It was as if someone snuck into Western New York about 5 p.m. on New Year’s Eve last year, and hit the reset button for practically every sport in town.
The turmoil started about one hour later, when Doug Marrone gave up the Buffalo Bills’ head coaching job. Before we knew it, many of the major characters in area sports circles had changed.
Some of that turnover is normal for teams that have had problems winning in recent years – that would be you, Bills and Sabres – and some of that is simply typical of the business. Even so, it was a breathtaking year of change.
Along the way, there were nice moments and happy tales. But they were outnumbered by news conferences.
Here, then, are the top sports stories in Western New York of 2015:
1. Rex Ryan arrives
The first Bills coaching hire by Terry and Kim Pegula made a huge statement on its own. Ralph Wilson rarely paid big dollars for coaches during his 50-plus years of ownership. The Pegulas went after one of the highest-priced coaching talents on the market, and signed him to a five-year, $27.5 million contract.
Ryan came to town and charmed the area’s football fans in record time. But the Bills fell out of the playoff picture before Christmas arrived, and the team will not match last season’s 9-7 record.
As a result, Ryan’s honeymoon with Western New York fans lasted less than a year. It’s nothing that a 12-4 record in 2016 won’t cure, but that seemed like a long way off at year’s end.
2. Tanks for Eichel
The second half of the 2014-15 Sabres’ dreary season put many fans in the odd position of hoping their favorite team would lose in order to get a better shot at the No. 1 draft pick via the lottery.
Talk of tanking made for an ugly time that affected everything it touched, and it touched everyone connected with the team.
Buffalo did finish last but lost the lottery. The consolation prize was No. 2 pick Jack Eichel, a brilliant prospect who made the team out of training camp and has displayed flashes of talent during his first three months as a pro.
3. Thank you, John Tavares
Western New York has had a variety of superb athletes play for the home teams here, but the list of our players who are in the argument for the greatest ever in their particular sport has one name on it: John Tavares. The indoor lacrosse player announced his retirement in August.
Tavares scored a goal in his first regular-season game in 1992, and scored a goal in his last regular-season game in 2015. He had 813
goals over the course of 24 years.
The veteran was the Gordie Howe of his sport. This winter marks the first time in Buffalo Bandits’ history that Tavares is not on the roster.
At least he’s still around as an assistant coach.
4. An unexpected championship
South Park’s unprecedented run to a state football championship was one of the greatest stories for high school sports in the area’s history. Schools from the City of Buffalo couldn’t even compete in Section VI play until 2010, and no Buffalo team had never won a Sectional crown.
It all changed with the Sparks’ run. They had a memorable semifinal win over Maine-Endwell, snapping their opponents’ 62-game winning streak in the process. Then South Park took the state crown with a victory over Lady of Lourdes in Syracuse.
5. UB’s ups and downs
That made coach Bob Hurley a hot commodity in coaching circles. Could UB keep him?
No. Hurley left for Arizona State, and starting point guard Shannon Evans followed him there. Then Justin Moss, the player of the year in the MAC, left the program after an investigation of a theft charge. New coach Nate Oats faces a difficult task as he tries to rebuild on the fly.
6. “Shady” deal
LeSean McCoy was one of the NFL’s best running backs, going past 1,000 yards four times with the Philadelphia Eagles. A trade to the Bills, then, was a shocker. He came to Buffalo in exchange for Kiko Alonzo, a linebacker who had missed all of 2014 with an injury.
McCoy got a big new contract for his trouble, and his arrival contributed to the emotional departure of a beloved veteran of the Bills, Fred Jackson. After some nagging early season injuries, McCoy returned to his usual form and became a big part of the Bills’ offense.
7. The search for a Sabres coach
The relationship between general manager Tim Murray and coach Ted Nolan didn’t work out, so the Sabres went shopping for a new coach. Again, the Pegulas proved that money was no object.
They went after Detroit’s Mike Babcock hard, only to lose out to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Sabres did rebound by signing Dan Bylsma, who had guided the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup during his tenure there. He helped make the Sabres better in
the first half of the 2015-16 season, restoring some hope that better days are coming.
8. The O’Reilly Trade
Murray had acquired many young players at the start of the rebuilding process. The usual route is to wait to see which ones would become good players. But Murray had other ideas in June.
He packaged Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, J.T. Compher and the 31st pick in the draft to Colorado for Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn.
A week later, O’Reilly signed a $52.5 million contract extension. The top two-way player was the team’s leading scorer for the first few months of the season.
9. New man under center
The Bills’ offseason news was dominated by speculation on who would be the starting quarterback in September. EJ Manuel was still on the scene, veteran Matt Cassel was acquired in a trade, and Tyrod Taylor was signed as a free agent.
When training camp was over, Taylor was the surprise winner. He showed he was the correct choice by turning in a good season, capitalizing on his chance to be an NFL starter for the first time.
10. Massive swap
Tyler Myers was supposed to be a building block of the Sabres when he arrived in 2009, and played like it when he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year that season. His play dropped off after that, though, and the team never could completely fix his problems.
Myers’ time here ended when he, Drew Stafford, two prospects and a draft pick were dealt to Winnipeg for Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian in February. Kane was the big prize, a tough winger with a scoring touch.
There are plenty of other candidates for the list:
• Russ Brandon is named the president of the Sabres, replacing Ted Black. Brandon remained the president of the Bills.
• Danny White leaves the athletic director’s job at UB. Oddly, he was best known for the school’s uniform design, which emphasized “New York” instead of Buffalo. Allen Greene was named to replace him.
• Buffalo lands the 2018 World Junior Hockey Championships.
• Jonathan Jones of UB, a Portville grad, captures the NCAA shot put championship.
• Sister Maria Pares, the girls basketball coach at Sacred Heart Academy, is told by the school that her contract won’t be renewed. The 74-year-old coach, who won almost 300 games at Sacred Heart, later took a position as assistant coach with Villa Maria College.
• Professional women’s hockey comes to Buffalo with the debut of the Buffalo Beauts.
• The Canisius baseball team wins five games in less than 48 hours to take the Metro Atlantic title and advance to the NCAAs for the second time in three years.
• The Bisons finish 68-76 and out of the playoffs, despite the efforts of league MVP Matt Hague.
• Canisius’ football squad is named the high school team of the year at the Buffalo News’ Prep Talk Awards, while Canisius earned program of the year honors.