Share this article

print logo

LEVY RETIREMENT, SABRES TURMOIL MARKED '97

While Buffalo's major league teams did not come close to challenging for the Super Bowl or Stanley Cup championships, 1997 was still an interesting, exciting and controversial time for local sports fans.

It was the year of retirement for Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy and Jim Kelly, the greatest quarterback in Bills history. And it was the year of triumph and turmoil for the Buffalo Sabres.

These were the top 10 sports stories of interest to Western New Yorkers in 1997 as chosen by The Buffalo News sports department:

1. Marv Levy retires
Marv Levy, who coached the Bills for the past 12 seasons and led them to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s, announced his retirement.

Levy and his coaching staff had come under fire over the second half of the 1997 season as it became apparent the Bills would not be going to the playoffs for only the second time in the past 10 seasons. They finished the year 6-10.

Levy took over the Bills' coaching duties in the middle of the 1986 season, succeeding Hank Bullough.

The 72-year-old retired as the winningest coach in club history with a 123-78 record. He ranks 11th on the list of the NFL's all-time winningest coaches.

2. John Rigas prepares to take control of the Sabres
John J. Rigas, founder and chief executive officer of Adelphia Communications Corp., stood poised to take over control of the Buffalo Sabres as 1997 came to an end. When he does gain majority ownership, it will mark the first time in the 28-year history of the team that someone other than a member of the Knox family will be calling the shots for the National Hockey League franchise.

The imminent shift in ownership highlights the most tumultuous year in Sabres history.

The scrambling in the Buffalo Sabres front office often resembled the coming and going at the players' bench during a line change.

On May 14, team president Larry Quinn fired general manager John Muckler and about a month later replaced him with Darcy Regier, a former assistant general manager with the New York Islanders.

On July 1, Regier said he had decided not to renew the contract of coach Ted Nolan, who, less than two weeks earlier, was honored as National Hockey League coach of the year for his performance in guiding to team to the Northeast Division title.

On July 19, Lindy Ruff, a former Sabres defenseman who had been an assistant coach with the Florida Panthers, was hired to replace Nolan.

The most controversial decision made by the front office came on Sept. 29, when the Sabres traded star center Pat LaFontaine to the New York Rangers for a second-round draft choice and another "conditional pick."

The Sabres said the trade was prompted by LaFontaine's history of concussions, but many fans believed the real reason was that the team couldn't afford Lafontaine's contract for $9.6 million over the next two seasons.

As the calendar year ended, LaFontaine was one of the NHL's leading scorers, and the Sabres were languishing in last place in their division.

3. Jim Kelly retires
On Jan. 31, just over a month after his last game, Kelly announced the end of his 11-year career in Buffalo with an emotional news conference. Choking back tears, Kelly, who would turn 37 on Feb. 14 and was not offered a contract renewal, called it "one of the most difficult decisions of my life."

Arriving here in 1986, the former University of Miami star became the cornerstone of the revival of the Bills' franchise, as he led the team -- and its vaunted "no-huddle" offense -- to four straight Super Bowl appearances (1991-94).

For his NFL career, Kelly completed 2,874 of 4,779 passes for 35,467 yards and 237 touchdowns, while throwing 175 interceptions.

He was selected for the Pro Bowl five times.

4. Sabres in triumph
Goaltender Dominik Hasek and the Buffalo Sabres stole the show at the annual NHL awards ceremony in Toronto on June 19.

Hasek became the first Sabre ever to win the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player. He also earned the Vezina Trophy (his third) as the NHL's top goaltender in the 1996-97 season. Hasek also was selected as the first-team goalie on the official NHL all-star team and was presented the Lester Pearson Trophy as the MVP in the league, as voted by the players.

Two other members of the Sabres organization took home hardware. Ted Nolan was the winner of the Adams Award as coach of the year, while Michael Peca captured the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward.

5. Bills tumble
With Kelly and other key veterans retired or gone elsewhere, the Bills' "glory days" faded farther away in the 1997 season. The team finished the season with a 6-10 record, the worst mark in coach Marv Levy's 12 seasons.

Quarterbacks Todd Collins, Alex Van Pelt and Billy Joe Hobert (who was cut in midseason) all had shots at the starting job, but none seemed close to replacing Kelly in ability and savvy.

Three defensive players -- Bruce Smith, Bryce Paup and Ted Washington -- were voted to the Pro Bowl, but only one member of the troubled offense -- guard Ruben Brown -- was selected.

6. Bites bite Tyson
Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist who resumed his boxing career after getting out of prison, lost his chance to regain the WBA title when he was disqualified for twice biting the ear of Evander Holyfield during their June 28 championship fight in Las Vegas.

"Tyson bit a hunk out of his ear and spit it out on the floor," said judge Duane Ford.

Tyson, who later said he "just snapped," apologized to Holyfield and the world for bringing shame to the sport. His boxing license was revoked, and he was fined $3 million by Nevada authorities.

7. Tiger Woods takes golf by the tail
Tiger Woods, the 21-year-old golfer who turned pro late in 1996, stormed into the spotlight in April when he won the Masters at Augusta, Ga., by 12 shots with a record 72-hole score of 270.

The most dominating performance by the youngest winner in the tournament's 61 years was just the beginning of Woods' spectacular year. He went on to win three more events and topped the tour's money list with $2,066,833.

8. Marlins make big splash
It cost owner H. Wayne Huizenga a ton of money -- the $49 million payroll fueled an estimated $34 million team deficit -- but his Florida Marlins became World Series champions in just their fifth year of existence.

The Marlins, who entered the playoffs as a National League wild card, beat the Cleveland Indians in an exciting seventh game. decided in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game Seven when Edgar Renteria hit a bases-loaded single. Rookie right-handed pitcher Livan Hernandez, who fled Cuba two years ago, won two games and was named the World Series MVP.

Soon after, Huizenga, who told fans not to expect a repeat championship, began dismantling the team by trading many of its highly paid stars.

9. Hail to the Bisons
The Buffalo Bisons made the 1997 baseball season one to remember as the Herd took the American Association championship, the team's first league title since topping the International League in 1961.

Led by manager Brian Graham, the club tied its Association record of 87 regular-season victories. The Bisons beat Indianapolis and Iowa in the playoffs to clinch the title.
A total of 54 players wore a Buffalo uniform. Stars included pitchers Bartolo Colon (who threw a no-hitter), Brian Anderson and David Weathers; Jeff Manto, who hit three homers in one game; and Richie Sexson, who hit 31 home runs.

10. Sprewell sent packing for attacking
On Dec. 1, Golden State Warriors guard Latrell Sprewell twice assaulted coach P.J. Carlesimo during and after a practice.

The Warriors terminated Sprewell's $23.7 million contract and the NBA suspended him for a year.

Sprewell later apologized, and the NBA Players Association filed a grievance.

There are no comments - be the first to comment