Football was and still is huge in my family. My parents and sisters were born in Buffalo, New York. My mom loved cheering on the Buffalo Bills. My sisters followed suit. In our household the Bills game was always on Sunday afternoons. I remember the Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, and Bruce Smith era. Yes, they might have lost four straight Super Bowls, but they went to four straight Super Bowls. No other team can say that.
To accomplish what the Bills did in the early 90’s meant that Buffalo needed to have a management team that had a solid plan and a vision that they would stick to. One of those key players in the Buffalo Bills organization was Bill Polian. From 1984 to 1993 Bill was looking to create a winning and successful franchise in Buffalo. With Marv Levy as the head coach, both Bill and Marv created heck of a team. They did come up short in their dreams of bringing the Lombardi Trophy home to Orchard Park.
Still Polian kept with his mindset and ended up being the General Manager for the Indianapolis Colts. He brought in Peyton Manning, Bob Sanders, and many other key players to play in Indy. Bill and the Colts were able to call themselves Super Bowl Champions in 2007 when Indy beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
Bill details all of this in his fantastic book called “The Game Plan: The Art of Building a Winning Football Team” from Triumph Books. Even if you don’t care about the NFL this is a must read. Polian’s book takes a look at how he climbed the ranks in the NFL, life lessons he had learned, his mentors, and stories about the NFL Draft.
Not only was Bill kind enough to talk to me about football and his book, but we also talked about fatherhood. He has some great values and lessons that he passed onto his three sons and daughter. It was a real honor for me, a guy who loves everything about the NFL, to talk to one of the best GM’s ever to work in the league.
Art Eddy: My family loves football. My family except for me were all born in Buffalo. My mom and my sisters love watching the Bills. Reading your book is not only taking you back in time, but as I read this I loved reliving those times as well. Looking back at your time with the Bills what stands out to you the most?
Bill Polian: I think the four Super Bowls. There is a lot of disappointment in losing, but in making it that far is a great accomplishment. To do it four times in a row. I don’t know if that will ever be done again. In the salary cap era it is almost impossible to keep a team together for that long. That maybe a record that is long time standing. Of course all the wonderful friendships that we had made and all the wonderful people that we got to know there. It was just a very happy time.
AE: Like you said the Bills are the only team to have gone to the Super Bowl four times straight. I know in the NFL there are no moral victories, but to me I think what you guys accomplished was incredible. At the time of those “Irish wakes” which is what you called the days after each Super Bowl loss were beyond tough. Now how do you look at that feat you guys accomplished or do they all kind of combine together?
BP: They do sort of combine together. I think each one had a different personality. It also to me points out that the Super Bowl is only one game. So even though we went to four Super Bowls, they are separate games. They all played out differently.
Of course the first one, 25 if we had another time out I am certain Thurman (Thomas) would have ran the ball to the 25 yard line. Then Scotty (Norwood) would have had a chip shot for us to get the win. That is serendipity or fate or whatever you want to call it. He was wide right about an inch. If we had the time out it is probably a different story.
The next year in Minnesota for 26, Washington was a much better team. We were very, very undermanned. Bruce Smith was hurt and was not playing well. Shane Conlan was hurt. Ray Bentley was hurt. We were really a banged up football team. For that one Washington deservedly won.
The one in Los Angeles as I point out in the book is where I think I made a big mistake in preparation. We went up to Pasadena two nights before the game. We kind of locked our guys away. It was the wrong thing to do. None of us, neither Marv (Levy) nor myself had anticipated questions that the media gave us. They kept saying time and time again for three hours a day that week, what happens if you lose? Will you be the greatest losers ever? That really got to us. We played tight. That was a game where we were not really ourselves. It ended up being a blowout.
Don Shula taught me something a long time ago. He said that you always have to take something positive away from the game even it is from a loss in the Super Bowl. It was a one-sided one at that. I harken back to that and I remember when the game was over and Leon Lett picked up a fumble and Don Beebe ran him down from about 60 yards to prevent a score. That spoke to the heart and courage of our team. I think though we made a tragic mistake in preparation for that week.
AE: Each story and each chapter in your book was so interesting that it was hard to put down. As a fan of the NFL it is always fascinating to see how a General Manager’s mind works. What is the feedback you have received from GM’s in the NFL? If I were a GM in the NFL right now I would definitely read this book. You think guys in the league are reading it?
BP: Well I hope that they do. A couple of my guys like Tom Telesco, who is the GM in San Diego and Dave Caldwell, who is the GM in Jacksonville both said don’t give away all the secrets. (Both laugh.) I told them I didn’t. There are plenty left.
