The first NFL game that Bob Costas called for NBC Sports came 40 years ago, in Buffalo, when the Bills beat Miami on opening day to break a 20-game losing streak against the Dolphins.
“I don’t remember the particulars of what happened in that game,” Costas says by phone from California, “except that the fans tore down the goalposts.”
In less ardent cities, such fanaticism is typically saved for the end of a special season, if at all – never at the beginning of one. Costas has been impressed with the passion of Buffalo sports fans ever since.
Tonight, he will be back in Buffalo – well, virtually, anyway – for the book launch of “The Seasons of Buffalo Baseball 1857-2020.” The event, which begins at 7 p.m., is free and open to the public, although registration is required through this link: https://bit.ly/SeasonsBuffaloBaseballLaunch.
Costas did play-by-play for that Miami game with color commentator Bob Griese, who had been the Dolphins’ quarterback for most of those 20 games, which remain to this day the longest losing streak for one NFL team against another.
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Ten years later, Costas was NBC’s game-day host at Rich Stadium for the AFC title game following the 1990 season. On the pregame show, he picked the Oakland Raiders to win. The Bills triumphed, of course, 51-3 to advance to their first Super Bowl.
Mike Billoni, then general manager of the Buffalo Bisons, invited Costas to a postgame meal at Billy Ogden’s, on William Street, where Bisons owners Bob and Mindy Rich had a table reserved for 20. When Costas arrived, the restaurant’s owner and chef, Andy DiVincenzo, came running out of the kitchen with utensils in hand to berate him for his pregame prediction.
“I was worried Bob would turn around and leave,” Billoni says. “He just looked at me calmly and said, ‘No worries. Happens all the time.’ ”
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A generation later, it was hockey that brought Costas once again to Rich Stadium, where he was host of the NHL’s inaugural Winter Classic, on New Year’s Day 2008.
“It was snowing, and it had that kind of snow-globe effect,” Costas says. “It just televised so well. No one knew it was going to be as big a thing as it became, but it gave the NHL a non-playoff moment to point toward, a regular-season moment with a national profile. Buffalo was the perfect host for it.”
That’s high praise from someone best known as a host, given his prime-time duties for 11 Olympic Games on NBC, from Barcelona in 1992 to Rio in 2016.
Here’s how he remembers the 71,217 Sabres fans who filled a football stadium for a hockey game: “It was like, ‘Sure, it’s snowing and it’s cold – and that’s what we want.’ Not, ‘What we’re willing to put up with.’ But, ‘That’s what we want.’ ”
When Costas thinks Buffalo, he also thinks Paul Maguire – the Bills’ punter from their AFL glory days who was, for a time, Costas’s partner on NFL broadcasts.
“Just a great guy, a complete throwback guy. He would work a game with just a flip card in front of him,” identifying players by their numbers and positions. “A lot of guys would come in with extensive notes, but Paul would come up with his observations off the top of his head. And he was just great company – naturally funny and a Buffalo institution.”
Costas left Syracuse University in 1974, a few credits shy of his degree, to take a job as the voice of the ABA’s St. Louis Spirits. Rudy Martzke, the general manager who hired him, had gone there from Buffalo, where he was public relations director for the Braves. Martzke, who became a TV-sports columnist for USA Today, always liked to say that he discovered Costas.
“Rudy was in my corner when it came to the Spirits job, and he was always very kind to me in his USA Today columns, but he leaves out the part about how early on he wanted to fire me,” Costas says with a laugh. “But all’s well that ends well.”
The Spirits’ coach was Buffalo native Bob MacKinnon, the longtime Canisius coach. Costas was behind the mic for one of the great upsets in pro basketball history, when the Spirits beat Julius Erving's New York Nets in five games in a 1975 playoff series. St. Louis had finished 26 games behind the Nets in the regular season and had lost all 11 regular-season games to New York – by an average of more than 17 points per game.
Costas’s first Buffalo broadcast came on Feb. 17, 1972, when he was a student at Syracuse. He called a game at the Aud, where Syracuse beat Canisius, 76-72. The Griffs’ coach that night was John Morrison; a few years later, Morrison was MacKinnon’s assistant with the Spirits, and Costas got to know him.
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Billoni, publisher of the Buffalo baseball book, invited Costas to Pilot Field in 1988, the year that it opened, and he sat in the Rich family’s box. That led to the invitation to Billy Ogden’s a couple of years later – and to tonight’s invitation, all these years later.
The guests at Billy Ogden’s included the Toronto Blue Jays’ late chairman, Peter N.T. Widdrington, and his daughters, Cindy and Stacey, who were big Bills fans. On a day devoted to football, Costas spent the evening regaling the table with baseball lore. Then, as now, it is his favorite sport. No one is better at telling baseball’s story.
“To say that Buffalo has a rich baseball history is to deal in understatement,” Costas says in praise of the book that he calls “a lively and entertaining chronicle of a town’s love affair with our national game.”
His appearance tonight is more evidence, as if any were needed, of his own love affair with the national game – and our local lore.