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Bills Thunder

The Professor goes to Canton - The Marv Levy Story

By Rick Anderson

Once every decade of so, there arises a man who can sway millions with his great vernacular. Winston Churchill was one who could command the audience with his voice and delivery of well prepared speeches. Through the ages there have been great men who have been able to redirect the thinking of nations and have a major influence on world politics. In the mid 1980s, there arose a man more suited for the political battle field than the gridiron where he directed his troops onto many victories.
Marv Levy was a dramatic coach on the sidelines for Buffalo

Marv Levy, who graduated from Harvard, took his education and used it to shape the careers of many pro football athletes. He would take his great command of the English language and use it to motivate his players to put forth their all to ensure victory. While he could have easily gone into the political arena, he chose instead the football arena.

Levy explained why he turned his thoughts to coaching even though he was highly intelligent and was on a much different track while in college.

"I actually entered undergraduate school with the idea of going to Law school, becoming a lawyer," explained Levy. "I participated in Varsity athletics, it was Division III, a small school. I participated in all three sports. Football, basketball and track. And I really began to love it. I had some great coaches...I idolized them. I loved the life they led, and thought how much fun it would be (if he were a coach). Even though I entered Law school, about three weeks in I said ‘I want to be a coach, I don't want to be a lawyer.' So I made the move over at that time to graduate school instead and began coaching the following year."

Ten years to the date of the Bills first Super Bowl appearance, former Bills coach Levy was elected to go into Pro Football's Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. On the anniversary of the Bills heart wrenching defeat to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV, Levy was voted into the Hall on his very first try.

The head coach who led the Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances beat out the coach who masterminded a perfect game plan to upset the highly favored Bills in 1991, Bill Parcells. Parcells devised a game plan in Super Bowl XXV that kept the high powered Buffalo offense, quarterbacked by Jim Kelly, off the field for 2/3 of the game. As a result, the Bills lost their first Super Bowl appearance 20-19 in what will go down as one of the most exciting games ever. Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal that would have beaten the Giants in the final seconds of that championship contest. Instead, his kick went wide right and the Bills were never that close again in their other 3 appearances in the Big Dance.

Levy was the most successful coach ever to head the Bills. With Levy at the helm of the Bills ship, Buffalo had a 112 -70 record (123-78 including post season play). Without a doubt, Levy had the best record of any Bills coach. In his NFL coaching career, Levy ranked 11th with a 154-120 record. He coached 11 years with Buffalo and 5 with Kansas City. He also coached in the CFL and the USFL to go along with his 16 years coaching college football.

Marv, besides his ability to guide the Bills to 4 straight Super Bowl appearances, will best be remembered for his statesman-like quotes. Being a Harvard graduate with a master's degree in English History, Levy dazzled the media with his constant references to World War II quotes, especially from Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower. Levy projected himself as the General of the Armed Forces and his players were his troops. He would rally his troops around witticisms of Winston Churchill, or create some himself.

Levy talked about the spirit that comprised the Bills, the team that never quit in the face of all odds. After being beaten badly in its second Super Bowl appearance, they picked themselves up and made it back 2 more times.

"I think they were fighting hearts," Levy talked about his Super Bowl squads. "I think the fact they could get off the canvas and not lie there in the fetal position but go back to work portends well for their lives after football."

Levy had to deal with the "Bickering Bills" in the late 80s and turn that team into one of the most feared teams of the decade.

"The guy kept all of us together and kept our egos on track," stated Kelly. "I mean, when you have guys like Bruce, Thurman, Andre, me, Tasker, Will Wolford, you have different players with different attitudes. He kept us all on the same page. We all had one common goal and that was to win. We did such a great job and I attribute that to Marv Levy because he kept us all together."

Marv agreed that it was tough at times to keep all the superstars focused on the goal at hand.

