The Pegulas, Terry and Kim, have been great for Buffalo. They bought the Bills and Sabres, and put up loads more of their dough to help inspire a downtown renovation initiative centered around KeyBank Center. It all looks fabulous.
There’s even talk of the Bills one day leaving the boondocks of Orchard Park to play in a new downtown stadium, something even the Patriots couldn’t accomplish back in the days the Krafts tried to hoodwink Bay State pols and ran a three-card monte game on the elected rubes of Hartford.
Give or take a hotel here, a restaurant there, and a requisite coaching purge or two, Terry and Kim are into the whole Pegulaville, N.Y., thing for a couple billion bucks. Real money. Their money. Albeit with some public funding neatly sewn into the complex tapestry of an urban renewal project in a Rust Belt city that began to go belly up roughly when JFK moved into the White House.
As for their return on investment thus far, specific to the Bills and Sabres, the Pegulas have constructed themselves a clown show.
The ever-bumbling Sabres again have fallen out of NHL playoff picture. They have themselves a dandy franchise centerpiece in Jack Eichel, and something special in defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, but as of Friday morning the Sabres had assumed their customary position, nestled among the 4-5 teams with the worst records in the NHL.
Eichel is some 18 months from reaching restricted free agency, which means he probably won’t go anywhere. But we saw how that played out here in 2009 with the Bruins and Phil Kessel, who wanted out and deftly exited his way to the Maple Leafs. Eichel could be a prime candidate to force that kind of getaway.
The Bills, once the NFL’s little engine that could in the Marv Levy-Jim Kelly-Thurman Thomas era, in recent days bought themselves a few million more shares of laughingstock with the firing of Rex Ryan only two years into his five-year contract.
It wasn’t Ryan’s dismissal that was comical. In fact, kudos to the Pegulas for finally figuring out the error of their ways in hiring the ex-Jets pigskin con man. They finally got it right, although they’re still on the hook for the remainder of Rex The Wreck’s $27.5 million-plus heist and whatever else they’ll pay the next future ex-coach of the dysfunctional franchise (now 17 years without a playoff appearance).
What really made Ryan’s dismissal so risible was GM Doug Whaley’s Jan. 2 news conference, in which he revealed (wink, wink) that he had no idea (wink, wink) that Ryan would be shown the door by Terry Pegula.
Whaley, straight-faced, repeatedly said he was “not privy’’ to Pegula’s decision to turf Ryan. We can’t summon a similar model here in New England, because Bill Belichick is both the Patriots’ GM and coach. He would have to sit there and tell us that he wasn’t privy to Robert Kraft telling his coach, who also happens to be Belichick, that he was no longer on the job.
Frankly, that might be the only scenario more ludicrous than the one Whaley presented to a gobsmacked media in last Monday’s presser.
“Quite possibly,’’ wrote Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan, “the worst moment in the history of the franchise.”
And a good wide-right mornin’ to you, Scott Norwood.
But Whaley, the ex-University of Pittsburgh defensive back, stuck to his tall tale. Rex was gone. Pegula did it. He knew nothing of it until Pegula, shortly after having a regularly scheduled phone conversation that included the owner, GM, and coach, called back to tell Whaley that, well, Ryan was yesterday’s news and it was time to launch that national search for a new coach.
Obviously, if true, one of two things should have happened at that point: Whaley should have resigned on the spot for being beaten naked downfield by Pegula, or Pegula should have fired Whaley for being so disconnected from reality, so inept at his job, that he actually didn’t know Ryan was toast.
The fact that neither happened? All of it proof that Whaley partnered in the sacking (as he should have) and then partnered in Pegula’s contrivance that Ryan was canned via executive decision.
Pegula, who hasn’t held a news conference since the day of Ryan’s hiring, confirmed Whaley’s version when he talked solely to an Associated Press reporter.
The Pegulas have stopped talking to the media at large, for reasons no one knows, and it’s a good bet they’ll remain co-recluses as long as their two prized franchises continue playing like punch lines in search of the next Buffalo joke.
But it’s the Whaley fiasco that underscores the problem here: The Pegulas want both to own and operate these franchises. Never a good thing.
On a certain level, first and foremost money, it’s understandable. They’ve used their great wealth, accumulated through the controversial business of fracking, to buy the teams. They’ve committed their assets in a city where a vast percentage of the citizens lost faith in a turnaround over the last 30-plus years. There’s finally life there, hope, dreams coming true, and the Pegulas deserve a big chunk of credit.
Now comes the harder part for the Pegulas, something Robert Kraft could teach them from experience, and that’s the simple realization that owning isn’t knowing. Sports teams are complex businesses, based on human performance, endeavors vastly different than buying land, drilling deep, and siphoning off Mother Nature’s bountiful riches.
When the owner fires the coach, then turns his GM into a dithering fool, repeatedly saying he’s “not privy’’ to the biggest decision on the team, that should be enough for Terry Pegula to realize he is in way over his head. Time to step back, hand both operations to true professionals, and eventually reap the rewards.
Until then, the Pegulas are only in for more craziness and more hurt, both of which have flowed deep through Buffalo for far too long.