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This Day in Buffalo Sports History: The Braves vs. Clyde

     December 25, 1977 -- It's the quietest day in Buffalo's sports history. The Bills have never played a game on Christmas Day, although the NFL now does sometimes play on that particular holiday. The NHL has a mandated Christmas break, so the Sabres are always off.

     Who does that leave? Why, the Buffalo Braves. They played four games on Christmas Day, going 1-3.

     Let's take the last game as the highlight. The biggest star on the court that day was an unlikely one. Walt Frazier had been traded by the Knicks to Cleveland, and he was in the lineup for the Cavaliers for the first time that day. Somehow he looked seriously out of place in a Cleveland uniform. The Cavaliers also offered a familiar face on their roster in Elmore Smith.

     This was Year Eight for the Braves, and their last one in the NBA. Swen Nater took the opening tip, and knocked it to Randy Smith.

     The Braves dropped a 111-105 decision in Cleveland that day. It was the second of five straight losses. Buffalo finished 27-55 that season, and moved to San Diego the next year.

   For more on the Braves season of 1977-78, click here.

   Here's how part of the game looked:

--- Budd Bailey

This Day in Buffalo Sports History: Santa comes through

     December 24, 1971 -- The Buffalo Bills badly needed a Christmas present this year. They had just suffered through a 1-13 season, and were a team that even O.J. Simpson couldn't help. Every Bills' fan must have written Santa Claus a letter, asking for help.

     Santa came through, and a day ahead of schedule no less. The Bills announced on this day that Lou Saban was returning to coach the team.

     The Bills had been around for 12 season at that point and gone through a few head coaches, but Saban was the only one who had made them a winner. He led Buffalo to consecutive AFL titles in 1964 and 1965.

     Saban then stunned everyone by leaving for the University of Maryland for the 1966 season. He only spent a year there, jumping to the Denver Broncos.

     Saban turned the Bills around after only a year of rebuilding, and got the Bills into the playoffs in 1974. He resigned from the coaching post in the middle of the 1976 season, and the Bills needed years to recover from it. Saban didn't return for a third act.

--- Budd Bailey

Bandits notebook: A surprise move

If there's one good lesson to be learned about pro sports, it's that coaching changes around the start of the season are a sign of trouble. Remember Dick Jauron letting his offensive coordinator go just before the start of the 2009 Bills' season? And before that, how about when John Rauch was fired in the Bills' training camp in 1971?

It's with some surprise, then, that the Boston Blazers announced the firing of head coach Tom Ryan. He's been with the team since 2007. The Blazers looked like they had added plenty of talent this season, and seemed to be ready for a good regular season. We'll have to see if this is a warning of trouble ahead.

Meanwhile, Orchard Park's Joe Smith has landed on his feet. Smith was released by the Bandits earlier in training camp, but has turned up on the roster of the Philadelphia Wings. Smith had trouble getting regular duty in Buffalo, going from the inactive roster to the starting lineup with a few weeks last season.

The teams of the National Lacrosse League had to submit their rosters by Thursday. The Bandits say they won't announce their squad until Friday. However, some cuts were placed on the NLL's web site. So ... Buffalo released Drew Candy, Rusty Kruger, Wayne Van Every, Jeff Powless, Jason Crosbie, Isiah Kicknosway, Ben McCullough and James Purves. That goes with Elijah Printup, Holdon Vyse and Kyle Schmelzle earlier in the week. We'll see how the roster shapes up Friday.

--- Budd Bailey

This Day in Buffalo Sports History: O.J. the MVP

     December 23, 1973 -- The most valuable player in the National Football League doesn't quite hold the weight of the same award in major league baseball, but that doesn't mean it isn't coveted. On this date, O.J. Simpson joined the list of winners. Simpson was honored for his performance during a truly memorable season.

     You probably know he rushed for 2,003 yards in only 14 games. The number was good for the second of his four rushing titles. That works out to 143.1 yards per game, every game. How many Bills running backs have done that even once or twice in a season?

     Simpson averaged six yards per carry and scored 12 touchdowns as he led the Bills to a 9-5 record. It was the team's first winning season since 1966.

     Buffalo had two MVP's during the days in the American Football League. Cookie Gilchrist won it in 1962, and Jack Kemp captured the honor in 1965.

     It was a long wait for such a trophy to come to Buffalo after Simpson. Thurman Thomas was the league's best player in 1991. Buffalo hasn't had a winner since then.

--- Budd Bailey

This Day in Buffalo Sports History: Curtained off

     December 22, 1974 -- O.J. Simpson played in exactly one playoff game in his NFL career. He picked the wrong team to do it again.

     Simpson and the Bills faced the Pittsburgh Steelers -- in the midst of their "Steel Curtain" era -- on this date. Buffalo actually led, 7-3, after a quarter. Then the Steelers outscored the Bills, 26-0, in the second quarter, and that was that.

     Simpson did score a third-quarter touchdown in the game, but he was held to 49 yards on 15 carries as the Bills had to abandon their ground game after halftime. Quarterback Joe Ferguson was 11 for 26 for 164 yards.

     Meanwhile Terry Bradshaw of the Steelers was an efficient 12 of 19 for 203 yards and a touchdown, while Franco Harris scored three touchdowns Ñ all in the second quarter. Pittsburgh rushed for 235 yards, with six different players having at least 10 yards of that total.

