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This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Bill Polian

(Born December 8, 1942) -- If you need a clue about the contributions of Bill Polian, check out the names on the Wall of Fame at Ralph Wilson Stadium. It’s the newest one up there.

Polian has been associated with football throughout his life. He worked his way up the ladder in the pros, moving from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Chicago Blitz of the United States Football League, and then putting together two championship teams in the Canadian Football League.

Polian eventually landed in Buffalo, and was promoted to general manager in 1986. He put together the pieces on a roster that became the only team in NFL history to appear in four straight Super Bowls.

However, he wasn’t around for all of those years. Polian was let go by the Bills in 1993 and replaced by John Butler. Polian moved on to Carolina, where he built the Panthers into a good team. Then it was on to Indianapolis, where Polian played a role in making the Colts a powerhouse, and a Super Bowl champion, during his time there.

Indianapolis suffered through a poor 2011 season, and Polian was fired by Colts ownership. He’s now working as a contributor to ESPN.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Johnny Bench

(Born December 7, 1947 ) -- Any list of the best catchers of all-time must include Johnny Bench. In fact, he’s on the short list as the best ever. Yes, he played in Buffalo.

Bench was born in Oklahoma City, and was the valedictorian at Binger High School. He played baseball and basketball there, and his father told him the catcher’s spot was the fastest way to the majors. The Reds picked Bench in the second round in 1965.

Bench broke in with Tampa in Class A, but was in a Bisons uniform a year later ... briefly. He broke his hand in the first inning of his first game on Kids Day at War Memorial Stadium. A year later he hit 23 homers in 98 games and displayed superb defensive skills.

Bench went up to Cincinnati in the middle of the 1967 season, and didn’t look back. He became a starter in 1968, and a superstar (most valuable player of the league in 1970). Bench might have been at his best in 1976, when he led the Reds to a sweep of the Yankees in the World Series.

Bench retired after the 1983 season at the age of 35. Everyone knew he was a Hall of Famer, and he was overwhelmingly elected in 1989.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Buddy Nix

(Born on December 6, 1939) -- You can call yourself a real Buffalo Bills’ fan if you know the real first name of the team’s General Manager. It’s Charles. And now you know his birthday.

Nix was born in Carbon Hill, Alabama, which is in the northwest corner of the state. He was a linebacker at Talledaga High School, which is quite close to the famous auto racing track.

Nix moved on to play college football at Livingston University, and moved on into the coaching field. He served as an assistant at Tennessee-Chattanooga, where he first met up with a young wide receiver named Terrell Owens.

Eventually his career hit the fast track. He worked for the Bills from 1993 to 2000 under general manager John Butler, and followed Butler to San Diego. Nix came back to Buffalo in 2009.

On the last day of 2009, Nix moved into the general manager’s spot. He’s made some moves that were popular at the time, such as signing such players as Stevie Johnson and Mario Williams to contracts. We’ll have to see what the ultimate verdict on his time here will be.

--- Budd Bailey

More thoughts from Stan Van

SVG
Van Gundy addresses reporters Tuesday at Canisius (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News).

Stan Van Gundy has not met a microphone he didn't like, as a coach in college and the NBA, and now as an analyst for NBC. Be sure to read my story in Wednesday's editions that mostly features his thoughts on NBA commissioner David Stern.

But Van Gundy had plenty more to say Tuesday during his press conference at Canisius College, where he was an assistant way back in the 1986-87 season.

Some of his other key points:

* On the Lakers' firing of Mike Brown: "I was appalled by it on a couple of different levels. I have great respect for Mike. I think he's an outstanding coach. ... To pull the plug that quickly on a guy like that, I thought was unwarranted and unfair. From a basketball standpoint if the Lakers were not committed to Mike Brown going forward, which clearly they weren't. ... then you should have made that change in the offseason.

The troubles of the Lakers: “They’re really struggling, a team out of synch and 8-9 with 12 of their 17 games at home (they then fell to 8-10 with a loss Tuesday at Houston). Steve Nash has been hurt and they’ve played with three different head coaches already [Mike Brown, Bernie Bickerstaff, Mike D’Antoni] with three distinctively different systems. It’s a recipe for failure.

"They've got time but the'yre going to have to on the fly adjust, make changes and come together and get better and try to keep all those older guys healthy. It's just not going to be that easy.

On Orlando rookie Andrew Nicholson, the former St. Bonaventure star: The thing I’ve been impressed with him is he’s like an old-school guy. A lot of guys are making it with their athleticism. ... He plays like an older guy. He’s got really good moves down low and around the basket.”

On Miami’s chances of a repeat: “I think they’re better than they were a year ago. ... I have a hard time envisioning anyone beating them four times in a series.”

Of course, Van Gundy also said the Heat are not as good defensively as they should be and that proved to be a prescient comment as they suffered a 105-101 loss to the lowly Wizards later Tuesday night.

