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GREGG WILLIAMS' SLOW START HAS PARALLELS TO SABAN'S STRUGGLES IN '62

I have to cackle at Buffalo Bills' fans. One medium-sized pratfall and they think the football world has gone into permanent eclipse.

At least when they were drubbed in Indianapolis last week it was at the hands of the best offense in the AFC. I've seen worse. Much worse.

There was the period as the '60s turned into the '70s when the Bills won just nine games. That was in four years. Twice they did a victory dance just once all season in that stretch. By Columbus Day the fans were seriously discussing who would be their choice as the top pick in the entire college draft (as it turned out it was O.J. Simpson, Southern California's Heisman Trophy winner, in '69 and Notre Dame defensive end Walt Patulski in '72).

In those days the Bills were down for so long it looked like up.

But for comparisons you have to go back to 1962. Just as Gregg Williams came riding in with what a lot of Buffalo fans thought was the cavalry coming to the rescue, Lou Saban was freshly hired as successor to the team's very first head coach, Buster Ramsey.

Saban was full of optimism and articulated it well, just as Williams did last winter and spring. Like Williams, Saban saw his freshly launched ship spring an immediate leak. It didn't stop until the season was a third finished.

The fans' patience ended during a game against the New York Titans (a year away from being sold, renamed the Jets and revitalized). It was a night game and the Titans' starting quarterback, an NFL castoff named Lee Grosscup, arrived the afternoon of the contest. Not just arrived in Buffalo, but arrived as a Titan just six hours before kickoff.

Grosscup met his coach, Bulldog Turner, as the ex-Bear great was finishing his lunch in the dining room of the old Sheraton Hotel. Turner told Grosscup to sit down and have a cup of coffee while he doodled a game plan on the tablecloth. Seeing as how Grosscup had yet to be introduced to his receivers, Art Powell and Don Maynard, as well as every other player on his new team, it was the Readers' Digest version.

Given that sort of handicap, the Bills still remained inert, losing their third straight game in as many starts under Saban. Halfway through the third quarter, the customers began to unleash their unhappiness. Since there were no talk shows in those days, many of the fans decided to send their messages in the form of beer cans, many of them still full.

Due to the distance from the stands to the field, none of the cans reached the players, but as they struck the gravel track in front of the stands, they provided an eerie, off-key background tune to one of the worst games in Bills' history.

It got worse. The next week they played the Texans (now the Kansas City Chiefs) in Dallas. The Texans would win the AFL championship that season. Lenny Dawson, their future Hall of Fame quarterback, picked apart the Bills' defense. Saban was grimly silent after the game, a bad sign.

Dallas was the first stop on a two-game road trip (in those days pro teams stayed on the road rather than fly back and forth between home and the site of the game). By the time the Bills' charter landed in Houston, Saban was ready to put his new plan in order. It wasn't a building plan to be executed. It was an execution plan for immediate rebuilding.

The Bills were staying at the Del Webb Motel in Houston. By the time I went down for breakfast the next morning, it seemed that about a quarter of the team was lined up in the lobby, carrying luggage. Saban had done wholesale cutting, including the team captain, Laverne Torczon. Meanwhile, cabs would arrive at the door, unloading other football players from various parts of the nation. They were the new Bills.

Cookie Gilchrist, the Bills' star fullback, stood on the balcony, surveying the comings and goings. He watched one arriving new player pass a departing old one. "Hello, Jackie Kemp!" shouted Cookie to the newcomer. "Goodbye Al Dorow!" It was the dethroned quarterback and the quarterback who would change the franchise.

Kemp, injured, didn't play in that Sunday's game against the Houston Oilers. The Bills lost again, this time on a questionable non-call that allowed George Blanda to complete a decisive scoring drive. The game ended with Saban and owner Ralph Wilson chasing the official into his dressing room.

The next week the Bills began a different streak. In the next seven games they lost just once.

You never know.

(Larry Felser, longtime columnist for The Buffalo News, writes a column in Sunday's editions.)

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