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Q&A with Terry and Kim Pegula: Firing Rex, hiring McDermott and fixing the Bills

Buffalo Bills co-owner Terry Pegula will introduce new coach Sean McDermott on Friday afternoon and then step aside.

Pegula will take no questions. Neither will his wife, Bills co-owner Kim Pegula. That's how they prefer it.

McDermott from now on will talk for the Bills.

But a day before McDermott's arrival, Terry and Kim Pegula spoke with me for 90 minutes on a videoconference from their home in Boca Raton, Fla.

They agreed to address widespread reports of dysfunction and lingering questions about the dreadful finish to the 2016 season, Buffalo's 17th straight without the playoffs.

In a vexing season-ending news conference last week, General Manager Doug Whaley claimed to speak for ownership but said he "wasn't privy" to why the Pegulas fired head coach Rex Ryan, insisted he had no opinion of Ryan's dismissal and said he didn't know what Managing Partner and President Russ Brandon's duties were.

Terry Pegula was surprised to hear how negatively the Bills have been portrayed and called any dysfunction talk "an insult."

Thursday's wide-ranging interview with the Pegulas also touched on Ryan's request to be fired if he wasn't going to be retained, Brandon's role, their opinion on adding a football czar, the team's chain of command and questions about a new Bills stadium.

Pegula also shared that Whaley examined more coaching candidates than the four finalists they interviewed: McDermott, former interim head coach Anthony Lynn, Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin and Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard.

You don't grant these types of interviews too often. Why today?

Terry Pegula: I guess there's been a perception we're inaccessible. But I've been consistent from Day One when I bought the Sabres and then with the Bills, by owning these teams it's about the players and coaches. We didn't buy teams to be visible in the media. We bought teams to keep them in the area and to flourish with them. I let the coaches and the players be out front and be the story.

Kim Pegula: We want to make sure that the new coach coming in will be the voice of our organization and make sure we're all looking forward. So we wanted to get a lot of these questions out of the way if need be.

What role do you think the media has in the sports industry?

TP: The media spreads the message of the product we offer. That's the media's job. They report the news of what we do.

Nationally, the Bills' brand has taken a beating the past couple weeks. An ESPN analyst advised coaching candidates to get as far away from the Bills as possible. Others called the team a "dumpster fire" and "dysfunctional" ...

TP: Who advised candidates to run away? ESPN?

An ESPN analyst declared Anthony Lynn should run from the Bills' opening. The Boston Globe called your ownership a "clown show." How does that sit with you?

TP: The Boston Globe said that? Huh.

KP: Obviously, we don't like stuff like that being said about us personally or about our community. We're proud of Buffalo. That's where we want to be. Certainly, the national media saying things like that and using those types of words is not how we want to be perceived.

TP: First off, I think that all started with some false information printed in the national media about our organization. I've got to believe it's from people who have no idea what our organization's like or how we operate within. I honestly believe that. I disagree with their opinions, and I can tell you one thing: We had a lot of applications and people who wanted that coaching job with the Bills. So I don't know what these guys are writing about.

How would you know if you are or aren't dysfunctional?

TP: I know how I run my life, run our business. I know how we treat people, and I know the people we have in our organization. You can't pin 17 years on the Pegulas. We've been around for X-number of years. There's no foundation, no truth to this dysfunctional talk. I consider it an insult to our organization and the Bills and the good people with the Sabres. They can't be real happy to hear that.

KP: I think if you ask anybody in our organization, they will tell you that we are around. We communicate. We collaborate. We are engaged with what's going on. As owners, I think that gives us good insight into what's going on in our organization and what's working and what's not. We're not absentee owners.

Through everything that's happened the past few weeks, what's your message to the fans?

TP: I tell them that we as owners go through the same emotions they do. Both of our organizations are working extremely hard to put a better product on the ice and on the field. We're working hard.

KP: It's not easy.

TP: It's not easy to win.

What were your criteria in this coaching search?

TP: We wanted to hire the best coach that we could find in our minds.

KP: That's what we're always searching for. We don't always get it right. I don't think any team always gets it right. But the best coach that we could find for long-term success, that was the criteria last time, and that's the criteria this time.

What traits were most important?

TP: We are not going to disclose any of the things we used to pick our coach because, again, this business is so competitive, I'm not going to tell the world, the rest of the league what we look for in a coach. That's our business.

Why was the search so narrow this time in terms of the four candidates you interviewed and that they all were coordinators who'd never been head coaches?

TP: The search may appear to be narrow to you. Again, in our own private business, there was a lot more work done ... I assume what you're referring to is that we interviewed four candidates.


TP: It was broader than you think. But I'm not going to get into that.

Is that number incorrect? Were there more than four candidates?

TP: The interviews were with four people.

KP: We ended up with those four, but there was a lot of research, a lot of calls and references. There was a much wider net. Those were the four Doug brought to us as the leader of the search. If we didn't feel like we found the right guy within those four, then we would have kept looking.