*On first coaching against his brother, Jeff, in a 2003 Miami-Houston game: "We're lining up for the anthem, I'm looking down there and seeing him and thinking 'What the hell? How did we get here?' It was an amazing moment and then that lasted about two minutes. We were 0-6 going into the game,  and 2 1/2 hours later we were 0-7 and I was more worried about that."

---Mike Harrington
Twitter: @BNHarrington 

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Jim Hurtubise

(Born December 5, 1932) -- The list of local race car drivers who ran at Indianapolis no doubt is a small one. We still remember one who did, Jim Hurtubise.

The North Tonawanda driver was known as someone who would race almost anything with four wheels. Hurtubise first ran at Indy in 1960, finishing 18th and was the rookie of the year. He drove in nine other races. The driver tried to qualify with a front-engine car from 1975 to 1981, but came up short.

Hurtubise raced in the USAC Championship Car series for about 15 years from 1959 to 1974, with four victories in almost 100 starts.

He did some racing of NASCAR vehicles, and even got a win in Atlanta in 1966. He also drove Formula One machines.

Hurtubise might be best known, though, for an accident. He suffered serious burns in 1964. When asked about how he wanted his hands permanently shaped,  he replied, “Just make ‘em so I can hold a steering wheel.”

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Frank Reich

(Born December 4, 1961) -- Need a team to make a memorable, history-making comeback? Frank Reich is your man. After all, he did it twice.

Reich grew up in Lebanon, Pa., and was a good enough high school quarterback to land a scholarship at the University of Maryland. In 1984 in the Orange Bowl, Reich came on in relief of an injured Stan Gelbaugh with the Terps down, 31-0. Amazingly, Maryland rallied to win, 42-40, in what was at the time the biggest comeback in NCAA football history.

Reich was drafted by the Bills in the third round in 1985, and a year later Jim Kelly arrived on the scene. That meant Reich would have a good seat on the bench for the next several years, watching Kelly and the Bills go on a memorable run.

But Reich did have another moment to remember. In 1993, the Bills trailed the Oilers, 35-3, early in the third quarter. Then the quarterback went to work, and Buffalo eventually won a 41-38 overtime thriller. Yes, it was the greatest rally in pro football history.

Reich went on to play for Carolina, the New York Jets and Detroit. He later did some assistant coaching in the NFL.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Mike Ramsey

(Born December 3, 1960) -- Admittedly, the high point of Mike Ramsey’s hockey career came before the age of 20. Even so, he never looked back as he compiled a hockey life that epitomized professionalism.

Ramsey was born in Minneapolis and went to high school there, where he was considered one of the best defensemen in the state. He followed the usual dream of hockey players in that state by playing for the University of Minnesota in 1978-79. The Sabres made him their first-round draft choice in the summer of 1979.

But they would have to wait for Ramsey. He opted to try out for the United States Olympic team instead of turning pro, and made it. You might have heard something about how that team did, capturing a gold medal in the most famous hockey series in American history.

Ramsey signed with the Sabres after leaving Lake Placid, and stayed in the lineup through the 1992-93 season. He never had as many as 10 goals in a season, but he showed a lot of heart, night in and night on, for some teams that weren’t exactly known for that quality.

Ramsey moved on to Pittsburgh, and finished his playing career in Detroit. He served as an assistant coach for Buffalo and Minnesota, and owns a sporting goods store in Minnesota.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Billy Carter

(Born December 2, 1937) -- On a day that the Sabres were born - December 2, 1969 to be precise -  it’s only fitting to pay tribute to a player that played for that team’s predecesor.

Billy Carter took his time coming to Buffalo. He was born in Cornwall, Ont., and played for the Hochelaga Indians of the Quebec league at the age of 17. Two years later, in 1956-57, it was on to the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens.

The center made the American Hockey League for the first time in 1957-58, when he played in one game in Rochester. Eventually he was off to stops in a variety of places, including Quebec, Seattle, Memphis, and Omaha.

Finally, Buffalo beckoned. He played on the 1965-66 team, scoring 61 points in 71 games. He followed that up with a 52-points season in 1966-67. It was back to Omaha and Denver in the two seasons after that.

At least in the middle of all that, Carter made some appearances in the NHL. He played eight games for Boston and eight more for Montreal. However, he never did get that first NHL point.

--- Budd Bailey

This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History: Willie Evans

(Born December 1, 1937) -- Willie Evans played all sorts of games over the years in an outstanding athletic career. Yet he’s best remembered for a game he didn’t play.

Evans was born in Buffalo and graduated from Emerson High School. After missing out on a track scholarship to Purdue because of an injury, Evans landed at the University of Buffalo.

He was part of a UB football team in 1958 that won the Lambert Cup as the best small-college team in the East. The Bulls were invited to the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Fla.

Correction - only the white players were invited to Orlando. Evans and the other African Americans on the roster were told to stay home. So the rest of the team voted to stay home with them.

Evans taught in the Buffalo public schools for more than 30 years, and is still active in UB’s alumni. Fifty years after the original snub, the ‘58 Bulls team was honored everywhere from Buffalo to Orlando. Evans was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.

--- Budd Bailey

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