"I can't say it wasn't challenging at times with some of the egos in the room," Levy said. "They began to believe and I tried to be honest with them. I wanted to make my bite worst than my bark with that team. I didn't go around castigating them publicly. They knew I wasn't going to embarrass them, but if something had to be said in private I'd say it. We had great leadership internally from the players.

"Leadership, I've often said, is the ability to get other people to get the best out of themselves. And I thought it's manifested more by getting people to join you rather than follow you. In other words, they join you over a period of time because they believe what you're doing and in each other. And you have to have people who are receptive and who are personally and intrinsically motivated, too."

While Levy will be know in some circles as the coach of the team that could not finish the job, the fact that he did get his team there 4 straight times tells a lot of the fortitude that he instilled in his players and the team. Ten years to the date of his first Super Bowl appearance, Levy get the recognition that he deserved for shaping the NFL team of the early 90s.

"When I heard my name, a strange thing happened to me," Levy recollected. "I heard the names and saw the faces of just countless people who had made it possible. So many of those Bills players and John Butler, Bill Polian, Ralph Wilson, those great fans in Buffalo just all coursed through me. It was a warm feeling to think that my thoughts went in that direction that I experienced inside of myself."

Levy didn't expect to be nominated his first time on the ballot and getting the vote not only floored him, but other members of his family.

"My daughter was here with me in the hotel room and she jumped up on the bed and did a trampoline act," Marv describe what first took place with his family when he found out he was elected to the Hall of Fame. "I was afraid that she was going to hurt her head on the ceiling, so I had to direct my attention to something very important right away."

Marv Levy addresses the media after learning about being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
[AP Photo]

The Buffalo Bills in the mid 80s were the laughing stock of the NFL. Levy joined WKBW television to do color commentary for the preseason games in 1986. After the Bills performed so poorly in the first half of that regular season, Levy was appointed their new head coach. It took only two years for Levy to turn the Bills around and get them into the AFC Championship game against the Cincinnati Bengals. With quarterback Jim Kelly as his main star on offense, the Bills fearsome defense gave Kelly and his arsenal the chance to win most games. However, in the AFC Championship game, Kelly was held in check by the Bengals defense and forced 3 picks. Kelly completed only 14 out of 30 and the Bengals beat the beleaguered Bills 21-10.

The next year, the Bills lost a bizarre Wild Card game to the Cleveland Browns - a game the Bills should have won.

With the Bills falling behind quickly, Levy gave Kelly the green light to play in a two-minute offense in the first half. That decision changed the face of pro football for the next 7 years. Kelly found his groove in the fast-paced hurry-up offense. Kelly exploded, passing for 405 yards in a basketball-like game and he directed the team down the field with only seconds remaining in the game. Kelly threaded the needle with a pass to Ronnie Harmon in the corner of the endzone. Amazingly, the ball fell off Harmon's fingertips and the Bills had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. One more chance to score, Kelly threw an inception on the goal line and the season was over for the Bills. However, the Tiger had been unleashed and the "No huddle" or K-Gun offense had been unveiled. It was a turning point in Levy's career to have the courage to go with a two-minute offense for the entire game. The Cincinnati Bengals had used a version of it, but Levy, with the help of his great coaching staff, tailored it for Kelly and his offense.

The next year, the Bills started their run of four straight Super Bowl appearances. The first one against the Giants, was the closest. In fact, that was the game the Bills should have won. A 47-yard field goal attempt by Bills kicker Scott Norwood went wide right, and the Bills lost their best chance of winning the Vince Lombardi trophy. The next three years, the Bills would have their heads handed to them by the Washington Red Skins and then the Dallas Cowboys twice.

Even though they were humiliated after losing a Super Bowl, Levy gave the Bills the confidence that they could pick themselves off the turf and come right back for one more shot.