The last coaching search you did was much larger.

TP: It was 11 or 12 interviews, somewhere in that number.

What did you learn from interviewing that process? Was the number of candidates too unwieldy that you felt you needed to do it differently?

TP: The fact we did interview 11 or 12 people last time -- some of those people got hired -- gave us a foundational basis for those people who were still available. Then you pile on the four that we physically interviewed, at that point we felt we had enough information that we made a decision on Sean. He was very impressive.

What separated Sean McDermott from the other candidates?

TP: An absolute attention to detail. He's been basically, believe or not, since high school he has wanted to be a head coach in the National Football League. You can see from his wrestling background, being a two-time national prep champ, determination, work ethic and just an absolute will that was very impressive that he's carried through his life. Andy Reid actually took him under his wing and helped him on his way -- I talked to Andy and Sean told us this story -- by building a coach. He built Sean and started the foundation that created a coach. I thought that was an impressive story.

What other recommendations were made for McDermott?

TP: I don't want to mention any other names.

KP: There were players, previous and current, he has been with that we talked to. Other coaches and staff that he's worked with along the way. We feel confident in this hire.

TP: A lot of input from players, associates, coaches that coached against him. The whole gamut.

What insight can you share about McDermott's philosophies and staff?

TP: That's his business. He's got to put all that together. He has some targets, and we need to honor his ability to talk to those people.

Since Ralph Wilson fired Tom Donahoe and named Marv Levy general manager and soon thereafter made Russ Brandon general manager, media and fans have had trouble figuring out who makes what decisions. ... What will the Bills' football chain of command be?

TP: Very simple. Coach and GM report to the owners. And Russ is running the business side [Pegula makes swift stiff-arm motion with his right hand to illustrate distance]. It can't be any simpler. I don't know where this confusion is coming from.

KP: This is exactly the way it was last time, too.

TP: There should be absolutely no confusion. Zero. Where is this confusion coming from?

Years before you bought the team, the Bills made fuzzing up everybody's job description high art. We couldn't tell who made what decision, and that sentiment lives on, especially after Doug Whaley's news conference last week.

TP: I hope you're not holding prior operations with the Bills against me. What's past is past.

You mentioned Russ Brandon not being involved in football, but he has been on the scene with myriad football matters such as Rex's hiring, in the draft room, at the scouting combine, where he meets with agents about player contracts. We even hear he breaks down film with scouts ... How is Russ' role defined?

TP: Russ might like to look at how scouts break down film for the same reasons I do, because I find it fascinating and I enjoy it. I'll be there while they're watching film, but that doesn't mean I'm evaluating players. But inside the football tower [Pegula positions his hands as if holding an orb] are the owners, the coach and the GM, working tightly together. We help them with whatever they need. They work in unison, and if Doug Whaley wants to walk down the hall and ask Russ Brandon a question, he's totally free to do that. If Russ wants to come down the hall to talk to Doug or the coach, we encourage that. That's a good, healthy organization.

KP: As Russ says repeatedly, his department and everyone in the organization is there to support the football staff in whatever way ...

TP: Highly supportive.

KP: ... they need and with whatever it may be. Football and hockey are businesses. There has to be collaboration. You cannot put a wall up between the football department and the business side. Someone has to be that bridge to collaborate and understand the day-to-day things. There's going to be crossover.

TP: There has to be.

KP: Doug, as far as football operations go, is in charge, and if he wants Russ to go to the combine and talk contracts, then Russ is going to go. That's up to Doug.

TP: Prior to me owning the Bills, what's past is past. I did not know -- and I don't even know if you're correct in your analysis -- there's a perception that Russ is involved and running football operations and everybody thinks that's dysfunctional. I mean, that's just crazy. It's support, as all good organizations do.

With the Bills, the coach and GM report separately to ownership. With the Sabres, the coach reports to the GM, who reports to ownership. Why is the chain of command different between your teams?

TP: That's the way we want it. Either one of these structures is very common in both leagues. I'm not saying they're all the same, but they're common.

How do you think Doug Whaley represented the Bills at his news conference last week?

TP: He did the best he could under some very trying circumstances. That's my answer.

What were the circumstances?

TP: You saw it.

I did.

TP: He did the best he could under trying circumstances.

How much does it hurt a business' credibility when one of its leaders stops being believable?

TP: It depends on who stops believing him, I guess.

KP: It does hurt, but it's our job as owners to make sure that decisions are not made on knee-jerk opinions or partial information or one instance. You need to look at the person's body of work, and while sometimes one instance is all it takes to hurt your credibility within the organization, we're not going to jump to any decisions.

Why was Doug Whaley the man to lead your coaching search?

TP: Because he's our GM. The GM, whether it be hockey, football, baseball, whatever, their job is not to win a press conference. It's to build a team and win championships. If I have a GM and people think his press conferences are a disaster every year, but we start winning, who cares? Let the media say what they want to say. I know there's a guy in New England who gets criticized a lot, but he wins. It's not all about winning the news conference.

