Russ Brandon was driving downtown for an informal news conference Monday when suddenly everything hit him. A year ago, he was running the Bills while helping Ralph Wilson’s survivors navigate the sale process. He wasn’t even sure of the Bills’ future in Western New York, not to mention his own.
Twelve months later, the Bills were preparing to open training camp for the first time under owners Terry and Kim Pegula. It will mark the 16th season the Bills will hold camp at St. John Fisher College, Brandon’s alma mater. And now with Ted Black gone, Brandon is overseeing the Bills and Sabres.
What a difference a year can make. Everything snapped into place for the Bills, for the community and for Brandon when the Pegulas purchased the franchise for $1.4 billion. So many things have gone his way since last July that it’s almost too much to comprehend and enough to make a grown man cry.
“I’m just a kid from East Syracuse with an unbelievable family and friends,” Brandon said barely above a whisper after the scrum on Monday. “I never dreamt this would ever happen. This is beyond any dream that I ever had in my life. … To be standing here today is pretty cool with my Bills socks and Sabres tie on.”
Brandon might have Bills socks and a Sabres tie, but he’ll wear only one hat even though it looks like two. He’s returning to what he does best, which is leading front offices while running business operations. He’ll leave football decisions to football people and hockey decisions to hockey people.
For decades, Buffalo’s two major sports franchises competed against one another for entertainment dollars. Now, especially with Brandon watching over the larger Pegula Sports and Entertainment business plan, he can tie them together with season-ticket sales, sponsorships and other forces that drive revenue.
It’s a welcome change.
Brandon was thrown into awkward positions during his 18 years with the Bills, which included a stint as general manager. His role at various times left many confounded, including him. He was out of his element and made numerous mistakes along the way. But he also gained enough experience to help steer two teams through the business world.
He has his critics, but Brandon knows people. Early in his career, while running the Bills’ marketing department, he spent many a night sleeping in his office and searching for ways to connect with them. He and his staff convinced fans to keep coming back and turned the Bills into a regional franchise.
It was the work of genius but, along the way, Brandon was sympathetic to his customers and the sacrifices they made. He might have been upper management, but he carried himself like he was sitting through 6-10 seasons in the upper deck. He felt the same misery you did year after year after year.
It’s no surprise he built a bond with Terry Pegula, who made a fortune while never losing his homespun personality.
Brandon is a great communicator whether he’s negotiating with corporate sponsors, overseeing the front office or bellied up to the bar with Bills fans. His ability to relate to others served him well. It was a quality Black never had or failed to embrace in Buffalo before the Pegulas sent him on his way.
The more time Kim Pegula spent with the Bills, the more evident it became that their front office was much stronger than the Sabres’ operation. Not only did the owners look to the top for what worked for the Bills, they also looked to the top for changes that needed to be made with the Sabres. They weren’t just streamlining operations.
Black left the organization in what was described as a mutual agreement. In other words, he was forced to resign like others before him. He didn’t return a voicemail left on his cellphone Monday. Nobody should be surprised if he signed a confidentiality agreement that made him financially secure for life.
There were whispers Black was in trouble last month after the top executives from Pegula Sports and Entertainment returned from the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas. Either he refused to engage with the others on the trip, which doubled as a vacation for major sponsors, or they kept him at a distance.
Black only has himself to blame for his demise.
Many viewed him as paranoid and either radically insecure or extremely arrogant, a weak leader and administrator. He created several public-relations disasters, including one in which he looked foolish after feuding with the media. He was criticized for the Sabres’ unsightly third jersey, saying he would have to eat the “turdburger” if it failed.
And he was caught lying about Pat LaFontaine’s unceremonious departure in 2014, claiming the Hall of Famer wanted to return to New York to be with his family when, actually, LaFontaine and his wife were looking forward to living in Buffalo and watching their son play for Canisius College.
To suggest he lost touch would be inaccurate. He seemed out of touch from the beginning, failed to forge enough good relationships to become effective and never connected with the community. Rather than postpone the inevitable, he was shown the door.
The Pegulas have made their share of bad hires since they took over. They listened to too many people, some of whom remain, who gave them bad advice. But at least they’re attempting to correct errors and make upgrades in both organizations. The Sabres and Bills appear to be going in the right direction.
Rex Ryan spent the offseason rallying the community. The Sabres made several major moves with the idea they can build around Jack Eichel. It has been many years since so many people were so excited about both teams at the same time. It explains why emotions were running high for Brandon.
Deep down, he’s one of you.
He gets it.