"I think they were fighting hearts," Levy talked about his four Super Bowl teams. "I think the fact they could get off the canvas and not lie there in the fetal position but go back to work portends well for their lives after football."
Marv Levy gives his farewell speech in 1997

Levy was born Aug. 3, 1928. He grew up in Chicago and went to college at Coe College of Iowa. He was a halfback on the Coe team and earned 3 letters for football. Levy did even better on the track team, earning 4 letters and he added one more letter for basketball.

After graduating, Levy eventually decided to enter the ranks of coaching football. His first job was at his Coe College, where he was an assistant coach. Levy took a head coaching job at the Country Day School in St. Louis. Levy took head coaching positions at the University of New Mexico (1958-59), University of California (1960-63) and William and Mary (1964-68) before getting his first NFL coaching job as a special teams coach for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1969. The next year it was on to the LA Rams, and in 1971-72, he performed the same duties for the Redskins.

Levy went to the Canadian Football League for five years and coached the Montreal Alouettes to two Grey Cup championships. Then he spent his next five years with the Kansas City Chiefs. Without a job, Levy took his great communicative skills up to the press box and served as a color man for WKBW's preseason games. That must have gotten the attention of Bills owner Ralph Wilson because when the season turned sour, he turned first to Levy to help him bail out his team.

Levy would remain for 12 years, most of them being remembered by Bills fans as the Years of Glory.

"I loved coaching football," accentuated Levy. "I loved coaching in Buffalo. I was very fortunate after 47 years of coaching that my most memorable spot was the last one, the one where I stayed the longest, where I feel the closest ties."

Marv talked about all the fond memories that he had during his entire coaching career.

"So many of them with the Bills. Over a 47-year coaching career, there are some fantastic memories," Levy reflected. "If I go back to the collegiate days, at William and Mary, one year we upset Navy. They were a powerhouse at that time. They had just defeated Penn State, Michigan and Syracuse on successive weekends. (Navy was) the No. 1 ranked team in the East, that was a great win. Two Grey Cup Championships coaching Montreal. But then, so many thrills in Buffalo, so many last second victories. The Houston comeback game. Jim Kelly winning on the final play of the game down in Miami, when he scampered into the end zone. One of the moments came in one of our worst defeats. A crushing defeat in the Super Bowl, we got beat 52-17 (to Dallas). We turned the ball over 9 times in the game. In the last minute, we turned it over again. Leon Lett picked it up, took off toward our goal line. Most people would have said, ‘Ah the heck with it, we're beaten. No effect on the outcome of the game.' But Don Beebe, from 70 yards away, sprinted downfield, knocked the ball out of Lett's hands so he couldn't get into the endzone. It was a ‘Never say die' spirit which epitomized the spirit of the Buffalo Bills."

Levy, who was know for his whit and his great use of grammar, often resorted to street language when a referee made a call against the Bills that he didn't agree with. Anyone who could lipread, got quite a dose of reality when Levy was seen chewing out the refs on the sidelines. He would get into an official's ear and used rhetoric more suitable for hardened criminals doing time in the penitentiary.

During his press conferences, Levy took on the press like a Ronald Regan, wowing them with his articulations and witticisms. When talking about his soldiers, Marv would compare his mission of winning the Super Bowl to the task that Winston Churchill had in World War II. It was an uphill battle and full of minefields.

"When we were driving for Super Bowl XXV, he had adopted the phrase 'One more river to cross," former Bills wideout James Lofton said. "He would sing the song and nobody had ever heard of it. We didn't know where it came from, but it did become our rallying cry."

One of the quotes attributed to Levy dealt with why he wouldn't replace Jim Kelly even if was having a bad game: "No way will I ever take Jim out! He's the commander of our troops. FDR didn't pull Eisenhower out when he had a bad day, did he?"

Levy talked about his all-time highlights with the Bills.