Vic Carucci did a terrific job co-authoring with me. We wanted to make sure that we did include some vignettes that spoke on the lessons that I learned from people like Marv Levy, Don Shula, Bob Knight and Tony Dungy from over the years. That is what the book is all about. It is about the lessons and not really about me. I mean a General Manager really doesn’t do anything. It is the players and coaches who do it. Those lessons are important. I think many of them can be carried into any other field of endeavor.
AE: Loved hearing that Marv Levy was such an important person in your life. I always thought highly of him while he was on the sidelines in Buffalo. What is one thing that even hardcore Bills fan should know about Marv that isn’t common knowledge?
BP: Well this is new. He has written a book of poetry, believe it or not. I think it will soon be published. So look out for that. He told me that every single line rhymes. That would be typical of him with his attention to detail.
The other thing that people don’t know about him is that he has a great, great sense of humor. That only surfaced from time to time while he was on the sideline. Every day in the office he would have a joke or a quip. I often say that he is far more George Burns than George Santayana. (Both laugh.) The media always pictured him as this Harvard professor, but he has a great sense of humor.
AE: When you were with the Carolina Panthers it seems many people were asking you if you wanted to leave. How hard was it to push those questions out of your mind while you were trying to do your job?
BP: It was never an issue. I have always been able to focus in on my job. The most important thing that you are doing is the thing that you are doing now. Don’t look back. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Just keep plowing ahead. Marv Levy taught me that a long time ago. He would often get letters from college and high school coaches asking how they can get into the NFL.
He would write back and say be the best coach you can be right now. Someone will notice. Most everything I know about pro football Marv taught me and most everything in life too.
AE: Now moving onto your time in Indianapolis, I am guessing that drafting Peyton Manning was the best decision you guys made for the Colts. I know football is a team sport, but who would you say was the second most important piece to the puzzle you guys got in Indy to eventually win a title for the team?
BP: Oh boy. There were so many. I think Edgerrin James clearly. He was such a force. If you look at his numbers today even with essentially an eight year career, which was shorten tragically by injury, his numbers stack up to the best backs in our history. He was sort of one of the major cogs in the offense.
The other was Dallas Clark. He was really the first athletic tight end. He was the first tight end that could be a slot receiver. He was the forerunner of Jimmy Graham. He made our attack incredibly diverse. Then there was Dominick Rhodes, who was an undrafted free agent. He not only made our team, but could have won the MVP in Super Bowl XLI.
What about the offensive line? Jeff Saturday. Undrafted free agent. Signed off the streets. He was working at an appliance store. We signed him. He came in and played 14 years for us. There are so many more. I name them all in the book.
Bob Sanders was another. Bob Sanders was the guy that finally put our defense over the top. Unfortunately he had a shorted career due to injury. Still it was a great (career) while he was playing. There are many more. We won 115 games in 10 years. We went to two Super Bowls. We won one and lost the other. I don’t know if that 115 can ever be recreated. That was quite the accomplishment. We were a complete team.
AE: For someone like myself who will never get to win a Super Bowl can you describe the feeling of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy?
BP: Here is the interesting thing about that. It is marvelous. As I sit at my desk here I am looking at a replica of the Lombardi trophy. You get the ring. You get the replica trophy. They can’t ever take that away from you. Tony Dungy always used to preach to the players that it was the journey not the destination that counts. When I look back on it. When I talk to players about it and Jeff Saturday said this numerous times. The Super Bowl victory was wonderful. Everything that comes with it like the invitation to the White House, which was absolutely incredible maybe the best thing of all.
Still the pure, unadulterated joy comes from winning the Championship game. The people that make that journey from August 1st of that season all the way until the last weekend in January. With all the ups and downs. With all the heartaches you work seven days a week. There is no Christmas. There is no Thanksgiving. You are just focused on football.
There are so many outsiders attached to the Super Bowl that when you win you don’t have a chance to celebrate with the people who are most important. You get to embrace your family, thank goodness, which is right away. Then the media onslaught begins. We didn’t get back to our locker room as a team and say our prayer until two hours after the game.
By that time you are exhausted. You are hungry. You didn’t eat anything since 4 in the afternoon. It is about 1:30 in the morning at that time. It is almost surreal. So the Championship game is the most real complete and unadulterated joy that you can ever have. That is with just the people that got you there and your loved ones. Now you know the dream that you had since you were eight or 10 years old is now finally coming though. So for me the Championship games wins and losses were equally important.
AE: Switching to fatherhood now what were some of the morals you looked to instill as your kids were growing up?
