Sullivan: The complicated legacy of John Rigas: Convicted, disgraced … and beloved

Local News

Bills Super Bowl era coach Marv Levy, center, stands with John Rigas, left, and Ron Bertovich, right. (Image courtesy of Ron Bertovich)

Time passes and the memory grows dimmer. For younger Buffalo sports fans, it’s difficult to recall John Rigas as a local hero, a reflection of the community’s blue-collar ethos. That is, if they have any memory of him at all.

The obituaries referred to Rigas, who died on Thursday at age 96, as a “disgraced cable TV tycoon.” That was true enough. But while acknowledging a man’s precipitous fall from grace, it’s also important to remember the vital role he played during an unforgettable era of Buffalo sports.

During the late 1990s, when the Sabres went on a three-year run that culminated in a trip to the ’99 Stanley Cup Final, Rigas might have been the most popular man in town. In fact, that was the headline on a cover story I wrote on Rigas in the Sunday magazine in the Buffalo News the autumn of 1998.

In those days, Rigas’ face would appear on the video board above center ice during games and fans would roar their approval. Rigas had taken control of the Sabres months earlier (the sale to Adelphia wouldn’t be official until 2000). He was also owned the highly successful Empire Sports Network, which thrived during a golden age of Buffalo sports media.

Ron Bertovich was commissioner of the Atlantic 10 when Rigas called him in 1994 and asked him to run the Empire Sports Network. In 1998, he made Bertovich the Sabres’ executive vice president of administration. 

“He was so supportive of everything we did,” said Bertovich, now director of operations at Bishop Timon. “He said he wanted to be the best. He told me, ‘We’re not ESPN, we’re our own regional network. Let’s deliver regional sports: High school, college, pros, whatever we can get. At one point, we were the fastest-growing regional sports network in the country.”

“I spoke to him every day, twice a day, early morning, late at night. Physically, he reminded me of my father who had passed away. Same height, same white grayish hair. At times, I felt like I was talking to my father.”

Bertovich remembers walking with Rigas through what was then Marine Midland Arena. The owner liked to climb up to the 300 level, so he could mingle with the common man, the sort of fans who might have sat in the oranges back in the days of the Aud. 

“He was so accessible to the public,” said Bob Koshinski, who left Channel 7 for Empire in 1991 and became vice president/general manager. “Much more than some of what you would consider Buffalo’s blue bloods. And he would not always have handlers accompanying him to the Arena. 

“John liked to walk and press the flesh with the ticket-holders,” said Koshinski, who now owns a media company, All Services WNY. “People would touch his sport coat and shake his hand and pat him on the back.”

Bertovich would sometimes accompany the owner to the 300 level. A fan would offer some criticism or comment and Rigas would say, ‘Ron, write this down. Remember this.’

The Buffalo Sabres bench celebrates with the crowd after the goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the Stanley Cup playoffs at the Marine Midland Arena in May 1999. The Sabres defeated the Maple Leafs 5-2. (Elsa Hasch/Allsport/Getty Images)

“He was more comfortable in the 300 level than he was in the directors’ room,” Bertovich said. That’s just who he was. He very seldom sat in his suite. He always walked around. Take me around, show me this, what can we do better?’”

Rigas represented hope and possibility to those Buffalo fans. As I wrote in the ’98 profile, he was “an affirmation of the immigrant spirit … a living symbol of the thing we call the American Dream.”

“The story of John Rigas, it’s very complicated,” Koshinski said. “He was a good guy. He helped a lot of people. And he was involved, unfortunately, in one of the bigger financial scandals in the country’s history.

His was a true immigrant tale. His mother, Eleni, left her native Greece in 1923 to join Demetrus James Rigas, who had left the village 10 years earlier to seek his fortune in America and was looking for a bride from back home.

Eleni had never met James Rigas. She was 20 years old. But she hiked to the seaport, rode in steerage on a ship to Boson, and married him. They went back to Wellsville, where Rigas lived in an apartment above the Texas Hot restaurant he’d bought two years before.

John was born in 1924, the first of four children. He excelled in school and was a star athlete in Wellsville. He spent three years in the Army after graduation in 1942, then went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and got his degree in management engineering. 

Rigas spent six months at the Texas Hot, but decided it was time for something daring. His basic philosophy in life was contained in a story he told me about his days as a 5-foot-2 running back in high school:

“Every once in a while, you’d take the ball and see an opening in the line. You had to determine if it was the right opening, because it closes very fast. That’s the way it is in life. You take the ball. There’s no gain. It hurts. But you keep looking for that opening.”

A Buffalo News box displays the Rigas family making headlines July 25, 2002 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Harry Scull Jr./Getty Images)

Always one to take a gamble, he borrowed $72,000 to buy an old theater in Coudersport, Pa. 

“I could have made more money, gone into engineering the corporate way,” Rigas told me when I visited him in Coudersport in ‘98. “But I decided to take a risk in the business world. There was a lot of uncertainty and peer pressure. Why go into a movie theater? Why sell tickets and usher? I tell you, sometimes people have to make a career choice rather than a financial one.”

