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Jerry Sullivan: Bills coach Chuck Knox's voice continues to resonate

During my 30 years in Buffalo, I've been lucky to cover a lot of memorable people and events. But I often regret not being here sooner. I never got to watch O.J. Simpson run in the Rockpile, or Bob McAdoo and Gil Perreault dazzle fans in the old Aud.

I never met former Bills coach Chuck Knox, or saw his Bills teams play in person. The late Larry Felser always had good things to say about him. Knox once said they don't make them like Larry anymore. I suppose you could say the same for Knox, who died Saturday at age 86 in Palm Springs, Calif.

Knox was a true players' coach, a "man's coach" as former top scout Norm Pollom once said. His players respected him and were inspired by his leadership. Jeff Nixon, who played every game of his Bills career with Knox as his head coach, can rattle off his old coach's favorite sayings – "Knox-isms" – to this day.

"He had more sayings than Buddha," Nixon said Monday morning. "And we liked those. I always liked hearing his six P's: 'Perfect practice prevents piss poor performance.' He had a tremendous ability to make us feel like it was just us against the world.

"He had this one, typically after a loss: 'Nobody likes you right now. The coaches are upset with you. The media jumped ship and heck, even the Jills hate us.' "

Nixon roared at the memory. He was a rookie defensive back in 1979, Knox's second season in Buffalo. He had 11 interceptions over his first two seasons, but knee injuries shortened his career. He played his last game at 26 in 1982, the last of Knox's five years as the Bills' head man.

"At the very beginning of a season, he'd tell everybody, 'We're all rookies in here. Everybody is fighting for a job. If you think you've gotten to that stage where you've got it all figured out, then it's time to retire'.

"I liked that," said Nixon, who has for years been writing a blog advocating for retired NFL players. "It made the younger guys feel like they had a chance to play on this team. All I have to do is prove myself."

The Bills didn't win right away under Knox. They broke through in his third season, much as they would with Marv Levy eight years later. They went 11-5 and won the AFC East in 1980 and made the playoffs again at 10-6 in 1981.

Nixon said Knox, the son of a coal miner, was a great coach, but tough. "He always said, 'It would be great if we could take all our press clippings out to the middle of the field and dump them out, and whoever had the best clippings won the game. But you have to go out and prove yourself every single week.' Yeah, what a great guy."

Knox told his players everyone was a rookie at the start of camp, but Nixon laughed at the memory of his first year. Knox rode him hard.

"Not the best," he said. "He liked veteran leadership. When he first came, he pulled some of those guys from the old Rams into the fold. He got guys like Phil Villapiano that he knew were just great leaders in the locker room. He brought in Conrad Dobler to put toughness in the offensive line."

Knox treated his players like men. He would tell the players it was OK to go out on the town and blow off some steam. "But don't throw the ball so far over the fence that you can't find it the next day," he'd warn.

"We lost on the West Coast one time," Nixon said. "We came back and were beat up pretty good. Chuck would always come in on Monday morning and give us a little talk. He comes into the room and he's got a black eye on one side and he's got a cut on his forehead. Everybody just hushed. A silence fell over the room.

"He got up to the mic and said, 'You think I look bad? You should see the other three guys.' "

Nixon said the players never found out what happened. "Chuck liked to have a drink or two, you know? He had this Catholic priest on the plane going to the games with us. That guy'd be drinking Irish whiskey on the plane."

He laughed again at the memory. Nixon said Knox had a gift for bonding his players together. There had to be a reason that all his teams (Rams, Bills, Seahawks) became playoff teams soon after his arrival.

Knox was generous, too, a philanthropist. Four years ago, when his old coach was recovering from back surgery, Nixon found out that Knox had donated $1 million to his alma mater, Juniata College in Pennsylvania. He gave money to his high school. Knox conceded that it was a big chunk of his retirement.

"That made me respect him a whole lot more," Nixon said. "He was something. I don't know if it was legal or not. But every single Saturday night before a Sunday game, we'd go to a hotel, local hotel or the hotel in the city we were playing, and we would watch the special teams from the week before.

"If you had a tackle inside the 20, Chuck would be in front of the room with a wad of money. He'd say, 'Steve Freeman, come on up and get your $20 for that tackle.' It was funny. He'd put the money out there and the player would grab it and he'd pull back a little bit. But the one thing he always harped on was that nobody on this team is better than anybody else."

Nixon says Knox belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Knox was 186-147-1 in his 22-year career. That's more wins than Bill Parcells or Marv Levy, a higher winning percentage than Hall of Fame coaches Weeb Ewbank and Sid Gillman. Knox's granddaughter, Lee Ann Norman, has waged a spirited battle to get him in.

But Knox never reached a Super Bowl. He lost four conference titles games, three in a row with the Rams against Minnesota, one in Seattle to the Raiders. He preached about the value of little things. If a few little things had gone his way, he might have gotten to a Super Bowl or two.

Still, the Hall of Fame isn't everything. Sometimes, the measure of a coach is the lessons he left behind, the impact he had on people's lives. Knox's voice resonates, after all these years. Nixon hears it all the time.

"He used to say, 'Every every once in awhile you've got to make a phone call – to yourself. Make sure you're in,' " Nixon said.

They say Knox was bland with the media in his day, maybe by design. But you don't get quotes like that very often. Right now, I only wish I could pick up the phone and place a call to the old coach.

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