get up out of bed the next morning. He had muscle spasms in his lower back and was out for the championship game.
If these injuries were not enough, there was one more to come. On the opening kickoff of the championship game, All-AFL Guard Billy Shaw was knocked unconscious and didn't return until the second half. So the Bills had three new players on their offensive line; Al Bemiller replacing Behrman at center, Joe O'Donnel taking over Bemiller's vacant right guard sport, and George Flint filled in for Shaw.
The Devil himself couldn't have done a better job in trying to cripple the Bills. It seems that Satan had been working against the Bills all season long. Buffalo played 11 of its 14 regular season games in rain and mud, so it was almost a habit of playing in mud ankle deep. It was a total shock to the 38 Buffalo Bills who took the field 30 minutes before game time, to find it a sunny and warm day in San Diego. The most surprising element was the dry field, however.
Never did a team put forth more effort that the Buffalo Bills exhibited during their 23-0 AFL Championship victory over the San Diego Chargers. The talent-loaded Chargers were the pick of just about all the experts before the game. They were officially 7-point favorites, but most experts thought San Diego would win by a much wider margin. Even Chargers' head coach Sid Gillman predicted a San Diego blowout along with the rest of the media. He told Buffalo News reporter Larry Felser before the game, "You know, there is no way we can lose this game Sunday,"
Gillman said the reason was "Because of Kemp. We're going to win this game because Kemp has the maturity of a 10-year-old girl."
Kemp and the rest of his Bills would prove Gillman and the world dead wrong.
So here were the Buffalo Bills, in their second straight AFL Championship game, and underdogs for the second straight time. The Bills, who did the impossible all season long, did it again. They not only stopped Pro football's top scoring threat, Lance Alworth, but also stopped the entire San Diego team - without a single point. The Chargers were the most explosive team in football in 1965. No one expected them to be shutout on this balmy Southern California afternoon. The Chargers were the team that scored over 30 points in six of their 14 games, for a total of 340 points in all. Although Buffalo entered the game as definite underdogs, they emerged as the AFL champions for the second year in row by white- washing the San Diego Chargers, 23—0.
For an entire quarter, it looked as if the sixth AFL Championship game was going to be played into the year 1966 without a single point being scored. But with a first and ten in the second quarter, Kemp threw a 22-yard pass to Paul Costa. The 6-foot-5, 256-pound rookie made a sensational, over-the-wrong-shoulder catch at the San Diego 22 yard line. Two runs netted four yards, and Kemp went to the air again - this time on a post pattern to Ernie Warlick. Warlick outdistanced defender "Speedy" Duncan and caught the ball on a dive in the end zone.
Warlick, or "Old Hoss" as he was nick-named by his teammates, had spent most of the 1965 season on the bench. Rookie Costa had beaten him out of his tight end position, and the 33-year old veteran was in doubt about his playing future. But Warlick got his chance when Sabin employed the double tight end offense.
"This was my big chance," Warlick said after the game, "and I prayed I wouldn't muff it. I gave him (Duncan) a move to the outside. He went for it. Then I ran a post pattern."
The Bills scored again, only minutes later, when Butch Byrd took a John Hadl punt at the Buffalo 26. Byrd broke two tackles and then proceeded down the right sideline untouched for the second Buffalo touchdown. Paul Maguire, another player received from San Diego for $100, gave the key block at the Charger 10 that cleared the way for Byrd.
Byrd explained his 74-yard touchdown run: "Henry Schmidt and Tommy Janik gave me big blocks after I caught it. I stepped inside and tried to stay along the sidelines. The referee said I stayed in bounds by about a half inch.
"Paul Maguire knocked down two guys at about the 10," the All-AFL cornerback continued. "Man, he really hit ‘em! That sprung me."
After that, all the scoring was done by the Hungarian soccer-styled kicker, Pete Gogolak. Gogolak, who played out his option and signed with the New York Giants the next season, kicked three Buffalo field goals for an AFL Championship game record.
"I had a great fondness for that team," reflected Saban after the 1965 Champion Bills team was honored before the September 9, 2000 Bills-Packers game. "I thought it was one of those teams that I coached that did it when they were all beat up and still able to win the championship. I had great respect for the people as individuals as well as football players."
Saban had to deal with the hand dealt him. He won his second AFL title without his Ace cards Cookie Gilchrist, Elbert Dubenion, Glenn Bass. Tom Keating, and Gene Sykes. Although his team lost its trump cards, his Bills did have plenty of heart.
"After every game, we would look at each other and find someone with a bandage on his leg or somebody would be out two or three weeks," said Saban. "But not a lot was said about it. The purpose never changed. The goals never changed. They just felt they could win no matter what the circumstances. Our strength was one of cohesiveness. This is one of two or three teams that I felt did something special under the most severe circumstances."