BP: All three boys are grown up and are in the business and my oldest is my daughter who is a teacher. The book is dedicated to my family, but with special mention to my daughter who is an inspiration to all of us. Their mother is responsible for any success that they have had. I was busy building football teams.
Tony (Dungy) had a saying that he would always talk to the players about, which was faith, family, and football. It would be in that order. We tried to instill that into our children. The boys had the good fortune to as my son Brian, who is the head coach at the University of Nevada in Reno said, to grow up in the football locker room.
They grew up around Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, and Coach Levy. My two oldest boys held the phone cords for Marv Levy. They went to the Super Bowls. They were on the sideline. They went to training camp. So I had a lot of time to spend with them that I might not have had if it wasn’t for the inclusiveness from Marv.
Tony was exactly the same way. Saturday practice with the Colts we would have friends, relatives, and children. It was a family affair from start to finish. Jim Irsay, our owner would encourage that as did (Bills owner) Mr. Wilson. I had the great fortune that my sons had the opportunity to be around some great guys. They looked up to Coach Levy tremendously. They are friends with the players still to this day.
My son Chris, who is the director of pro personnel in Jacksonville tells a great story. We were in Cleveland for a playoff game. So that had to be ’89 I guess. That was the game where we invented the no huddle on the fly because Scotty Norwood’s leg was hurt. We couldn’t cover kick offs. Jim Kelly was warming up for the game and was facing the dog pound. Chris had his back to them. I was standing about 50 yards away from them.
I saw Chris crumple down to the ground. I ran up to him and said what is wrong. He thought that he got shot in the leg. We turned him over and he was hit with a snowball that had a battery in it. The trainer looked at him and said you are okay. It is just a bruise. I asked him how he was doing and he said that he was okay. He is a tough guy. Then Jim looked at him and said better you than me. (Both laugh.) Naturally we all cracked up. They have some great stories. They will have some great stories to tell at my wake. All of which will be at my expense.
AE: Your three sons also work for an NFL or for a college team. Your daughter is a teacher. Now usually the children are the ones learning from the parents, but can you tell me something you learned from them while talking to them about their respective jobs?
BP: Let me use my daughter as an example. She is a single mom. She raised two children for basically 15 years essentially on her own. She was doing that and holding her own with her full time job teaching. She is always positive. She is always upbeat. She is always involved in everybody else’s work. She watches her brother’s games religiously.
She is up on everything. She takes her kids to visit her brother’s families. When we get together in the summertime all of our grandchildren just want to see Aunt Lynn. So her upbeat, positive attitude in the face of a lot of adversity is really an inspiration for all of us.
AE: You are also a grandfather. I loved reading the part how a few of your grandkids were saying how big of an event it was when you got inducted into the Bills Wall of Fame. For you what is the number one thing that you want your kids and grandkids to always remember you for?
BP: Oh gosh, they have so many funny stories about me which is probably all they will remember about me. (Both laugh.) It could be about my driving or trips to the museum. I guess maybe that I really cared about them. That is the most important think. I think they know that.
Life of Dad Quick Five
AE: What is your favorite family movie you guys like to watch together?
BP: When my kids were younger it was “The Natural.” Now I think it is “The Princess Bride.” As each grandkid gets older they start to get indoctrinated and get to watch that movie.
AE: Was there a favorite song that you guys like to sing and dance to as a family?
BP: Well I am a big 50’s fan. I put it on the radio now and they think that it is music from Mars, but I make them listen to it.
AE: Describe the perfect family vacation.
BP: Going to Cape Cod and being on the beach.
AE: Which team do you think right now after Week 6 is in the books has the best shot of winning this year’s Super Bowl?
BP: It is really hard to tell. We don’t know a lot at this point in time. I think San Francisco has a complete team. I think that Seattle has a strong team. On the AFC side you can never rule out New England, but I do think that Cincinnati has a strong team. Injuries play such a pivotal role that any of those four teams that sustain a critical injury such as New England did to Jerod Mayo could derail them.
AE: If you were a GM for the team that will get the number one pick in next year’s draft who would you pick?
BP: Oh gosh. Everybody is looking for a quarterback these days. So whether it is Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston or someone else, they are going to be in the discussion. The best football player I have seen from start to finish is (Todd) Gurley from Georgia. There are a lot of offensive and defensive linemen that don’t get a lot of publicity that maybe right up there. Still quarterback and defensive end are the two main positions that teams look at.
Purchase “The Game Plan: The Art of Building a Winning Football Team” by Triumph Books HERE!