In this installment of everyone’s favorite historical series, “Walking the Wall of Fame”, we hit up the first coach to bring winning to Buffalo: the legendary Lou Saban. A former NFL player and coach at both the collegiate and professional level, Saban’s career sheet reads like an encyclopedia. We’re not talking knock-off encyclopedias either. This is name brand.
Lou Saban was born in Brookfield, Illinois, but that’s not where he made his name. He took the field for Indiana University all the way back in 1940, after enrolling on the recommendation of his former high-school coach. He was an immediate hit. Though used as a QB during his 1941 sophomore season, Saban also played Linebacker and Placekicker. A team captain and school MVP, he was named to the Associated Press All-Big Ten Second Team as a QB in 1942. He enrolled in the army in 1943 as the war escalated, but was named to the 1944 College All-Star Game and played against the reigning NFL Champion Chicago Bears.
Lou was eventually drafted by “Card-Pitt”, formed by the merging of the Chicago Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers due to the loss of personnel for the war, but didn’t sign with them. Instead, he took a shot with the Cleveland Browns of the All-American Football Conference (AAFC). Within three weeks of returning from military service in China, he was one of the first men at practice. He was supposed to be exclusively a LB, but ended up kicking extra points and being occasionally used in the offense as well. Saban hauled in a whopping four INTs in securing Cleveland the first AAFC Championship, but he was far from done. The Browns ended up winning all four AAFC titles with Lou on the roster, but he announced his forthcoming retirement ahead of their final game. He would be named All-Pro for both of his final seasons as an athlete.
Why retire when you’re on top? It’s a valid question, but the answer is simple. He had a dream to coach football, and he knew that it was the right time to make the transition that would shape his career. An ideal coaching candidate, he scored his first stint in his new role at Case University’s football program at 28 years old. The next ten years were a blur as he rose through the college ranks, hitting Washington, Northwestern, and Western Illinois. He got an offer in the brand-new AFL and stepped up to the pros once more, signing with the Boston Patriots in 1960. It was just another step on the rung, but one that he missed as he was fired in 1961. It was in 1962 that he would join Buffalo for the first time.
Saban Secures Success
His impact was immediate, making Buffalo into a contender right away. Bringing in famed CFL RB Cookie Gilchrist, who won the MVP and the league’s first 1,000-yard rushing season. The next offseason, he scored future Wall of Fame QB Jack Kemp off waivers from the San Diego Chargers and the rest is history. Drafting and signing some of the best Bills that Buffalo ever had, he put together schemes and teams that would bring about both of our AFL championships. He would earn Coach of the Year honors in both championship seasons as well.
His philosophy was that those key ‘Star’ players on offense were crucial to have, but that defenses could run best with a successful scheme. Saban’s willingness to double down on defense through the draft and sign established success on offense became a proven method for future generations, but he was never truly satisfied. He would unexpectedly resign, leaving for the University of Cincinnati, where he would resign after just 19 days.
The Second Stint
Lou Saban may have quit on the Bills in 1966, but he still had unfinished business in the Queen City. In 1971, he returned to Buffalo as HC once again. It was a tough call for owner Ralph Wilson, but a certain young RB by the name of O.J. Simpson made the case for his return. So Wilson put his pride aside. In exchange, Saban promised Simpson stardom, building the legendary offensive line known as ‘The Electric Company”. This core would turn on “The Juice” for the next half decade. Saban was heavily credited by Simpson in his 1973 MVP speech.
However, despite their dominant run game, the Bills still couldn’t find a way to win games consistently. They put up two consecutive 9-5 seasons from 1973-74, but missed the playoffs once and lost in the first round the next season. They went 8-6 in 1975, missing the playoffs again. Then, they went 2-3 to start the 1976 season before Saban’s second sudden and unexpected departure. He made O.J. Simpson into the force of nature he was and built the team up from the trenches. But he was not remembered fondly by the franchise, least of all Ralph Wilson. Wilson famously remarked on him as a candidate for the Wall of Fame: “He quit on me twice!”
“He saved my career”– O.J. Simpson, 1973 MVP speech
Lou Saban passed away in 2009. While his accomplishments warranted Wall enshrinement, his sudden departures made the team reluctant to honor him. But the fans won out in the end. His name went up in 2015 as a mid-game surprise against the Indianapolis Colts. The man who helped establish championship football in Buffalo became another brick in ‘The Wall”, so to speak. He is remembered by all those whom his teams touched, as well as his three children.
If you’ve got an insatiable hunger for Buffalo Bills history, check out the Walking the Wall of Fame series as it comes together below!!
|O.J. Simpson (1980)||Jack Kemp (1984)||Patrick J. McGroder (1985)||Tom Sestak (1987)||Billy Shaw (1988)|
|Ralph C. Wilson Jr. (1989)||The 12th Man (1992)||Elbert Dubenion (1993)||Mike Stratton (1994)||Joe Ferguson (1995)|
|Marv Levy (1996)||Joe DeLamielleure (1997)||Robert James (1998)||Edward Abramoski (1999)||Bob Kalsu (2000)|
|George Saimes (2000)||Jim Kelly (2001)||Fred Smerlas (2001)||Kent Hull (2002)||Darryl Talley (2003)|
|Jim Ritcher (2004)||Thurman Thomas (2005)||Andre Reed (2006)||Steve Tasker (2007)||Bruce Smith (2008)|
|Booker Edgerson (2010)||Phil Hansen (2011)||Bill Polian (2012)||Van Miller (2014)||Lou Saban (2015)|
|Cookie Gilchrist (2017)||Reserved For|
The Golden Era