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Sean Kirst: Collier, former Bills coach, on what's truly lost with Dick MacPherson

For Joe Collier, whose connections to Buffalo and the old American Football League go back more than 50 years, this particular loss involved far more than a game.

Dick MacPherson died Tuesday in Syracuse, at 86. He earned his greatest fame as head coach at Syracuse University, where he breathed new life into a once-elite program that had fallen off the map. His 1987 Orange squad went undefeated, its season kept from perfection only by a 16-16 tie with Auburn in the Sugar Bowl.

With Ernie Davis and a tiny handful of others, MacPherson is among the most beloved figures in Central New York sports history. In a world where prominent coaches typically watch what they say, MacPherson rarely did - and many of his quotes rose toward legend, such as the way he once described to me the challenge of beating powerful Miami:

"Until you do it," MacPherson said, "it's awful hard to do it."

After he finished coaching, his name would occasionally come up in dreamy conjecture about possible candidates for mayor in his Upstate community, a path he never seriously considered. Still, it was a measure of the reverence he generated in Syracuse, where he spent the last 25 years of his life.

He and his wife Sandra lived for years in the Hotel Syracuse, in the heart of the city, and a tavern in that hotel was at one time named in "Coach Mac's" honor.

Yet Collier's most powerful memories of MacPherson pivot off what happened to Collier in Buffalo. He was head coach of the Bills in 1966, when they came within a game – a playoff defeat to Kansas City – of taking on the Green Bay Packers in the first Super Bowl.

Less than two years later, Collier was fired.

"It soured me on football," said Collier, 85, who believed the team's reluctance to spend money was at the heart of the Bills' swift decline. Discouraged, he thought about leaving the game. But his former boss in Buffalo, head coach Lou Saban, brought him to Denver, where Collier spent two decades as master architect of the Broncos defense. Collier joined a staff that included such assistants as Sam Rutigliano, Stan Jones, who later was an assistant in Buffalo ....

And MacPherson, this young, vibrant coach with a rich and exuberant New England accent, a guy who'd been raised in Maine.

Dick MacPherson on the sidelines with New England. (Image courtesy New England Patriots)

Their personalities, their sheer joy in what they did, rekindled Collier's passion.

"We were incredibly happy," he said. "It was one of those coaching staffs where everyone really got along. They really rejuvenated my spirit."

Even their families grew close, said Collier, who still lives in Colorado. He remembers how the coaches would often retreat to a restaurant to smoke cigars and have long, loud talks about the game, gatherings that cemented lifetime friendships.

Years later, Collier said, MacPherson brought in Collier's son, Joel, as a graduate assistant at Syracuse, and then helped him get a job in the National Football League with Tampa Bay.

Collier described it as typical of the quiet impact MacPherson had on many lives: The younger Joel is now an executive with the Atlanta Falcons, a career arc that began in Upstate New York.

In 1991, when MacPherson made the difficult and emotional decision to leave Syracuse to become head coach of the New England Patriots - his strong recruiting helped the Orange to remain prominent, for years after he left - Collier embraced the chance to serve as MacPherson's defensive coordinator.

"It was the kind of guy he was," Collier said, explaining why he took the job. In the intensely competitive environment of the NFL, Collier said players will often give their first loyalty to a position coach or a coordinator. With MacPherson, "players loved playing for him," Collier said. "He was an excellent motivator and he let his coaches coach. He had a big influence on an awful lot of kids."

MacPherson's tenure with the Patriots lasted two years. But one of his biggest wins was an upset of the Bills in 1991, at New England. That Buffalo team, bound for its second straight Super Bowl, came roaring into that November game with a 10-1 record and a five-game winning streak. The Patriots were 3-8 and had lost four in a row.

New England won, 16-13. Former Bill-turned-Patriot Fred Smerlas told Buffalo News columnist Larry Felser that Collier employed an elaborate and dizzying array of "about 20 defenses" to frustrate the Bills no-huddle offense. MacPherson was characteristically euphoric after the victory, but he responded publicly with the kind of grace that helps explains the grief throughout football at his death:

He said the Bills "played like gentlemen." He congratulated them on the way they'd performed all year, described them as admirable conference champions - and wished them luck in the playoffs.

Collier recalls how Buffalo's Marv Levy, another guy for whom Collier offered great respect, said afterward, point blank, that he'd been outcoached. The compliment, Collier said, meant a lot to MacPherson, whose time in New England would end with his firing after the following season.

While Collier believes MacPherson had extraordinary skills as a tactician, he wasn't thinking about wins or losses Tuesday. It was MacPherson's trust and sincerity, Collier said, that generated fierce loyalty even in highly paid NFL players. He remembered many times when MacPherson went out of his way to help a young player or an aspiring coach who needed some kind of quiet break.

The sorrow in Syracuse is intensified by all that MacPherson accomplished with the Orange, but Collier believes the grief has its bedrock in fundamental decency: It is built upon the way MacPherson acted as a human being.

Thinking back on that passion, the open nature and spontaneous humor, the old coach offered a soft laugh.

"He would have been a hell of a mayor," Collier said.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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