BUFFALO, N.Y. – 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, spokeswoman 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 Pro 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.
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 postseason drought ranks as the NFL’s longest active streak.
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 and daughter Christy Wilson-Hofmann, who is a Bills consultant. There’s also niece Mary Owen, who has risen up the Bills ranks and is on several NFL committees while working as the team’s executive vice president of strategic planning.
That doesn’t remove the possibility of outside interests making offers and relocating the team to 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.