The Bills' field general, Jack Kemp, reflected his boss' sense of accomplishment.
"Our 1965 season was, in many ways, a personal mission on the part of Lou to prove that 1964 was no accident," Kemp recalled after that season. "It seemed as though our win over the Chargers in 1964 was being explained away as a Charger loss instead of a Bill victory, and we all wanted badly to re-peat as champions to prove our mettle as world champions.
"When Cookie was traded before the 1965 season and Glenn Bass and Elbert Dubenion then were injured early, our chances of repeating as champions were given little serious thought. But Lou took some cold, calculated risks, and they paid off.
"The team that wasn't supposed to win again, did. And our 1965 championship season was indicative of the character of both the team and its coach. Not for a minute did Lou allow us to feel sorry for ourselves and, despite crippling in-juries. we were allowed no excuses. We were told constantly that we were winners, and we believed it. The results of this mental strategy were reflected in our record on the field."
Just a week after winning the second straight league title, Saban shocked the sporting world when he announced that he was resigning his position as Bills head coach. Saban, was 44 at the time, stated that he was "disillusioned" with pro football.
"Pro football is strictly a business, there is nothing outside of it," Saban said when he flew to Maryland to accept the coaching spot at the University of Maryland.
"There can be little left to conquer in professional football," Saban said during his press conference announcing his resigning from the Bills. "But no man who has been a part of pro football can leave without regrets."
There was much speculation why Saban, after winning two consecutive AFL championships would suddenly up and leave Buffalo. Some people said that it was for money. That is furthest from the truth as Saban took a pay cut to go to Maryland. During the first two years as coach of the Bills, Saban vowed that as soon as the Bills became a dominant team that he would demand a lot more authority with the Bills. Even after winning two league titles, Saban had to go through team Vice President Bob Lustig and GM Dick Gallagher along with Wilson to get anything done. Then there were the escalating prices in the war with the NFL to sign top draft picks. Saban thought that to keep the Bills on their championship roll, they would have to better the NFL to sign top prospects.
With the frantic nature of the Bills fans and with pro football being one of the top entertainment tickets in Western New York, Saban felt he never could take a breather from his job as head coach. It was a 24-hour a day job in Buffalo.
A friend of Saban's related this story when he said, "One day he told me about that beer can incident in 1962. It happened three years ago, but Lou got worked up all over again just by thinking about it."
The beer can incident Saban's friend was alluding to happened after the Bills lost their third straight game of the season to the New York Titans On September 23, 1962. The disgusted fans, upset over the 17-6 defeat, threw beer cans (some not empty) along the sidelines. They also began serenading Saban to the tune "Good-bye Saban, Good-bye Saban, Good-bye Saban, we hate to see you go."
"The decision was made when I saw Mr. Wilson and after much consultation with my wife. I made it because I thought it was best for me and for the long haul."
The long haul would be the life of a nomad coach, a life of a gypsy man who could not stay in one place too long. After a brief stay with Maryland, Saban returned to the pro coaching ranks when he accepted a job with the Denver Broncos. In 1971, Saban did something unexpected, even for him. He returned to the Bills as their head coach.
The Bills had the worst record in pro football and a potential superstar in O.J. Simpson. In Simpson's rookie year with the Bills in 1971, he played under Bills head coach John Rauch. Rauch had different plans for Simpson than what the former Heisman Trophy winner had envisioned. The Bills used Simpson more on the special teams than what he considered his primary role as a running back. He was put on the kickoff return team and during one return in his rookie year, Simpson received a severe knee injury. The next year Sabin returned to the helm as Bills head coach and he made Simpson the center piece of his offense. Starting in 1972, Simpson racked off five straight years where he ran for 1,000+ yards. During that span, Simpson made the Pro Bowl and was named All-Pro. The Juice was the NFL rushing king four years and was voted the NFL Player of the year in 1972, 1973 and 1975. Saban was the person who rescued Simpson's career and built his offense around him. In doing so, Simpson was allowed to showcase his many skills that eventually landed him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Saban's second stint with the Bills lasted one year longer than his first. He stayed until the 1976 season and was able to build the Bills into a respectable team again. Saban would be able to get the Bills into the playoffs only once and that was on Dec. 22, 1974 in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium when the Bills lost to the Steelers 32-14. After the 1976 season, Saban once again was off on his wayward coaching trek. He coached college teams and high school teams. He also had a hand in shaping the future of the quarterback who would take the Bills to four straight Super Bowls in the 90's - Jim Kelly.
Saban was the coach for Miami and desperately wanted to get the East Brady High School standout to play for him. Here is Jim Kelly's recount of his encounter with Lou Saban from his book Armed and Dangerous.
