published Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Bills thrive under Nix

Three days ago, his Buffalo Bills still undefeated, general manager Buddy Nix was asked if he could be elected governor of New York.

"Only if they vote before the next game," said the former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach. "Because it changes every week. If we lose this next one, they might decide to run me out of town."

That next one came Sunday, and sure enough, the Bills lost at Cincinnati to fall to 3-1 on the year heading into this weekend's game against visiting Philadelphia.

But even if the Empire State might not quite be ready to elect Nix to public office, Greg Cater -- who once boomed punts for both UTC (though not for Nix) and Buffalo -- said of him: "They love him up there. He's almost become a cult figure."

It hasn't been easy. When the 71-year-old Nix took over as GM In January of 2010, the only franchise in NFL history to play in (and lose) four straight Super Bowls was wrapping up its 10th straight year outside the playoffs, with nine of those 10 seasons ending with a losing record. That figure reached 11 last year, though the Bills did win four of their final six.

"We never intended it to be this way," said Nix. "But we have only 18 players left from our opening-day 53-man roster a year ago. The one thing I promised people was that we wouldn't lose with the same guys year after year. So now we've got some guys with chips on their shoulders, guys who want to prove they belong in this league, and that's made a difference."

The attitude of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has also made a difference, especially during the 5-month-long lockout.

"Fitzpatrick's a heck of a leader," said Nix of the Harvard grad. "During the lockout he had the skill players stay at his house in Arizona and work out almost every day. I heard some of those guys slept on the floor, slept on sofas, whatever, but they really developed some chemistry. That really showed me something for him to do that."

And then there's Chan Gailey, the former head coach of both the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and Dallas Cowboys, whom Nix hired not long after he became GM.

"It took 20 days, we had to jump through some hoops, trot out some big names along the way, but we got ourselves a pretty good football coach," said Nix, who also counts former UTC assistant Joe D'Alessandris among his Bills assistant coaches. "Nobody knew what a good coach Chan is, but I think they do now."

Nix knows that four games do not a season make, especially when your first loss is to the woeful Bengals, who are starting rookie QB Andy Dalton.

"Every week there's more pressure," he said. "Sometimes there's more pressure when you're winning than when you're losing. Our goal is like everybody else, to go to the playoffs, to go to the Super Bowl. But we may not be good enough."

Just don't try telling Ralph Wilson, the club's 92-year-old owner, that his GM and coach aren't good enough.

"Buddy and Chan have done a fabulous job identifying players that have been cut by other teams and working with them," Wilson told the Buffalo News last month. "We wouldn't be where we're at today [rebuilding] if we'd had Buddy 10 years ago.

"I finally found out after all these years you have to have a scout ... a football guy, as your general manager. He's got to go out and see the player, talk to the player, talk to his family, see how interested he is in the game. That's what Buddy does."

That attention to detail is what led Nix to play a major role in molding the San Diego Chargers into a perennial playoff team. In fact, Nix's reported influence in encouraging the Chargers to trade their No. 1 overall pick in 2001 to Atlanta may have wound up touching three future Hall of Famers, since Atlanta chose Michael Vick with the overall No. 1 and the Chargers used their picks to eventually take running back LaDainian Tomlinson and quarterback Drew Brees.

Another example of Nix's talent: Three of his 2004 picks were Pro Bowlers within two years.

Naturally, Nix shrugged off the notion that he was a football talent genius, saying, "It takes everybody. You've got to have everybody working hard and on the same page and you've got to have some luck."

Yet despite being one of the smallest markets in the NFL, Buffalo (population 261,000 in the 2010 census) remains one of the most rabid fan bases in the league, which Nix says is a huge help on Sunday afternoons.

"All of western New York lives and dies with the Bills," said Nix, who was a college talent scout for the franchise in the late 1990s after leaving UTC. "They'll tell you around here that when the Bills lose, the economy suffers. The responsibility we feel to bring this franchise back is awesome."

"Boomer" Cater punted for the Bills for four seasons (2000-03) after graduating from UTC.

Despite his Georgia roots, the current assistant minister at Life Church in Rome, Ga., said, "I could have lived in Buffalo after I retired, even with the cold. The people are so warm and giving. It's like they all moved up here from the South."

Even 31 years later, Cater has a favorite Buffalo fans story from his first year in the league.

"We played both Pittsburgh and the Los Angeles Rams at home that year and they'd both been in the Super Bowl the year before," he said. "We actually beat the Steelers pretty easily, then the Rams came in a couple of weeks later. We ended up winning in overtime.

"About 30 minutes after the game, somebody from the grounds crew came in the locker room and said we needed to go back out for a curtain call or they'd never get the stadium cleared out. So 30 minutes after the game we went back out there and the place was still packed. They're the best fans in the world."

Nix hasn't had as much contact as he'd like with the fans.

"I drive to work before daylight and I leave after dark," he said. "But they are incredible. I can be in an airport in Atlanta, Dallas or Miami and somebody will come up to me wanting to talk about the Bills. Right now, they've got us winning the next three or four Super Bowls."

At least they did before Sunday in Cincinnati.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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