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Phillips: Negotiating with Ralph Wilson went beyond contracts

By Wade Phillips with Vic Carucci

This is the second of three excerpts from the book, Son of Bum: Lessons My Dad Taught Me About Football and Life, by Wade Phillips with Vic Carucci.

The Bills started to lose some of the major pieces of those Super Bowl teams when Jim Kelly and our center, Kent Hull, retired after the 1996 season.

We didn’t have anyone who came close to Kelly’s ability at quarterback, so we finished 6-10 in 1997. Marv Levy retired at the end of the year and a short while later, John Butler, the general manager, walked up to me and said, “I want you to be the head coach.”

I said, “That’d be great.”

He said they would be interviewing some other people, but he thought I was the best man for the job.

After that, John called me at home and said Ralph Wilson, the Bills’ owner, was going to give me a call to offer me the job. This time, I was determined to do a better job of negotiating than I had done with the Broncos.

When Ralph told me what he wanted to pay me, I said, “No, I’m not going to take the job for that.”


“Ralph, I’m almost making that right now.”

After my second year as defensive coordinator, which was when my original contract was about to expire, there had been a rumor the Miami Dolphins wanted to hire me as their defensive coordinator. I don’t know where it started; maybe I started it. Anyway, I hired an agent and told him I wanted the Bills to pay for my move from the house we were renting to one we had bought and also make me the highest-paid defensive coach in the league. I got both.

Next we tried to figure out a number that would work for both of us. Ralph wouldn’t talk to my agent, so I had to do this one on my own. The Indianapolis Colts had just hired Jim Mora to be their head coach, so Ralph said, “Well, would you take what they gave him?”

“Yeah, I’d take that.”

“Okay, three-year deal, but no raises. Just a flat number for three years.”

Ralph gave me the additional title of vice president of football operations. He wanted me to answer directly to him rather than the GM.

That wasn’t a problem with John. We worked great together on everything – picking the roster, drafting players, signing free agents.

Part of the reason I thought we lost in ’97 was because we didn’t have a quarterback. So one of the first things I said after taking the job was, “We’ve got to get a quarterback.”

First, we signed Doug Flutie, who after an unsuccessful start to his career in the NFL went on to become the greatest player in the history of the Canadian Football League. I didn’t know that much about Doug, other than the fact he was only five foot ten and that he had originally come into the NFL after winning the Heisman Trophy and making a miracle Hail Mary pass that allowed Boston College to upset the University of Miami.

We also traded first- and fourth-round draft picks to the Jacksonville Jaguars for Rob Johnson. Rob had been a backup in Jacksonville for three seasons, appearing in only eight games and making only one start. The one start was pretty good. He completed twenty-two of twenty-eight passes for 344 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions. We gave up a lot to get him, but we looked at the film and the guy could spin the ball.

I was just trying to get as many quarterbacks as we could get to find somebody who could play, but the media started talking about us having a quarterback controversy. They said we had a divided locker room, with some the older guys wanting Doug to start and the younger guys being behind Rob. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but the media obviously did.

Ralph picked a side as well after we played Washington in our last preseason game that summer. Flutie played and drove us the length of the field at the end of the game for the winning points. Afterward, Ralph came up to me in the training room, with lots of people around us, and said, “This Flutie, we’ve got to get rid of him. He can’t play!”

“Mr. Wilson, he took us on a ninety-nine-yard drive for a touchdown to win the game,” I said.

“I don’t care, I don’t care. He ran the ball, he was running with it sometimes.”

“But that’s what it takes. That’s the great thing about him. He can make plays whether he’s throwing it or running with it or pitching it out to somebody or anything.”

“Oh, I don’t like him.”

We began the season 0-3 with Rob as our starter, but he wasn’t able to stay healthy. After watching Doug lead us to a big division road win against Indianapolis to get us to 3-2, Ralph said, “I love that Flutie! I love him!” You just never knew what you were going to get with Ralph, which I actually thought was kind of fun at times.

This excerpt is printed with the permission of Diversion Books. For more information, please visit

Next: Dealing with a quarterback change and the wrong kind of "miracle."

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