BUFFALO — Ralph Wilson, the Buffalo Bills owner who helped found the American Football League in 1960 and played a key role in the merger with the NFL, died Tuesday. He was 95.
Wilson died at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., said Mary Mazur, pokeswoman for the Wayne County medical examiner’s office. He had been receiving home hospice care.
Bills president Russ Brandon announced the death at the NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla. Wilson gave up daily oversight of the club on Jan. 1, 2013, when he relinquished the president’s title to Brandon.
Wilson was the founder and sole owner of the Bills after establishing the team with the upstart AFL. He was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
“Ralph Wilson was a driving force in developing pro football into America’s most popular sport,’’ NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Ralph always brought a principled and common-sense approach to issues.’’
Wilson had been in failing health for several years after hip surgery in 2011. Though he spent much of his time at his home in suburban Detroit, he attended Hall of Fame induction weekends. He was a regular at Bills home games since founding the franchise, but had not been there since going to one game in 2010.
“No one loves this game more than Ralph Wilson,’’ Brandon said in a statement. “It’s very tough. What he’s meant to the entire organization. He’s our leader, our mentor, our friend. How he loves his players and loved our community. Special guy. They just don’t make them like Ralph Wilson.’’
Wilson was deemed the “conscience’’ of the NFL for his loyalty to fans and the stands he took against franchise relocation.
“He didn’t let anyone pull anything off in him. He was very forceful,’’ New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson said.
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank called him a “visionary and pioneer of professional football’’ whose “lasting impact on the NFL will forever be felt.’’
Wilson’s one regret was the Bills’ inability to win a Super Bowl. They came close in the early 1990s, when the Marv Levy-coached and Jim Kelly-quarterbacked teams won four consecutive AFC championships from 1990-93, but lost each time.
The Bills, however, have not made the playoffs since 1999, and their 14-year postseason drought ranks as the NFL’s longest active streak.
What Wilson never lacked was his sense of humor.
In 2010, with the Bills 0-5, Wilson began an interview with the Associated Press with an apology.
“I want to apologize for this phone system,’’ Wilson said, with a familiar chuckle. “It’s almost as bad as my team.’’
The future of the team is now in the hands of Brandon and Wilson’s second-in-command, Bills treasurer Jeffrey Littmann. For the meantime, the Bills are expected to be placed in a trust before eventually being sold.
Wilson expressed no interest in leaving the team to his family. He is survived by wife Mary, daughter Christy Wilson-Hofmann, who serves as a Bills consultant. There’s also niece Mary Owen, who has risen up the Bills ranks and serves on several NFL committees while working as the team’s executive vice president of strategic planning.
Kelly has expressed interest in buying the franchise and has previously said he’s assembled a group of investors. Kelly’s health, however, has become an issue this week. He is expected to have surgery for a second time in a year following the recurrence of cancer that his wife described as aggressive and “starting to spread.’’
Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula has deep pockets and is also considered a candidate to purchase the Bills and keep them in Buffalo.
That doesn’t remove the possibility of outside interests making offers and relocating the team to much larger markets such as Los Angeles or nearby Toronto, where the Bills began playing annual regular-season “home’’ games in 2008. That series was postponed this year.
The Bills’ future in Orchard Park is secure for the short term. The team negotiated a 10-year lease in December 2012 with the state and county to continue playing at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
It’s a $271 million deal, of which $130 million will be committed to upgrading an aging stadium that opened in 1973.
The agreement includes a provision that essentially locks in the Bills through the first seven seasons. The franchise would have to pay $400 million if it decides to leave before 2019. The team then has an option of buying out the remaining three years of the lease for $28 million.
Wilson played a key role in helping form the modern day NFL, along with Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams.
Wilson went as far as to travel to the 1964 Winter Games at Innsbruck, Austria — where he slept on the floor of a reporter’s room because all the hotels were booked — to help broker the AFL’s landmark TV deal with NBC.
Wilson often voiced his opinion against fellow NFL owners in more recent years.
In 2006, he criticized several members of the new generation of NFL team owners — Jerry Jones of Dallas, Daniel Snyder of Washington, and Robert Kraft of New England — for acting in their best interest and not the league’s.
When asked how his views might be interpreted by Snyder, Wilson bluntly replied, “I don’t give a damn about Dan Snyder.’’
As the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis said of Wilson in 2009, “There were a lot of guys saying [Steelers owner Dan] Rooney was the conscience. But certainly, Mr. Wilson was more of a conscience of the league.’’
Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1918, Wilson moved to Detroit three years later when his father, Ralph Wilson Sr., took a sales job at an auto dealership. The father turned to insurance and in the mid-1930s landed a deal with Chrysler Corp.
The younger Wilson graduated from the University of Virginia, where he played baseball and boxed, before completing one year at the University of Michigan Law School. He made his fortune taking over his father’s insurance business, but he had a passion for football.
Selling a small share he had in the Detroit Lions, Wilson went off to help form the AFL. After initially being turned down by politicians to establish a franchise in Miami, he chose Buffalo on the advice of a Detroit newspaper sports editor.
He enjoyed the “Foolish Club’’ label that was applied to him and his fellow AFL owners.
“What a damn fool I was,’’ he told the AP in 2009. “But I didn’t care. I just wanted to own a team.’’