Bill Polian played a big role in bringing eight of the 27 individuals on the Buffalo Bills' Wall of Fame into the organization. Polian will join them this season.
The architect of the Bills' Super Bowl teams was picked to receive the team's highest honor this week. He was given the news by Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. on Wednesday.
"I can't tell you how excited I am," Polian said. "I told Mr. Wilson I really couldn't find words adequate to express my gratitude and happiness. It's a milestone in my life and a milestone in the life of my family. I have such a warm spot in my heart for Buffalo and all the friends we made there and all the wonderful times we had there. It's just marvelous to come back and have this opportunity."
The team has not yet picked the home game at which Polian will be honored.
Polian was a little-known entity with a sketchy NFL resume when Wilson named him to succeed Terry Bledsoe as general manager on Dec. 30, 1985. It arguably was the most important hire in Bills history.
Polian had assisted on the 1985 draft, which brought Bruce Smith and Andre Reed to the team. In his first offseason as GM, Polian signed quarterback Jim Kelly and center Kent Hull out of the United States Football League. Then in the middle of the 1986 season, Polian picked Marv Levy to replace Hank Bullough as the Bills' head coach.
The Bills' revival was in full swing. The Bills won the AFC East title in 1988 and reached the Super Bowl an unprecedented four straight years, from 1990 to 1993. Polian wasn't around for the fourth Super Bowl, having been fired after the 1992 season. He spent nine seasons overall in Buffalo and the Bills made the playoffs each of the last five seasons of his tenure.
"I think it's fantastic that the Wall of Fame Committee has recognized the importance of his role with that historic time in our franchise's history," Wilson said. "His tremendous ability to bring to our team so many outstanding players was the perfect complement to Marv Levy's superb coaching talents. When you see the names on the Wall of Fame -- Kelly, Thomas, Hull, Smith, Reed and so many others -- it just seems appropriate that Bill's name is included."
What makes Polian most proud when he reflects on his Bills tenure?
"The fact that we were such a mentally tough, resilient team," Polian said. "And that these guys turned out, even as the years went on and their careers ended, to be such great people, such quality people. And they remain so close over time. This was a special group, and I'm proud to be a part of it, and I'm proud of what they've accomplished both on the field and off."
This will be the first season since 1977 that Polian is not working in professional football. He spent the last 14 seasons as vice chairman of the Indianapolis Colts, and that team made the playoffs 11 times in his tenure. Polian was fired from the Colts after last season and now serves as an analyst for ESPN.
Wilson has been in favor of Polian's induction on the Wall of Fame for numerous years, but the Bills did not think the timing was right (or that the logistics could be arranged) while he still worked for a rival team.
"I owe Mr. Wilson an incredible debt of gratitude because he took a chance on an unknown and gave me my start," Polian said. "So I always remain grateful. That relationship has been warm throughout, and it's really never waned and we've stayed in touch."
Polian says the key to his success in Buffalo and with the Colts was not that complicated.
"Everything that I know in football and most things in life comes from Marv Levy," Polian said. "We always believed that guys with great football temperament were the kind of people you wanted. If you got those kind of people and they had talent and you had people who were difference makers -- and clearly we did in both Indianapolis and Buffalo -- then if the organization gave them a chance to succeed, you couldn't help but succeed and you would do it consistently,"
"The thing that I think Buffalo fans are so proud of our teams for is the fact they came back from the ultimate loss three times to come back and achieve again and again and again, which speaks to their football temperament, to their character, to their professionalism, to their desire to win," Polian said.
Polian pulled off the biggest trade in Bills history in 1987 when he acquired linebacker Cornelius Bennett in a three-way deal with the Colts and the Los Angeles Rams. Bennett was the second overall pick in the draft that year and was a critical piece to the Bills' winning teams.
Polian also operated with a feisty, two-fisted intensity during his Bills tenure. He famously challenged fans to "get out of town" if they didn't want to back Kelly. Wilson's displeasure with Polian's combativeness ultimately led to his dismissal, a move that some fans rue to this day.
Polian also took the high road when reflecting on the end of the '92 season.
"I could have done a better job of functioning within the organization," Polian said. "I didn't. I was so focused on winning and so focused on trying to do the very best job I could do for the team. I wasn't as polished nor perhaps took as wide a view as I should have. And I learned from it. You learn from your mistakes in every phase of life. I know I was better for the experience."
Besides Smith, Reed, Kelly, Hull and Levy, the other Bills Wall of Famers acquired during Polian's tenure were Thurman Thomas, Steve Tasker and Phil Hansen.