"We were having a blizzard the day Lou Saban, entering his second season as Miami's head coach, and one of his assistant coaches, Ron Marciniak, flew up to East Brady to pay me a visit" said Kelly in his book. "The storm was so severe, in fact, their flight couldn't land in Pittsburgh, so they were detoured to Toronto. There they sat for six hours before the plane received clearance to return to Pittsburgh.
"When they finally landed, the roads to East Brady were still snowbound. Marciniak had grown up near Pittsburgh, so he drove the rental car. While clinging to the wheel for dear life, he kept asking Saban if he wanted to turn back.
"‘Just keep it on the road,' Saban said.
"I guess he really wanted me.
"Even after they reached East Brady, they still had to search for our house. But that was no simple chore either. As in every old mining town in Pennsylvania, the houses in East Brady all look alike. And snow made it impossible to read the numbers. So after the two of them found Purdum Street, they got out of the car and began knocking on the door of each house.
"My mother had been out, and because of the storm, she was delayed getting home. Much to my amazement, Saban yanked off his tie, stuck a towel in the front of his belt and started to make dinner. He wasn't a bad cook. But it was the things Saban said that really made me drool, beginning with a reminder that, in Miami, there wouldn't be any bone-chilling scenes like the one outside our window. Instead, I'd be looking at a lot of sunshine, a lot of sparkling water and a lot of pretty women. (I loved the last part especially.)
"Best of all, he promised I'd be quarterbacking a pro-style offense. He even pulled out a pencil and some paper and began to draw pass patterns, showing me how zone defenses rotated and things like that. It was so interesting, I kept moving up my chair to get a better look. I was really impressed with the guy, especially because of his experience as a pro coach with Denver and Buffalo.
"Before Saban left, which was after midnight, he admitted the Hurricanes' football program was on shaky ground financially. Very shaky. It had had only one winning season in the previous nine and attendance at home games was down to something like 20,000 per game. People were saying that, if things didn't turn around soon, football might be dropped.
"That made going there a pretty risky proposition, but once I visited the campus, on my first trip ever to Florida, I knew Miami was the perfect place for me. It was November and the weather was pleasant, as were Saban and his assistant coaches. The players showed me a pretty good time. I went to the beaches and saw all those beautiful coeds in bikinis. I went out to eat, then went to some discos, where I saw more beautiful ladies.
"After that, my only question was: ‘Where do I sign?'"
Kelly only gave Saban a verbal commitment and went to visit Tennessee, where they tried to talk Kelly out of signing with Miami.
"‘Why would you ever want to go to Miami?' they asked. ‘Lou Saban's going to leave you stranded there. Don't you know about his reputation? He never stays in one place long enough to take his coat off. He'll be gone by your second year— if not sooner.
"‘No way,' I said, figuring they were just saying those things in a desperate attempt to change my mind."
After playing one year under Saban, Kelly had a rude awakening to Saban's ways.
Kelly recounted the day Saban left: "‘Jim, Coach Saban left for Army this morning,' said backfield coach Joe Brodsky.'"I just thought you ought to know.'"
Kelly was in shock. His first words were: "He did what? Enlisted in the Army? At his age?"
"When Coach Brodsky repeated himself a bit more slowly, I felt both confused and angry." Kelly said in his book.
"I thought about transferring. I thought about it a great deal. And the first place I thought about going was Tennessee. Then I said to myself, "Why should I be mad? Saban favored a run-oriented offense, but no one complained about it because O.J. (Anderson) was such a great player. Now O.J. is gone and so is Saban. Who knows? Maybe the new coach will throw the ball on every down."
As it turned out, Kelly stayed with Miami and became an overnight sensation. He did so well that he was considered a Heisman Trophy candidate and was the No. 1 choice of the Buffalo Bills, Saban's old team when he was eligible for the NFL draft.
Saban, meanwhile was once again a Ramblin' Gamblin' coach.
Louis Saban made his mark in the coaching ranks. Everywhere he went, he would have a strong influence on the players he coached. Recently, Saban talked about his many years of coaching, college, high school and the pros.
When asked if he ever went into a game thinking that he didn't have a chance, Saban said, "No. I may have had it in the back of my mind, but I always felt that maybe we could create miracles. Every situation I ever went into, I started right from the bottom. But I figured that somehow we could win two or three games and develop what could be called a confidence, a base for us to work from. I never wanted to admit to anyone that somehow that we couldn't design a play or a defense that could go ahead and stop people one way or the other. In a lot of cases we were able do it, or at least make a game out of it, and in some cases win."
Saban talked about making halftime adjustments.
"All you could do is to take two or three items and discuss them. You always got a repertoire of defenses and a repertoire of offenses set. You might go into a change of a set formation on offense and you might want to go into a different type of coverage or a different line type of operation on defense. That's pretty much all you can do. You can't go ahead and coach in 3, 4 or 5 minutes at halftime and say ‘Man, we need a total commitment to change.' That's not going to be the case. You should have jumped on that the first day of practice, six months ago."