"Fighting our way back into the Super Bowl, the first one we went to after not succeeding in 1988 in the (AFC) championship game. Coming back in the 1990 season with that overwhelming victory against the then LA Raiders, a 51-3 victory. The greatest comeback victory against the Houston Oilers in the playoffs after the 1992 season. Going to practice every day, going to work every day with the people in the Buffalo Bills organization, not just the players of course, but all of them, all of them in that organization. Working for a man like Ralph Wilson with the two general managers. The unbelievable fans, led the league in attendance six consecutive years during the time which we were such a strong team. The feeling that pervaded the city of Buffalo, that remains with me, remains very fresh in my memory."

Marv Levy listens as Bills owner Ralph Wilson acknowledges Levy's accomplishments with the Bills during his retirement ceremony.
[AP Photo]

Levy, who is now 75, will be the third Buffalo Bill to enter the Hall. He joins O.J. Simpson and Billy Shaw, who was put in the Hall of Fame in the year 2000. Levy will officially enter the building in Canton, Ohio that holds the shrines and memories of over 100 years of professional football. Joining Levy into the Hall will be offensive linemen Jackie Slater, Mike Munchak and Ron Yary, receiver Lynn Swann, linebacker Nick Buoniconti and defensive end Jack Youngblood. The date of induction will be August 4, 2001.

Levy was asked about his hopes of being elected into the Hall. "Two or three weeks ahead of time, finalists are named. And I know, just like all the other men on that finalist list of 15 people, that most of them each year are not going to make it. So you hope, you anticipate. I'm speaking of the sentiments I believe of almost every person on that list, but you realize that there are some wonderful people that meant so much to the game and the likeliness of you being called, if you reduce it to odds, isn't great. I've spoken to Lynn Swan, 14 years he was on that ballot, he was a great player. When the day came to name the players, his name didn't come up, until finally this year. I was so happy for Lynn. You realize, yes, I'll be disappointed, I'll get over it. But you're hopeful, and when you do hear your name there's a second or two of disbelief. Did I really hear that or didn't I? Then it sinks in."

When asked if he made a decision about who will introduce Marv in the induction to the Hall of Fame ceremony in August, Levy replied, "Three names immediately come to mind. Bill Polian, John Butler and Ralph Wilson. I wish all three of them could be there (to introduce Levy). I'm going to ask some people at the Hall of Fame just how that works."

Asked about how the phone has been ringing off the hook with congratulations, Levy said, "I say it with great gratitude, I've been inundated with calls. I've heard from countless players, Bill Polian, Steve Tasker, and Steve Christie who are in town, rushed right over to the media conference and I got to see them there. But I've heard Thurman, Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, I can go on and on, there are so many others. I'm very grateful to them."

Levy was asked if his getting into the Hall of Fame would pave the way for other great Bills players from that four Super Bowl era to get in.

"If it does, that's wonderful, but they're in on their own merits. I don't think it has to do with my being in. The only indication is there is a recognition of the achievements of those Buffalo Bills teams, and if I'm a small part of their recognizing that they were a huge part of it and should be duly recognized also."

"I was very fortunate. Maybe the most thrilling moments and the most memorable ones came on my last stop. If you coach 47 years, you're usually in a lot of places. The twelve years (it was actually 11) as coach of the Buffalo Bills were just magnificent."

When Levy finally retired from football at the ripe age of 72, he had tied former Bears coach and owner George Halas' mark as the oldest man head coach ever in the NFL.

"Challenge my coaching accomplishments if you wish," Levy has said in the past, "but my stamina, at least, defies criticism!"

The man who hired Levy to coach the Bills was former GM Bill Polian. It was a move he never regretted.

"I'm ecstatic, thrilled," said Polian after hearing that Levy had made it into the Hall on his first try.

"Marv talked continually about your program wins. Players and preparation win, not systems. People joke about all the Marvisms. The most telling one is, "What it takes to win is simple but it isn't easy.' We all remember those and to a large extent live by those things. He set the tone, he set the philosophy for everyone, and we did some great things."

Steve Tasker, the great special teams player Marv had with the Bills and maybe the first special teams player to make the Hall of Fame had high praise for his former coach.

