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Original Issue

No Joke

Four Consecutive Super Bowl losses have made Buffalo Bill coach Marv Levy a target of jests, but seriously, folks, he's one of the NFL's best

Sometimes late at night Mary Frances Levy will be awakened by a disturbance in the dark. It doesn't happen very often now, and when it does, it is certainly not threatening or fearsome. But it reminds her of the forces that work beneath still waters, of the vectors and currents that rule the world regardless of what good men do. It's heart-wrenching, this disturbance. Whoomp. A muffled sound. Something hitting the blankets. A first. "He'll be lying there." says Fran Levy of her husband, Marv, coach of the Buffalo Bills, "and he'll roll over, and he'll punch the mattress."

Does anybody need to ask why?

The top 10 things Levy said to his team at halftime of Super Bowl XXVIII last January, according to talk-show host David Letterman:

No. 10. "We won! Woo! We're Super Bowl champs!"

How is it that a kindhearted, patient, scholarly, organized, successful football coach has become the punch line for jokes about failure, ineptitude, senility and plain old choking? A decent man—and you really have to search to find somebody who dislikes Levy—has somehow been stuck in the corner of this nation's collective sports tavern and had the dunce cap pounded down on his silvery head.

Why? Four Super Bowl losses. No, correct that. Four consecutive Super Bowl losses. Minnesota Viking coach Bud Grant lost four Super Bowls, but he did it gradually, over time, so that it wasn't quite so easy for people to notice the trend. Grant is in the Hall of Fame. People don't make jokes about him. It could be argued, as it could for any coach who takes his team to the ultimate game and loses, that Grant got more out of his charges than he had any right to get. But people don't say that about Levy. Nor do they notice that the AFC has lost the last 11 Super Bowls, that the Bills have simply prevented other AFC teams from getting shellacked by the NFC's New York Giants, Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys. Four in a row! We're talking Grand Slam here, babe! We're talking Joe Btfsltk! Did you hear about the new Dallas Cowboy welcome mats? They're rubberized Buffalo team photos.

Part of it, no doubt, is Buffalo itself. How many jokes are there about that subarctic Rust Belt city? The comedian Carrottop wears a Bill helmet that doubles as a tissue box for wiping away tears and nasal drippings, and the crowd goes wild.

Then there's Levy's countenance—wizened, heavy-lidded, avuncular, earnest, like that of a well-meaning but slightly out-of-it history professor. At times on the sideline during big games, Levy appears almost bemused as the action swirls around him; with his headset on, he could be a senior citizen listening to his favorite Sinatra tune done by Dr. Dre.

There are roles to be played in this world, people will tell you, and Levy and the Bills' role is that of professional opponents. When the Pittsburgh Steelers or the San Francisco 49ers go to the Super Bowl, they win. Every time. When the Bills go, they lose. Every time. Levy is like a cab driver who will take you almost to your destination, then shrug and dump you out.

Is this characterization fair? Hell, no. Do you hear people calling the Bills one of the greatest NFL teams of all time? Of course not. But the Bills' five-year record of 62-21 is the NFL's best in the '90s. Buffalo wins when it has no business winning. Last year's 14-5 squad had the 27th-best defense in the league. And was it not a Levy-coached Buffalo team that staged the greatest comeback in NFL history by beating the Houston Oilers 41-38 in a wild-card playoff game on Jan. 3, 1993, after the Bills trailed by 32 points in the third quarter?

People say the Bills have so much talent—Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Darryl Talley, Cornelius Bennett—that they should overwhelm their foes on skill alone. But get an NFL roster and check out all the teams—there are at least 10 with comparable goods. The nasty, speedy Los Angeles Raiders and the resurgent Kansas City Chiefs (ever hear of Joe Montana?) both lost to the Bills in last year's playoffs. But old Marv can't win. In Orlando last spring Fran had an eye infection, and Marv drove her to an emergency room to get some medication. While Fran was being looked at, one of the attendants kept staring at Marv. "I know you," the attendant said. "You're ... you're... Joe DiMaggio!"

"It is ironic," says Chief owner Lamar Hunt, referring to (among other things) the fact that Levy finished so far out of last season's AP Coach of the Year voting that, well, he didn't get a single one of the 81 votes cast. Hunt himself blew it with Levy back in 1983 when he fired Levy with a year left on his coaching contract. Levy had gone to the Chiefs in 1978, inheriting a 2-12 team, and had improved it to 4-12, then 7-9, then 8-8, then 9-7 before the strike in '82 destroyed the team's momentum and the Chiefs finished 3-6.

"Our attendance was way down, and we probably overreacted to the circumstances—and the 'we' was me," says Hunt penitently. "Marv has proved me wrong. He's obviously a very, very bright man who knows how to put together an outstanding teaching staff. We're trying to emulate what they've done in Buffalo. And the odd thing is that instead of the Bills being considered a dynasty, they're the butt of all these jokes."

No. 9. "Boy, I'm sleepy. You guys sleepy?"

No. 8. "We've got a long trip home after the game, so I don't want anybody wearing themselves out."

No. 7. "Now get out there and rest on your laurels."

So much goes back to the first in the string, Super Bowl XXV, against the New York Giants at Tampa Stadium in 1991. The Giants controlled the ball with a plodding attack that grounded the Bills' high-wire offense and wore down Buffalo's defenders. Still, with the Giants leading 20-19 and eight seconds on the clock, Bill kicker Scott Norwood lined up for a potentially history-altering 47-yard field goal attempt. The ball just missed to the right. Now Norwood is gone, and the Bills have become so many shoulder-padded Sisyphuses, rolling that big football up the hill only to have it chase them down again.

