By JOHN WAWROW
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — With the Buffalo Bills hierarchy settled, it’s on with the coaching search.
“As soon as we get off this podium, we go to work,” Bills CEO Russ Brandon said Tuesday, shortly after being promoted to team president. “We’re heading out of here and starting that process.”
First stop: Arizona.
That was the destination of a plane Brandon, general manager Buddy Nix and several other key front-office members had boarded to immediately begin the process of finding a coach.
Though the team, on its website, didn’t divulge any details beyond Brandon’s travel plans, Arizona is home to three potential candidates: Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton as well as former Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt and his assistant Russ Grimm, who had both been fired a day earlier.
It was a busy and eventful start to the new year for the Bills, after closing 2012 by firing coach Chan Gailey following three losing seasons.
Brandon’s promotion gives him full control of the franchise’s day-to-day operations. Nix has been retained. And assistant GM Doug Whaley’s star is rising. Whaley will be involved in the coaching search, an indication that he continues to be groomed as Nix’s eventual successor.
Brandon will now report directly to team owner Ralph Wilson, after assuming the title previously held by the 94-year-old owner. The transfer of power was made Monday, when Brandon met with Wilson at the owner’s home in suburban Detroit.
“It was a rather emotional visit,” Brandon said. “He told me he was passing the torch to me to run the franchise in totality. He has granted me full authority to run the franchise with zero restrictions and zero limitations.”
The Bills are in the midst of their fifth coaching search since 2001. They’re coming off their second consecutive 6-10 season and extended the NFL’s longest playoff drought to 13 years. Over that stretch, Buffalo only once had a winning record — 9-7 in 2004.
Wilson, the franchise’s founder, has only once before given up the title of president. That was in 2001, when he hired Tom Donahoe to also serve as general manager. Donahoe was fired after the 2005 season, at which point Wilson took back the title and said he had no plan to ever give it up again.
“These past 13 years have been very difficult on our fans, and we have not produced the type of winning that they deserve,” Wilson said in a statement “We want our team to be one that our fans are proud of. I believe that Russ has the unique abilities to assemble and lead the talent we will need to get the job done.”
Brandon said the coaching search will be “exhaustive” in his attempt to revive a once-proud franchise who’s brand and relevancy he described as “tarnished.”
“We haven’t won enough games. And that’s on us,” Brandon said. “And we’re going to change it. We need to change it. And I will go to the end of the earth to make sure that we change it.”
Nix will report directly to Brandon, while maintaining authority over football operations.
Nix declined to be pinned down on the what he’s looking for in a coaching candidate, saying: “This time, I think it’s wide open.”
That’s a switch from three years ago, when Nix narrowed his parameters on hiring someone with previous head-coaching experience and an offensive background.
On other issues, Nix called it “an organizational” decision to fire Gailey. Nix backtracked on the unconditional support he voiced toward Gailey in November by saying: “Things change, and it changed some with us. We kind of collapsed at the end. That made a difference.”
As for starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s future, Nix said that will be left up to the next coach.
Brandon completed his 16th season with the Bills, and has been serving as the team’s chief operating officer since 2008.