Marv Levy veers off course and, upon request, heads down Memory Lane, a route he seldom takes. And if he does, then not for long.
The caller on the other end of the phone line is responsible. Levy is asked to recall a particular game and a particularly famous moment late in that game — a play, incidentally, that turns 30 years old next week. Soon the genial old coach is back on the sideline on a Sunday evening in Tampa Bay Stadium, where his Buffalo Bills, with eight seconds remaining in Super Bowl XXV, trail the New York Giants by the slimmest of margins. He watches helplessly as Bills kicker Scott Norwood’s potential game-winning field goal fades too far to starboard, thus giving rise to this enduring and succinct summation of that championship game: “Wide right.”
“That night after the first (Super Bowl) loss, I spent half that night punching the pillow and pounding the mattress,” native Chicagoan Levy recalls from his Windy City condo aptly located on Marv Levy Way. “I just felt so bad for the players, the franchise, and of course those great Buffalo fans.”
The empty feeling was one that Levy and Co. would come to know all too well over the following three winters. Beginning with that one-point loss to the Giants, the Levy-led Bills played in an unprecedented four straight Super Bowls (1990 to 1993) and came away losers each time. Professional football’s grandest spectacle was one big quicksand pit for the luckless club from the subarctic Rust Belt city.
Fortunately, Levy, out of sheer necessity, got over each loss in short order. As with any coach worth his whistle, he understood that “next season” looms quickly enough. Then, too, negative notions have always been anathema to upbeat thinkers like Levy. Even today, less than five years shy of a three-digit age, he is to positive thinking what Sinatra was to a ballad, Wallenda to a tightrope, Gauguin to a canvas. He rarely recounts past triumphs or defeats unless prompted. At the Bills’ Kickoff Luncheon following that fourth successive Super Bowl defeat in ‘93, Levy the Level-headed pointed out that “the feeling of exultation or of being down lasts about two weeks.” Instead, he follows the advice of a former mentor, Hall of Fame coach George Allen. “George used to say, ‘The future is now,’ which is exactly how I approached my career and life in general.”
That life is now into its 96th spin around the sun, and Marvin Daniel Levy, the only son of a produce wholesaler, is clearly not on cruise control. Levy, who earned a master’s degree from Harvard (English history), keeps busy these days with a daily hour-long walk, preferably outdoors or on a treadmill when the weather dictates. He’s authored four books to date, including a mystery novel about a supposedly fixed Super Bowl. He reads voraciously. And he watches a little football, very little, actually, although he says he’ll be tuned in to this Sunday’s Buffalo-Kansas City AFC final, from which the victor goes to Super Bowl LV.
“I’m obviously not as up-to-date as I used to be,” the erudite coach admits. “Once was a time when I knew the name of every assistant equipment manager in the league, but now I don’t know if I could name all the Buffalo starters.” He laughs lightly before issuing a bankable prediction. “But I do know who is going to win the game — the team that scores the most points.”
The Bills are 0-4 in Super Bowl square-offs. Marv himself is 0-5, having first tasted the bitter pill of defeat as special teams coach on the Allen-coached Washington Redskins, who dropped the 1972 title tilt to the unbeaten Miami Dolphins. “Sure, I would’ve loved to have won one with Buffalo, or all four, for that matter,” Levy says, “but I did not let those losses define who I am and what I stand for.”
When Levy was hired to guide the Bills out of mediocrity midway through the 1986 NFL season, he already had 30 years coaching experience on his resume, including five campaigns and two Grey Cup championships with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
His coaching style was the opposite of bombastic Oakland Raiders owner/GM Al Davis and his mantra, “Just win, baby!” Levy sought steady improvement. Success to him meant never settling, never being satisfied. Progress was a continuous process.
He preached that sermon in 1976 after becoming head coach of the lowly Kansas City Chiefs, revitalizing a team that had won just two of 14 games the previous year. A decade later, following a forgettable campaign as coach of the Chicago Blitz in the short-lived United States Football League — “the owner never paid anybody, including the coaches … we had to chip in to buy toilet paper for the restrooms” — he preached that same homily when he took the reins in Buffalo.
In his first full season in the Queen City, the emerging Bills improved to 7-8, then posted a 12-4 record and back-to-back 13-3 marks. In his 11 1/2 seasons with the Bills, Levy compiled a 112-70 record while the club copped six AFC Eastern Division crowns. He remains the winningest coach in team history. He was enshrined in the Football Hall of Fame in 2005 with an overall won-lost mark of 154-120.
Levy was recommended for the Buffalo job by then-Bills GM Bill Polian, a 32-year NFL executive best known for rebuilding three failing franchises into dominant playoff teams. Polian’s Hall of Fame bust can also be found in Canton, Ohio. Ironically, it was Levy who kick-started Polian in pro football.
“Marv hired me as a scout for the Alouettes way back when, and we’ve since become the closest of friends,” Polian recalls in a phone interview from Ohio. “He’s loyal, kind, dedicated, sincere, honest, everything you want in a friend. He’s also the greatest teacher I’ve been associated with. He and (ex-Indianapolis Colts coach) Tony Dungy are by far the two best communicators I’ve known, but Marv is in a class by himself.”
If not for Polian’s personal guarantee that Levy had the Bills job, the latter might well have returned to Canada for a second go-around with the Alouettes. “When we were going through the coach-selection process, Marv told me he was going up to Montreal to try for the GM position,” Polian remembers. “Before he left, I assured him we’d get (a deal) done but that we couldn’t go public until (Bills team owner) Ralph Wilson OKs it. Marv said he’d avoid the media while in Montreal by registering under the name Buckets Rosenberg.” Buckets was Levy’s basketball teammate growing up in Chicago.
And that’s how Polian reached his new coach. “I phoned the hotel and asked for Buckets Rosenberg’s room,” Polian continues with a chuckle. “When he answered, I told Ol’ Buckets to catch the next plane back to Buffalo.”
Patrick Kennedy is a retired Whig-Standard reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com.