The Buffalo Bills haven't given up on Tom Cousineau, the National Football League's No. 1 draft choice who told the Bills to get lost and signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian league.
The Bills hope the Ohio State All-America line-backer gets homesick for good ol' America.
"At the press conference announcing his signing, his agent, Jimmy Walsh, said the first paragraph of the contract says Tom Cousineau has to be happy in Montreal or he can leave," said Stew Barber, the Buffalo vice president in charge of administration.
Barber sat in the press box here, watching Montreal beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, 21-9, in a game boring beyond description. Barely 20,000 customers showed up. Perhaps half that number could be certified alive. The Tiger-Cats are so bad their fans booed the announcement of the next home game.
For Cousineau, who played in front of madman crowds at Columbus and Ann Arbor and Pasadena, the trip to Hamilton must have been depressing. "Hockey is king up here," he said the afternoon of the game, somewhat forlornly. "Football is king in the United States: 87,000 people, 100,000. Gee, Columbus. . ."
"We're going to stay tight with Cousineau," Barber said. "I'll go down to the locker room afterward, just to say hello and best wishes and let him know we're looking at him."
The Bills have been reduced to groveling as punishment for an arrogance that marks the NFL today.
Ed Garvey, boss of the NFL players' union, says the league is "suffering a poverty of riches. When President Carter said we are suffering a malaise, he might have been giving a state-of-the-NFL message. The NFL is doing so well financially from television (5.6 million per team per year) that no one has to win any more. They can make money by just showing up."
NFL arrogance sent Cousineau to Canada, Garvey says: "'Cousineau? Sure, he's big,' Buffalo would have said, 'but he's not bigger than the league. We can't believe hel'll go to Canada.'"
And why, Garvey asks, did no NNFL team make an offer to Ed (Too Tall) Jones when the defensive end quit the Dallas Cowboys this summer?
"Nobody needed Too Tall Jones?" Garvey said sarcastically. "Nobody talks to him, and then Tom Landry says, 'Well, he wasn't that good, anyway.' I mean, whatever Jones does, he is better than anybody the Redskins have, right? He is better than anything 20 teams have. And nobody makes him an offer?"
Billy Kilmer, the retired Redskin quarterback, believes the guaranteed $5.6 million from TV is the reason George Allen cannot get a coaching job in the NFL. "They don't have to make the playoffs to make money," Kilmer said. "Just watch. When somebody needs to win bad, that's when they'll hire George."
Barber, the Buffalo vice president, won't accept the arrogance theory. He paints Consineau's agent, Walsh, as the villain of the piece, suggesting that the New York attorney used Cousineau as a wedge in his negotiations to buy 40 percent of the Montreal franchise. If Walsh completes those ngotiations, someone asked, would Cousineau then flee Canada?
Barber smiled widely. "Far be it from me to say such a thing," he said.
Barber says the Bills desperately wanted Cousineau, that season-ticket sales are down from a high of 54,000 to about 20,000, the worst in the NFL by some 10,000. The Buffalo customers are demanding success, Barber said, and the Bills have responded by signing several veterans who threatened to leave town.
"But we never had a chance with Cousineau," Barber said, adding, ". . . for some reason."
Walsh, who also represents Joe Ngmath, says the Bills could have signed Cousineau by matching the Montreal offer, but they refused.
Bob Geary, the Montreal general manager, said, "Buffalo took the attitude, 'Who's Cousineau?" They thought they could get him by waving the flag. He called their bluff."
The Bills insist they never had a chance to match the Montreal deal. The Buffalo owner, Ralph Wilson, has said Walsh never came to Buffalo to negotiate, insisting it be done by mail.
"Either Mr. Wilson should see a good optician or consult a memory expert," Walsh said. "I shook hands with him in Buffalo."
Cousineau, the first NFL first draft chocie to go to Canada since Iowa quarterback Randy Duncan in 1959, reportedly signed a three-year contract worth $850,000. A Buffalo deal worth a reported $1.25 million, Walsh said, was "a face-saving offer" spread over seven years and containing "unrealistic contingencies, such as incentive bonuses if he made all-pro, or MVP in the NFL."
The Montreal deal, Cousineau said, "is much, much better than the Bills' offer. It was a business decision. Quite frankly, it disappointed me.Playing in the NFL always was my goal, but I had to do what was best for me. I didn't want to oversell myself, but I didn't want to undersell myself, either.
"The Bills made an offer that wasn't half what we thought it ought to be and when we didn't like it, they said, 'Well, go test the market.'
"We told them the Montreal offer, but Buffalo never seriously changed its offer. If the Bills had changed, I wouldn't be here."
Cousineau insists he is not bothered by telephone calls, letters and newspaper stories suggesting he went to Canada out of fear he couldn't make it in the NFL.
He insists so strongly, in fact, that one believes he is bothered a great deal by such mean speculation.
"I don't feel any less a ball player or any more a ball player for being in Canada," he said. "I known I'm the best linebacker that came out of college last year. That's why Buffalo made me the No. 1 No. 1.
"The letters say things like, 'How could you think of going to Canada and depriving your family, fans and friends throughout the U.S.?'
"It came down to almost a patriotic thing. 'How can you play in an inferior league?You'll never know if you could play in the NFL.'
"That is totally absured. Buffalo didn't draft me No. 1 to sit me on the bench. 'Were you afraid you couldn't make it?' I just wish those people could know that I did what was best for me."
What about the so-called "happiness clause"? Could Cousineau, if he didn't like Canada after another trip to boredom -- if he didn't like being an anonymous linebacker under Canadian rules that give the offense all the heroes -- could Cousineau simply tell Montreal to get lost?
"I'm committed to Montreal the next couple of years," he said, "and that's where I'll be.
He didn't sound very happy about it. CAPTION: Picture, Tom Cousineau: "happiness" is a contractual matter. UPI