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RIGAS IS WELL-SCHOOLED IN THE SECRETS OF SUCCESS

John J. Rigas has a way of taking things from humble beginnings and turning them into huge success stories.

He borrowed money from friends and family to buy his first business -- a Coudersport, Pa., movie theater. In 1952, he spent $100 on a franchise in a tiny, fledgling cable television business.

Today, his Adelphia Cable Communications is one of the largest cable companies in the United States.

With a track record like that, friends are optimistic that Rigas can work magic on the Buffalo Sabres, a floundering hockey team with a losing record and severe financial problems.

"Buffalo and its hockey fans will be really fortunate to have John Rigas taking over as owner of the Sabres," said Robert J. Wickenheiser, president of St. Bonaventure University and a good friend of Rigas'.

"He's a simple and humble man, but he's also a winner. What he really wants to do is build that team into a winner. You watch, you'll see some very exciting things happen with that team."

Similar remarks came Saturday evening from another Rigas friend, William E. Swan, president and chief executive officer of Lockport Savings Bank.

"John is a committed guy. He'll do what is necessary to make the Sabres a winning team and also make them operate with good business sense," Swan said.

Friends say Rigas, 73, personifies the term "self-made man."

The son of Greek immigrants, he grew up in an apartment upstairs from the family's Texas Hot restaurant in Wellsville and was busing tables there at age 9. He graduated from Wellsville High School in 1943 and went off to World War II, serving with the armored infantry in Europe.

After the war, he earned an engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. He later said his background in engineering gave him the discipline he needed to solve problems in business.

He had two full-time occupations -- a job as an engineer and ownership of his Coudersport movie theater -- when he made his big break into cable television.

Television reception was poor in the valleys of Western Pennsylvania, and a traveling salesman told Rigas that cable television would someday solve the problem. He advised Rigas to get in on the ground floor. Rigas overdrew his bank account to get $100 to purchase the local cable franchise.

In a huge stroke of luck, some cable executives who were investing $40,000 offered Rigas a chance to become an equal partner if he would build and run the cable system in the Coudersport region.

With his brother, Gus, who became a partner in the 1960s, Rigas gradually built Adelphia into a cable empire that now serves more than 1.4 million homes in Western New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, South Carolina and other locations. The company also owns Empire Sports Network, a regional sports broadcasting operation based in West Seneca.

Rigas and his wife, Doris, have three sons and a daughter. All three sons, after receiving Ivy League educations, returned to Coudersport to work for Adelphia.

The Adelphia founder is involved in a wide range of charitable and community projects in the Coudersport area. In recent years, he has hired the Buffalo and Rochester philharmonic orchestras to play concerts for Coudersport residents.

"He is one of our trustees, and John has been tremendous for this university," said Wickenheiser, the St. Bonaventure president. "When I first came here (in 1994), John was one of the first people I looked to, not only for his integrity but his business savvy. He's a very humble and simple guy. But at the same time, he has the drive to succeed."

A star running back on his high school football team, Rigas loves sports, especially baseball. He led a group of investors who tried to purchase the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team, but the effort failed in 1995.

Rigas became a partner in the Sabres in 1994, investing $22 million in the team. In an interview with The Buffalo News that year, Rigas spoke of his admiration for Buffalo and its people.

"Buffalo is one of the great cities of America," he said. "I have nothing but great admiration for its hard-working people with great ethnic roots."