Chan Gailey: Buffalo's Next Wade Phillips or Marv Levy?

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Chan Gailey: Buffalo's Next Wade Phillips or Marv Levy?
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I heard the buzz on Monday that the Bills would be announcing Chan Gailey as their new head coach. I’ll have to admit: It was underwhelming at best.

Then I looked at his record, and was almost impressed.

For instance, I did not know that, with the exception of Kansas City in his most recent brief assignment, every NFL team that Gailey has worked for has gone to the playoffs each year he was there. So, I was starting to convince myself to be at least cautiously optimistic.

But then, as I was eating breakfast yesterday, Chicago’s morning sports anchor announced the same story, ending with the comment, "so this is Buffalo's idea of a big splash." The sick feeling returned.

Yes, I’m a die-hard—you might say many times dead—Buffalo Bills fan from childhood. I bleed red and blue. My scabs and scars always take the faint, understated shape of a buffalo.

And while disappointment is a staple of the Bills fan’s diet, the club’s inability to land even an A-list coordinator for its head coaching vacancy, when so many A-list head coaches are available, is one of the worst blows to the gut we Bills fans have ever had to endure, bar none!

If we take our 91-year-old owner seriously when he said he would spare no expense to get top-tier football people into all aspects of the team’s operation, and especially in the general manager and head coaching positions, then it appears that no amount of money or autonomy was enough to entice any of a “Who’s Who in Football” list to accept, or in some cases even interview, for the job.

Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan put it in print—that which most of us would have preferred not having to say, hear, read, or think out loud—that the Bills’ ineffectual leadership search indicates that the Buffalo Bills' top job is not even the 32nd best coaching job in football (there are 32 teams in the NFL).

Sullivan based this on the fact that at least six potential candidates turned down the position or refused to interview for the position.

The six include legends like Bill Cowher, who was begged by a Buffalo (fan-financed) billboard to take the job, and Mike Shanahan, who ended up accepting the position in Washington, working for an owner who some might say is more difficult to deal with than Wilson.

But the list also includes Jim Harbaugh, who has barely established himself as a winning coach at second-tier Stanford, and the Jets' young offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, whose father once played for the Bills, and who reportedly has a close relationship with the Bills' new (underwhelming) general manager Buddy Nix, dating back to their time together in San Diego.

Schottenheimer refused to interview. He can say what he wants about being happy with the Jets and wanting to work under Rex Ryan, but as rewarding as all of that may be, a competitor like him would not say no to a promotion—or at least talking about it—unless he did not see it as an improvement over his current situation.

So what is everyone afraid of? Sure, in the past, Ralph Wilson has mucked things up, especially the way he handled the Tom Donahoe situation and the aftermath. Sure, he left a bad taste in the mouths of Gregg Williams and Mike Mularkey, who, as the hottest coordinators out there today, are again at the top of the list of coordinators likely to be moving up.

Mularkey, as Sullivan is quick to point out, walked away from a million-plus dollars by quitting when interim GM Marv Levy planned to keep him on. He was fed up with Donahoe’s dismissal and with Wilson’s firing of half of his coaching staff.

So, as Sullivan observes, there seems to be a negative headhunter firm out there in the NFL. Instead of recruiting for Buffalo, it is repelling. Anyone of any talent who might have considered going to Buffalo quickly heard the horror stories from the past decade and wrote the franchise off as career poison.

Okay, there’s that.

But what about the competitive challenge? What about the fact that if someone can come into Buffalo and turn the franchise around quickly, he can name his paycheck and his terms for his next job?

Why wouldn’t at least one of the best names in football be intrigued by the challenge to succeed where others failed, to find a way to handle Ralph Wilson and help him understand that there is an opportunity to win but only if it is a win/win for the coach, the players, and the fans?

Coaches who have already won the Super Bowl don’t have to prove they can win it again with all the pieces in place. They do have to prove they can win it from the ground up, against all odds. A true competitor doesn’t go from victory to a lesser challenge, but a greater one.

So I ask again, what is wrong with these people? I’ll ask it, and then let it go.

What’s not done is not done, so we must move on, focusing on what is. If the Buffalo Bills, the city of Buffalo, the collective soul of Buffalonians throughout history, have a mantra, it is this: “live with what is.” And, I would add, “find a way to make it more than it appears to be.”

So, what about Chan Gailey? My reaction, after researching his career, is that he could be the next Marv Levy, or the next Wade Phillips. One thing he will not be is the next Dick Jauron.

Jauron came to Buffalo with a losing record as a head coach in Chicago. He came with a reputation for lacking enthusiasm and the inability to enthuse fans or players.

What little success he had early in his tenure at Chicago was the remnant momentum of his predecessor Dave Wannstedt, not his own.

My hunch (yes, it’s wishful thinking, but you’re either an optimist in Buffalo or you’re dead or dying) is that Gailey will turn out to be the next Marv Levy.

Levy hadn’t exactly set the world on fire before coming to Buffalo, but he had taken teams to the playoffs. He did have an orientation to success. And in Buffalo, conditions were right for him to reach or perhaps even exceed his potential.

True, he had a lot of help from Bill Polian, who left Buffalo to recreate the Bills' juggernaut of the early 90s in Indy and maintain it there.

Had Ralph Wilson not run him off, would Buffalo be Indy? Probably so. But before Buffalo, who was Bill Polian?

Every true leader has their moment, their place, where history and destiny coalesce rather than collide. Buddy Nix has shown he knows talent when he sees it, picking not one but two franchise quarterbacks while in San Diego (Philip Rivers and Drew Brees).

Buddy Nix had at least something to do with the fact that the Chargers have won their division for half a decade. And in Buffalo, Nix chose Chan Gailey rather than waiting for the Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, rumored to be atop the Bills' short list, to finish the playoffs (before being eligible to consider an offer, per NFL rules).

Nix said he wanted someone with head coaching experience, and with an offensive background (Frazier had neither), and Gailey, upon further review, fit the bill.

I’m willing, even desperately eager, to accept the new “What Is” in Buffalo—and not just hope but believe (until proven otherwise) that Nix is the new Polian, Gailey is the new Levy, and somewhere up one or both of their sleeves is the next Jim Kelly, the next “Electric Company,” the next Bruce and Cornelius, the next Andre and Bebe, and the rest.

Or better yet, that these two men and the team they will build around themselves will not be the next anything, but the first something. 

And if Buffalo can win a Super Bowl, that would definitely be a first. That would be something!

John Wingspread Howell, a Buffalo native, is a writer, speaker, and entrepreneur, currently living in Chicago. He is available to speak about sports or a variety of topics for your organization or event. He can be contacted here.

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