Others have had your confidence but lost it, namely Ted Black, Darcy Regier and Pat LaFontaine. How did those relationships turn sour?

TP: I think those are all personal matters I don't need to discuss.

Two years ago, you considered bringing Bill Polian aboard as a football consultant ...

TP: I don't want to discuss that. It's a private matter.

OK. But why haven't you followed through with anyone else in that type of role?

TP: We don't have any plans to do that. We just don't choose to go down that road. We're just hiring a new coach. We got a GM that's sitting in his seat. When you bring somebody else in, to me, that's not going to be as coherent as the people who've been there and have been working together or responsible for hiring the new coach. Don't chase a story that doesn't exist. There's no plan to do it.

What went wrong with Rex Ryan as your coach?

KP: It doesn't do us any good to get into that. We've got a new coach, and we want to look forward.

Terry, you made a comment to the Associated Press last week that suggested Rex put you on the spot with one game left on the schedule. What more can you add?

TP: I wouldn't say he put us on the spot. He asked me what his status was for the next year. I said, "I think we're going to go in a different direction." Then he asked, "Well, rather than coach the last game, can I leave now?" We let him do it.

You've disputed our report from a year ago that there was an ultimatum for Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley to make the playoffs in 2016. So what factors -- other than coming two wins away from the postseason -- impacted your decision to fire the Ryans?

TP: That's a decision I would rather keep private, but that report last year before the season was absolutely false. That's not my style. I would never do that.

KP: We've said that a thousand times, but nobody wants to believe us.

TP: And I was the one who supposedly said it. Absolutely not true.

How do you view the Bills' quarterback situation compared to the rest of the NFL?

TP: That's our business. We shouldn't ... I'm not going to discuss our players out in public.

What are your feelings on Tyrod Taylor entering the 2017 season?

TP: That's up to my coach and GM.

With the Sabres, a clear rebuild was enacted two years ago. With the Bills, the plan hasn't been so apparent. Why is that?

TP: We're doing the best we can for the Bills to win. We believe we have some good players in house. We're trying to build on what we have to win a championship.

Which team is closer to where you want it to be, the Bills or the Sabres?

TP: [Laughing] That's like the question, 'Which one of my children do I love most?' We want both teams to win.

Yeah, but which one is closer?

TP: [Laughing] I don't have a viewpoint on that.

What emotions do you go through when you watch a Bills game?

TP: [Immediately points at Kim.]

KP: Probably like most of the fans do. We're watching the same game. We go through the same emotions. I'm an anxious person.

TP: I'll say this about Kim, she can't stand to watch her daughter play tennis, but at least she can watch these two teams play.

How has that changed from when you were a season-ticket holder and now the owner?

KP: We just can't drive home after the game and go about our lives. This doesn't end with game day for us. We're constantly working the business side and thinking about the next game.

TP: The way I describe being an owner is at least I can go in the locker room before and after the game, but I have the same emotions as I did when I had season tickets. I want to win.

How do you handle the wins and losses? A lot of people who work in sports say the losses hurt more than the wins feel good.

TP: I'm one of these guys [Pegula drifts a flat hand slowly in front of him from left to right, barely dipping and rising]. If we win, I don't get too high. If we lose, I don't get too low. That's just my makeup.

KP: I'm much more up and down.

Kim, given the rarity of female owners in major-league sports, how comfortable have you gotten with the idea of being an influential figure?

KP: I'm not striving to be that. I wasn't expecting for that as a woman coming into this. We're a team. Buffalo is where our assets are, so we want to build and be engaged here and be the best owners we can be. I have no problems representing our community. If our leagues ask us to do certain things, I'll participate. But I'm not looking to be a role model.

What are your latest thoughts on the Bills' stadium situation?

TP: The lease runs through 2023. We haven't given it much thought. We're new owners.

What type of facility to do you prefer? Retractable dome? Open-air?

TP: I haven't given it any thought.

KP: I don't think we have enough information to go down that road and answer that question. But I know it's something we do have to start thinking about for the future, but we haven't started that process yet.

Sports ownership being the unusual animal that it is, how do you balance your approach as a private business owner with what the public wants?

TP: This business is so competitive. You can't just disclose your plans. 'What's your objective in the draft this year?' Why would we answer that question? 'What are you going to do with this player? What are you going to do with that player?' We can't disclose the secrets and plans for our team. Otherwise, we'd be giving every other team an advantage. I can understand everyone wanting to know, but they should also understand if we divulged everything that went on in our meetings we probably wouldn't win a game.

KP: For sure, it's a delicate balance. Those are tough decisions that we and our staff have to make on a regular basis, balancing what the fans want and what's best for the organization.

Some people have trouble running one big-league sports team. You own two. How hard has that been?

TP: We're involved in two professional major leagues. We've got 62 teams, two championships, and it's hard to win. We have a lacrosse team also. We're doing the best we can to bring a product to Western New York that people can be proud of as championship teams.

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