He was the prime architect of the franchise’s AFC dynasty in the early 1990’s, and this fall his name will be the latest addition on the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Bill Polian, a six-time NFL Executive of the Year, was elected as the 28th member of the distinguished group of players, coaches and contributors.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am,” said Polian not long after he was given the news by Bills Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson. “I told Mr. Wilson I really couldn’t find words adequate to express my gratitude and happiness. It’s a milestone in my life and a milestone in the life of my family. I’m so grateful that my children, all of them, grew up in Buffalo and especially my grandchildren can share this moment with my wife and me. I have such a warm spot in my heart in Buffalo, for all the friends we’ve made there, all of the wonderful times that we’ve had there. It’s just marvelous to come back and have this opportunity.”
Polian is just the sixth non-player named to the Bills Wall of Fame. He’s also directly responsible for acquiring six of the players that have already received the franchise’s most prestigious honor.
“Bill was the architect of our Super Bowl teams which made four consecutive appearances, a feat that may never be duplicated,” said Bills owner Ralph Wilson in a statement. “I think it’s fantastic that the Wall of Fame Committee has recognized the importance of his role with that historic time in our franchise’s history. So I’m excited for Bill and his family that he is receiving the highest honor this franchise can bestow upon an individual. It’s certainly well deserved.”
Polian began his personnel career in football as a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs in 1978. Five years later Polian began a stint in the CFL as personnel director of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Montreal Alouettes and helped to build a pair of CFL title teams. After a year as personnel director in the USFL (1984), he was hired by the Bills as pro personnel director, and promoted to general manager a year later.
Instrumental in convincing Jim Kelly to sign with the Bills and play in Buffalo after spending his first three pro seasons in the USFL, Polian helped build the Bills roster into a championship caliber team. He executed significant player acquisitions like the trade for Cornelius Bennett in 1987, the selection of Thurman Thomas in round two of the 1988 NFL draft and the signing of Kent Hull from the USFL. He also hired Hall of Fame head coach Marv Levy.
“Everything that I know in football and most things in life comes from Marv Levy,” said Polian, who crossed paths with Levy in Kansas City and Montreal. “We always believe that guys with great football temperament were the kind of people that you wanted. If you got those kinds of people and they had talent and you had people that were difference makers. Clearly we did in both Indianapolis and in Buffalo, then if the organization gave them a chance to succeed then you couldn’t help me succeed and you would do it consistently. That’s what happened.”
Polian’s Buffalo teams went to four AFC title games on his watch (1988, 1990, 1991, 1992) and a fifth a year after he was let go by the Bills. Those teams won four of those contests to advance to four straight Super Bowls. They also won four AFC East crowns during Polian’s tenure as GM.
“His tremendous ability to bring to our team so many outstanding players was the perfect complement to Marv Levy’s superb coaching talents,” said Wilson. “When you see the names on the Wall of Fame--Kelly, Thomas, Hull, Smith, Reed and so many others--it just seems appropriate that Bill’s name is included.”
“The fact that we were such a mentally tough resilient team is what I’m most proud of,” said Polian of his time with the Bills. “These guys turned out, even as the years went on and their careers ended, to be such great people, quality people and remain so close over time. That was a special group and I’m proud to be a part of it and I’m proud of what they’ve accomplished both on the field and off.”
The team’s success also brought Polian recognition, as the first two of his six NFL Executive of the Year awards were earned as GM of the Bills in 1988 and 1991. In the seven years prior to Polian being named general manager the Bills winning percentage was .419. In the seven years with Polian at the helm the Bills winning percentage was .622.
Polian and the Bills parted ways after the team’s third consecutive Super Bowl appearance in 1993, but the newest Wall of Famer maintains that his relationship with Ralph Wilson was never strained.
“Over the years we would joke about just the discussion when it came time to let me go,” said Polian. “We even shared a laugh then in what normally would be a tough circumstance. The thing that’s always bound us together is the fact that we enjoyed each other’s sense of humor. So it’s always been a warm relationship.
“I have said numerous times and I’m sure I’ll repeat numerous times as this comes closer that I owe Mr. Wilson an incredible debt of gratitude because he took a chance on an unknown and gave me my start. I still can’t really find the right words to describe how I feel except to tell you it’s just an incredible joy to have this happen.”
A home game date has not yet been selected for Polian’s Wall of Fame induction ceremony.