ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WIVB) – In 2014, Terry and Kim Pegula became the new owners of the Buffalo Bills and right from the get-go, there was a lot of work they needed to do.
At the time, Doug Marrone was the head coach and Doug Whaley was the general manager. When Marrone left after the 2014 season, they hired Rex Ryan who only lasted two seasons (Ryan was fired before the regular season finale in 2016) and Whaley met the same fate a few months later.
It took all of that to find the right two guys to finally bring long-term stability for this franchise and that started with the hiring of head coach Sean McDermott. Four years ago this week, on January 13th, the Bills announced the hiring of McDermott and News 4’s Heather Prusak caught up with Bills owner/team President, Kim Pegula as she reflected on their first interview with McDermott.
“You could tell he already had a plan in his mind. I tell people you know you knew he had prepared for this job his whole life,” Pegula said on a zoom call with News 4 Sports.
And she shared a funny memory that stood out to her husband, Bills owner/CEO, Terry Pegula from their first interaction with McDermott.
“My husband really gravitated toward the fact that he was a high school national wrestling champion because as my husband says “you don’t understand to be a wrestler you’re playing in front of nobody. Nobody goes to wrestling matches except the parents.” It is a thankless sport that takes so much attention to detail that anyone who excels in that sport those are qualities you want in a head coach,” Pegula explained.
“I was like okay hun, if you wanna pick the coach because he was a wrestler in high school that’s fine,” Pegula laughed.
In all seriousness, it paid off taking a chance on a first-time head coach and now he, along with general manager Brandon Beane, have built a winning culture in Buffalo in season that’s seen a level of success that this franchise hasn’t had in decades.
The Bills just hosted their first playoff game since 1996 and won their first game in the postseason since 1995 after beating the Colts, 27-24 in last week’s wild card round.
“Being in there down on the field and seeing the fans coming in and then just during the game knowing the effect that they had on the team and hearing how loud they were even though it was just 6,000 plus fans there, they really showed up and showed their support,” Pegula said.
That was the first time all season fans were allowed back in the stands and Pegula said while the plan was just approved, this is something they’ve been working on ever since training camp, having constant communication with the state all season long.
“We were constantly working on a plan on how could we get fans in the stadium. We started out at like a twenty percent capacity following the NFL guidelines as well as the CDC guidelines. Every week we would go back with the state and make adjustments to our plan,” Pegula explained.
But the turning point came in week 15 when the Bills beat the Broncos to win their first division title in 25 years.
“I think when we clinched the playoffs and clinched that AFC East home game I think the state really knew that it was a special moment for this community and said listen how can we get together and do this. And then all of a sudden then it happened really quickly,” Pegula said.
Now the Bills host the Ravens in the divisional round this weekend with a chance to punch their ticket to the AFC Championship game. And because of what McDermott and Beane have built, both of them signed long-term deals to keep them through the 2025 season as their contracts mirror each other’s.
McDermott signed his contract extension in August before the season started and it was only a matter of time before Beane’s new deal got done and that came four months later in December.
“We just wanted to make sure and wanted to provide that continuity to our fans, to our players, to our organization as a whole and really just allow them to continue doing what they’ve been doing and not having to worry about “are we in our last year of this contract? What’s gonna happen next? And things like that so we just felt like it was the right time to do it,” Pegula said.
As for the Sabres, the same can’t be said when it comes to the level of success the Bills are having. They currently have the league’s longest-active playoff drought at nine years. Part of the reason for that is unlike the Bills, there hasn’t been that kind of consistency and continuity both with the coaching staff and front office.
After the Sabres missed the 24-team postseason as part of the NHL’s return to play format after the pandemic hit, they fired general manager Jason Botterill in June and promoted Kevyn Adams who was the Senior Vice President of Business Administration. Now they’re hoping Adams along with Ralph Krueger can become the GM-head coaching duo that Beane and McDermott are.
So how close does Pegula think the Sabres are to obtaining that kind of success?
“I think that it’s close. Listen in sports as you know every year is different and you can go from last to first just within a season. As we made changes to our hockey department staff and with Kevyn Adams on board, someone that we saw traits in him early on before he even took this position, he’s worked for us for nine years in a variety of different roles,” Pegula said.
“I think it was really important to have someone leading our hockey team that maybe has a bigger picture and tangible things outside of just hockey knowledge. I think he thinks differently so I am really very excited and hopeful that we are on the right path.”
Adams made some big splashes already in his first few months on the job, the biggest when he signed free agent and former league MVP, Taylor Hall.
There have been many years where on paper it looks like the Sabres should have the right pieces to make the playoffs and sustain success. But we’ve seen how that’s played out and now with the shortened season, teams can’t afford to fall behind too early.
Talking with players, they all seem to respect and enjoy playing for Krueger and are starting to get to know Adams. From their perspective, everything sounds positive but only time will tell if this truly is the right combination.
“As happy as we are to have Sean and Brandon and Kevyn and Coach Krueger sometimes we don’t get there without kissing a lot of frogs I guess you could say,” Pegula joked.
“Sure there have been, I don’t even want to call them mistakes because I don’t consider it that way but every decision you make good or bad at the end of the day leads you to where you are when you finally find that success and where you feel like you’re really in a good place, it’s worth all of that.”
Fans are hoping to see those frogs turn to princes on the Sabres side sooner rather than later.
Speaking of fans, Pegula said there’s still no word on whether fans will be allowed at KeyBank Center for home games this season.
When it comes to the home of the Bills, it’s still called “Bills Stadium” but it sounds like they’re getting closer to finding a new naming rights partner.
“We’ve identified some great candidates and we are really far down the talks of that but nothing has been official yet, still working through some of those negotiations but we’re hoping that in the next couple of months we’re able to finalize that,” Pegula said.