Rigas took a job with the Sylvania Corporation while managing the theater, where he often slept. A friend convinced him that television was the future, and that Rigas should buy the local cable franchise to help bring TV to Coudersport, where it was tough to get a regular signal. 

He bought the station for $100 and called it the best $100 he ever spent. He and his brother, Gus, built the Wellsville system into a thriving enterprise, which had 6,000 subscribers in Pennsylvania by 1972. They incorporated as Adelphia (from adelphus, which is Greek for “brother”).

Adelphia eventually became the fifth-largest cable TV enterprise in the U.S., with 5.6 million customers in 31 states. In 1998, they bought Buffalo’s cable franchise. That year, they took over the surging Sabres. There were plans to build a corporate sports headquarters alongside the Arena, at the current side of HarborCenter.

Rigas’s three sons, Tim, Michael and James, all Ivy League educated, had helped guide Adelphia through the cable explosion. He and his wife, Doris, who died in 2014, had a daughter, Ellen. He was at his zenith.

“It was a wild coaster ride,” Koshinski said. “He suddenly owned the Sabres. He already owned Empire Sports. The Sabres made a run for the Stanley Cup and he was going to build a huge office building downtown, complete with brand new high-definition TV studios. 

“Yeah, it was a great time that came to a screeching halt.”

Tim Rigas, who was the Sabres’ chief executive at the time, once said that his family wanted to “stretch our imagination” to see what possibilities exist downtown. 

In the end, however, it was the corporate bank account that became stretched beyond imagination. Greed created an opening, and they charged right through it. The American Dream on lower Main Street turned into an American tragedy. 

In 2002, Rigas and four other Adelphia executives — including sons Tim and Michael — were accused of treating Adelphia accounts as a “personal piggy bank.” John and Tim were eventually convicted of bank and securities fraud and falsifying company earnings, while diverting some $3 billion for their personal use. Rigas was forced out as head of Adelphia and the Sabres declared bankruptcy early in 2003.

Rigas and his sons were led away in handcuffs in New York City in a very public arrest. Some felt the Bush administration wanted to show critics it was coming down hard on corporate malfeasance in an era of swirling scandal, Enron being the most notable offender.

John Rigas wound up serving eight years in federal prison. He was granted a “compassionate release” in 2016 after he was given a terminal cancer diagnosis. 

In this June 20, 2005 file photo, former Adelphia Communications Corp. CEO John Rigas speaks to the media following his sentencing outside Manhattan federal court, in New York. (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano, File)

When Rigas arrived home in Wellsville, he was greeted by several dozen residents, who gathered in the town square on a frigid February evening and gave him cheers and expressions of love and forgiveness. 

Rigas, clearly moved, waved, blew kisses and gave a V sign. “I can’t believe all these people came out for me,” he said. “God bless you all.”

Whatever his transgressions — Rigas has always claimed his innocence — he did countless good deeds for many people. He helped the needy, paid for people’s cancer treatments, helped restore buildings in Coudersport, brought Philharmonic concerts to town on the holidays. He was a kind business owner, sometimes to his detriment.

“More than once, we had a hire we would consider a ‘Rigas hire,’” Koshinski said. “He would take care of somebody if they were in need. “It’s a shame that it ended up the way it did, because he did so many good things. But what went bad went very bad and hurt a lot of people. It put a lot of people out of work and hurt that community down in Coudersport.”

Bertovich said he has only fond memories of Rigas. He drove five hours to visit him when Rigas was at the Butner prison in North Carolina early in his sentence. When Rigas got his release, Bertovich traveled to Coudersport to see him at Easter.

Rigas loved college basketball, one reason for his bond with Bertovich. He was also an avid fan of St. Bonaventure and a big donor to the university. In December of 2019, he and Bertovich were at the Reilly Center for the 100th anniversary to watch St. Bonaventure play Hofstra and Joe Mihalich in the Bonnies’ 100th anniversary celebration. 

“I sat with him at the Hofstra game two years ago,” Bertovich said, “and he remembered more about the Empire Sports Network and the Sabres than I did. He knew all the Bonnies players.”

When Bertovich heard the news on Thursday, he called Mike Robitaille, who considers his 12 years at Empire doing “Hockey Hotline” the best of his broadcasting career. Robitaille will soon be inducted in the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.

“I called Robitaille last night and he was really saddened,” Bertovich said. “He’s going to mention John in his speech.”

I asked Bertovich how he reconciled Rigas the father figure with the man who went to prison for a crime that damaged people financially. Did he subscribe to the theory that it was the Ivy League-educated sons who were the real masterminds, who gamed the system?

“To me, it’s a moot point,” Bertovich said. “I’m a big, big ‘forgive and forget’ guy. People tell me to a fault. I honestly don’t know what happened. Life is too short. Life moves on.”

“He was like a father figure to me, and to my kids. When they heard about it, they were sad. Our two daughters, they kind of grew up with him. They’d go to Sabres games and he’d always remember their names, remember my wife’s name.

“To me, he was so genuine. It was, ‘How’s so and so’s family doing? Is there anything I should be doing?’ I’d let him know. If anyone had a birth or death in the family, I’d let him know.”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

Jerry Sullivan

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