"Marv handled the every-day grind and he could make crucial decisions," said Tasker. "When he let Fred Smerlas and Joe Devlin go (in 1989) they were big moves. When he decided to let Jim go with the two-minute offense all the time it was innovative. A lot of teams won't take a chance and risk losing a single game let alone blowing a whole season.

"And there were other philosophical things the Bills were on the leading end of. I think in 1990 there were about seven offensive linemen 300 pounds or better and we had three of them. Then there was special teams. For a while in the late '80s we were way ahead of the rest of the league on special teams. Don Shula was cutting people he otherwise would have kept just to try to catch up to us on special teams."

Don Shula. Shula preceded Marv into the Hall of Fame, being Enshrined in 1997. The great Dolphins and Colts coach, had great respect for the man who's team beat his Dolphins on a continuous basis in the 90s.

Marv Levy is surrounded with the other Class of 2001 inductees for the Hall of Fame: Jackie Slater, Mike Munchak and Ron Yary, receiver Lynn Swann, linebacker Nick Buoniconti and defensive end Jack Youngblood.
[AP Photo]

"I feel so happy for Marv, and I said jokingly that this is the first time I've been happy for Marv because usually I was in head-to-head competition with him and he won a lot of those," said Shula who was at the nomination in support of Buoniconti, a former Dolphin . "That's one of my frustrations, not getting Dan Marino back into the Super Bowl, and Marv had a lot to do with that. They had a great team with great players. Bill Polian made it all happen when he hired Marv, and Marv's genius and ability to coach was just the natural fit for Buffalo."

Jerry Magee, a sports editor of the San Diego Union made the presentation speech for Levy into the Hall.

"He ennobled the game of football," Magee said. "He ennobled the coaching profession. He ennobled all of us, anyone who came in contact with him." The week before the induction ceremonies in Canton, Levy talked about his upcoming induction and the speech that he had prepared.

"I've given it a lot of care, I have prepared my notes," said Marv in reference to his speech he formulated for Canton. "You know we are limited t 7 minutes, so you want to make sure you don't ramble when you are there. But I do want to speak from my heart and not just have very contrived words to say. It is short enough that over a period of time in practicing it, I've memorized it."

Levy was asked if he anticipated getting really emotional during the ceremony.

"I will feel some very deep emotions, I know that already," Levy said about how the pomp and circumstance of being inducted into the Hall of Fame will affect him. "I know I am there primarily because of what happened in Buffalo. I want to be sure to acknowledge everyone, but I don't want to stand up there with just a litany of names as I go on. The emotions will be keen. I happened to be with Decon Jones yesterday, who is in the hall of fame some time ago. He said, ‘I bet you cry.' And I said, who do you think I am, Dick Vermeil?"

Asked about how many World War II Winston Churchill quotes will be in the speech, Marv replied, "No I don't think I am going to make any Churchill references. I hope what I say is original and doesn't fall back too much on quotations of others at this point. This isn't about Winston Churchill, it's about the game of professional football and those who have preceded me and are going in with me in this class into the Hall of Fame."

Levy, who's witticisms will be remembered for ages, should have a book of quotes go into the Hall with him. Here are just a few famous quotes:

"Adversity is an opportunity for heroism."

"The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender."

"Plan your work and work your plan."

"If you have everything prepared, the rest will take care of itself."

"What you do should speak so loudly that no one will hear what you say."

The one quote that Levy is most famous for, should be put under his carved image in Canton.

"Where would you rather be than right here; Right now?"

That quote Levy used on his players as they were about to step out on the field for their very first Super Bowl experience. They had made the great sacrifices, had loss a lot of blood, sweat and tears and finally they were in the Big Dance. If they could have only won it once, then Marv's mission would have been complete.

Copyright © 2001 Bills Thunder & Rick Anderson, all rights reserved.

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