In discussing how many offensive plays were actually needed in the playbook, Saban said, "I would say a dozen pass patterns and a dozen running plays. Then you've got the frills, the screens and the draws. When you take a look at every ballgame, most every game that you see, you could probably number the plays that are actually being run. Four fullback plays, or five by the running back. They are going to throw certain patterns, maybe five different patterns, and that's basically it. But then again, throw in a draw or a screen. It's not plays at all that does it. It's the execution. Being able to get the right play called at the right time. All defenses have flaws, and you've got to try to expedite that as quickly as you can because you may never get the next chance."
When asked who'd be his all-time starting quarterback, Saban replied, "I'd have to go with Daryl Lamonica. If you want to surprise somebody, Lamonica could surprise you and the entire group in the stands. I think when they traded him it was a terrible mistake. He was an exceptional medium thrower and deep thrower. He couldn't hit an out pattern, a 7 or 8 yard out pattern and be very successful. Don't misunderstand, I'd go into a ball game anytime with Jack Kemp as well. If you wanted a short out or a quick pass over the center or a short post, you'd go with Jack. If you wanted to go the other way, then you'd go with Lamonica. If you wanted a deep corner, a deep comeback or deep sideline, you'd go with him. There was something about him that was unpredictable, and I like that about a quarterback. You might have the worst play called in the book, but he might come up with something that's better. I've always told my quarterbacks, ‘Don't be afraid to make the adjustment if you see it.'
"They'd come back, "But coach, you'd get all over me." I'd say, ‘Forget that, just call the play.'
The toughest player Saban has ever coached?
"The man who comes to mind right away is Billy Shaw. He steps out there. And of course, my favorite defensive tackle, Tommy Sestak. I saw those two guys work and create great football players within themselves. But there's got to be hundreds of them that I'd be glad to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with."
Saban discussed his relationship with Bills owner Ralph Wilson.
"To me it's a complete 360 there," Saban said about his two different terms as Bills head coach. "When we first started, we rebuilt the club and had great success. Things seemed to change as far as administration is concerned. And of course, I felt that if I wasn't doing the job ‘Please fire me.' I'm from the old school that if you are going to hire a man to do a job, let him do it."
"When I left, he had some strong feelings, but I said ‘This is the way I feel about it and that's the way it's got to be.' I just can't afford to have somebody else go ahead and control my destiny. When I got back (the second stint with the Bills), the same thing happened whereby we went ahead and got off to a great start, got into the playoffs within a very short time. All of a sudden, there was a tremendous change, a transition, in professional football whereby the coaches are being hacked to death and given less and less responsibility. I think it's been that way ever since. That was back in 1976. I could see the change coming, where the coach who was basically responsible for what was happening was (forced) to sit on the sidelines and just call the plays.
"As you can see today, they don't even select their associates anymore. In fact, they don't select their talent anymore in most cases. That's where it started. I said (to Wilson), ‘As long as I'm going to be your head coach, I want to be able to do the things that you promised me that I could do. It just didn't work out. I thought about it a hundred times and tried to forget it, but that's history."
When asked if it hurt him that he was never put on the Bills Wall of Fame after bringing the Bills two league championships and revitalizing a sagging franchise in the 70's, Saban replied, "Naturally. I know it's never going to be, and I was told directly that it will never happen by those who know what's going on. But I accept it and I've never said much about it and I don't intend to from here on end."
Jack Kemp will forever be indebted to Saban for shaping his career. Kemp went on to become a successful member of the U.S. House of Representatives and later ran for Vice President along with Bob Dole in 1996. Saban's stamp on Kemp's football and political career are very evident.
"Prior to the ‘65 season, Lou told me he thought I would be a better quarterback if I would give up my no-cut contract," Kemp recalled. " I'd had this type of contract since first joining San Diego and had been reluctant to give it up. But I did so voluntarily and for one basic reason: I trusted Lou Saban's judgment and respected his advice. I'm glad I did and I'm glad things worked out the way they did. It made me work harder, I sure know that. I know that I'm better for having played and worked under Lou Saban, as is every man who ever worked for him."
At present, Saban is coaching at Canton Tech in New York. Will that be his final resting place in the coaching ranks? Don't count on it.
Lou Saban's name belongs on the Bills Wall of Fame. He should also be considered in Canton's Pro Football Hall of Fame for his coaching career in the NFL, along with his playing days with the Cleveland Browns. His chances of making the Wall of Fame are very slim as Ralph Wilson will prevent that from happening. But the Hall of Fame should seriously consider the player, coach and man who played and coached with the best of his abilities. Only time will tell if Lou Saban will be honored as he rightfully should be and enshrined in Canton.
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Copyright ©2001 Rick Anderson