     The Steelers went on to beat the Raiders in the conference championship game, and then the Vikings in the Super Bowl. By the way, the Bills were the only playoff team to score as many as 14 points on the Steelers' defense that year. In fact, Pittsburgh gave up 20 or more points in only two games during the entire season.

--- Budd Bailey

This Day in Buffalo Sports History: Down to the wire

   December 21, 1980 -- The Buffalo Bills hadn't won their division since 1966 when the 1980 season rolled around. Chuck Knox had brought some life to the franchise in 1979, but the team really got going in 1980. Buffalo won its first five games to take control of the division right from the start.

     Even so, they still hadn't wrapped up a playoff spot when the game with the San Francisco 49ers on this date started -- thanks in part to a 24-2 loss to New England the week before. The AFC East title wouldn't come easily this time either.

     Every time the Bills scored, the 49ers responded on a muddy field. Joe Ferguson threw a touchdown pass to Jerry Butler, while Curtis Brown scored on a 4-yard run. Joe Cribbs rans for 128 yards on 18 carries. Still, the Bills' fate wasn't determined until the final moments of the game.

     Joe Montana, then a relatively unknown young pro quarterback, was the leader of a San Francisco team that was coming together as well. The Niners were just a year behind the Bills in their rebuilding program.

     On this day, Montana launched a couple of long passes into the Buffalo end zone in a last-ditch attempt to win. They fell incomplete into the mud, thus delaying the establishment of Montana's legend for a short time. At game's end the Bills could celebrate an AFC crown with an 18-13 win ... and a date with San Diego in the playoffs.

--- Budd Bailey

This Day in Buffalo Sports Season: Playoff payoff

     December 20, 1964-- The Buffalo Bills didn't qualify for the postseason in 1960, 1961, 1962 or 1963. The drought finally ended in Year Five.

     The Bills completed a superb season with a 24-14 win over the Boston Patriots. Buffalo finished with a 12-2 record, while the Patriots ended up 10-3-1. That was good to win the American Football League's Eastern Division title. The Bills had never been more than a game above .500 before this particular season.

     In the division-clinching game, Jack Kemp scored two touchdowns on short runs, while throwing for 286 yards on only 12 completions. Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass both went over the 100-yard mark in receiving yardage.

     The Bills' defense held the Patriots to only 33 yards rushing on their home field, as Boston only ran the ball 11 times. Babe Parilli was 19 for 39 for 294 yards and two interceptions. Buffalo had a 24-6 lead in the fourth quarter and coasted home from there.

     Buffalo still had a game to play that season -- the AFL championship game. That one turned out just fine too.

--- Budd Bailey

This Day in Buffalo Sports History: A surprise departure

     December 19, 2000 -- The departure of Bill Polian as Bills' general manager in the midst of the team's Super Bowl run in the 1990's was a shocker. The exit of his successor, John Butler, wasn't far behind.

     Butler's contract only had a couple of months left when he started negotiations with owner Ralph Wilson. Butler realized he had a good reputation within the National Football League community and wanted full market value. Wilson wanted a quick settlement so that the offseason business could start.

     Wilson made some offers, but didn't get any answers.

     "I could never get anything definitive from him as to what his intentions were." the Bills' owner said.

     Butler ended up with the San Diego Chargers, and died of lymphoma in 2003. The Bills hired Tom Donahoe to replace him. They haven't made the playoffs since he left.

--- Budd Bailey

This Day in Buffalo Sports History: Finally traded

     December 18, 1998 -- The Sabres seem to have many of the pieces in place for a run at the Stanley Cup during the 1998-99 season. There was only one missing: Donald Audette.

     The feisty winger was a holdout throughout training camp and the early part of the season. The drama ended when Audette was finally dealt ... in mid-December.

     The veteran Sabre went to the Los Angeles Kings for a second-round draft choice, ending a nine-year stay with the team. Audette agreed to a two-year contract with Los Angeles worth a reported $3.6 million.

   "I'm happy now," Audette said. "I got what I wanted. I understand what the Sabres were doing. They stood their ground. I'm just disappointed it took so long. They had a job to do; I had a job to do."

   Audette finished the season with 36 points in 49 games with the Kings. Meanwhile, Sabre teammates were quietly upset that the team didn't get any immediate help in their bid for a title that season. As it was, Buffalo lost to Dallas in six games in the Stanley Cup Final. Could Audette have made a difference? We'll never know.

--- Budd Bailey

This Day in Buffalo Sports History: Happy holidays, Mike

      December 17, 1990 -- The Buffalo Sabres were staging their annual holiday Christmas party this weekday afternoon. After practice, the players' families came down to Memorial Auditorium for a skating event. This one, though, wasn't too festive.

     The team discovered that Buffalo traded popular Mike Foligno to the Maple Leafs for Lou Franceschetti and Brian Curran. You might say that put a damper on the festivities.

     It's always a bit of a shock when a longtime veteran is traded, and the feeling can be multiplied in hockey when the captain is involved.

     Sabres general manager Gerry Meehan said to The News' Jim Kelley that "the team had lost five straight and something had to be done." Coach Rick Dudley agreed with that assessment.

     For his part, Foligno said that after five straight losses, he expected some sort of move to be made. Buffalo had dropped to 10-15-7. However, Foligno added that he didn't think he was a big part of the problem.

     Franceschetti and Curran didn't help the Sabres, who exited quickly in the first round of the playoffs that season. Foligno turned out to be close to the end of his career.

---Budd Bailey

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