Levy pauses now in a workout to consider the eternal question. A fitness advocate with a lean 5'10" body, he has no apparent hobbies oilier than working out ("So I don't sag all over," he-says) and reading novels and history books. "He is a minimalist," says Fran. "He doesn't like clutter. And he can't really fix anything around the house." He took up golf back when he was the football coach at the University of New Mexico in the late '50s, played a lot for a couple of months, then appraised the thing. "I'm supposed to be enjoying this?" he asked himself. He never picked up a club again.

Football, he says, is what keeps him going. The Super Bowl losses? They hurt for a while, but they nurture him too. "I coach as though I'm going to be here the rest of my life," he says. "Always. Nothing chagrins me."

As a sprinter at South Shore High School in Chicago back in the '40s, Levy was a fleet Jewish kid who ran hard but accepted what he could not change. At rival Wendell Phillips High there was a kid named Buddy Young, a future NFL star, and he beat Levy every time they raced for four straight years. "Every time," Levy says. "He won the state title in the 100, and he went on to be a great running back at Illinois." No anger, then? Levy is mystified by the question. What is there to be angry about?

He says, "I get letters from high school coaches saying, 'I want to be an NFL coach. What do I do?' I think their perspective is warped. I never thought I'd be an NFL head coach. I just do the best 1 can. Those letters hit me wrong—they reflect that the men's energies are focused on getting a job rather than doing it, rather than performing. I hear sometimes that to be a good coach you have to be mean. I disagree, because the essential quality of a coach is to be a good teacher. Just because my personality is different from, say, Mike Ditka's doesn't mean a thing. What I always say is, 'Plan your work and work your plan.' If you have everything prepared, the rest takes care of itself.' "

It's odd that after you get Levy to address the most obvious football issues, you're left wondering not so much why his teams do what they do, but why this man is a football coach at all. It's a question that stumps even his wife. "I don't understand it," Fran says. "It's a mystery."

A professor, absolutely. A doctor, an accountant, a shrink, yes. A man of the cloth. Or a stand-up comic, one of those deadpan guys like Steven Wright, stunned at such things as the order of the letters in the alphabet. Levy listens to a lot of country and western music. Why? "I like the humor," he responds. He is obviously a caring, studious man. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Coe College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1950—"I don't know any dumb Phi Beta Kappas," says Lamar Hunt. "Do you?"—then enrolled at Harvard Law School but realized after six weeks that torts and briefs were not for him. He switched fields, earning a master's degree in English history from Harvard in 1951. So how did he wind up as an NFL coach? He had been a starting halfback in high school and at Coe, and something about the game simply stuck to him. infiltrating his core like a virus. When Marv called his dad back in Chicago to say that he felt compelled to be a coach of the roughest of games, Sam Levy was silent a good while before responding simply, "Be a good one."

"I played the game. I enjoy it, I know it, I like the people," Levy says to explain his calling. At Coe he had been drawn to the logic and intellect of coach Dick Clausen. Football may have been a hard game, but under Clausen it was also a controlled and scientific game, one that responded as much to order and precision as to brute force. These were notions that appealed to the teacher in Levy. And there was a coach at Oklahoma who absolutely mesmerized the young man. His name was Bud Wilkinson, and he would set football records with a quiet grace that was almost professorial, very nearly priestly.

To say that Levy was obsessed with Wilkinson's teachings would not be overstating the case. On summer vacations from Coe, Levy would drive his old jalopy to wherever Wilkinson was giving a seminar or clinic. He would take a seat somewhere in the stands and listen as if he were Plato studying Socrates. "Reno, Missoula, the Black Hills of South Dakota; Whitewater, Wisconsin; Canton, Ohio—I'd go wherever Wilkinson went," says Levy. "After he saw me for about the eighth time, he looked shocked. 'Are you here again?' he said. Through the years I probably saw him 75 to 100 times."

In Wilkinson. Levy saw a man with a makeup like his own, an even-tempered, meticulous, learned teacher. "Wilkinson was quiet and low-toned and had a great knack for encouraging players," Levy says. "He'd find something positive in a player, even the smallest thing, and jump at it. You'd see the player's self-esteem go up. Wilkinson did nothing for show, nothing superfluous. He could get right to the kernel of it. Good night, his drills' were precise! His practices were short."

And so are Levy's. "I would guess we have the shortest practices in the NFL," he states proudly. Indeed, Bill practices are legendary for their brevity and effectiveness. Some preseason sessions last just 70 minutes.

"Before Marv came, I used to get here at 7:30 a.m. and not leave until 6," says veteran Bill center Kent Hull. "Now it's 9 to 3:30, and we accomplish even more."

The strategy Levy uses is that of the professional manager whose workers need to be aimed, not meddled with. He doesn't fire up, he teaches. "I was at an evening practice back in 1984 when Marv was the head coach of the Chicago Blitz of the USFL," says veteran sportswriter Bill Jauss of the Chicago Tribune. "The team was terrible, because George Allen had taken most of the good players down to become the Arizona Wranglers, and Marv was left with rookies and culls. But after practice he politely lectured a rookie punt rusher, telling him that if he took the proper stance, took precisely six steps, leaped toward the kicker in a certain manner and watched the ball into his hands, he would surely block a kick in the scrimmage against the Wranglers the next day. It was just like a teacher saying, 'Here is what the final exam is going to be.' He said, 'Do precisely what I say and you will block a punt." And the kid did."

Levy was born in 1925, though somewhere in the late '70s or early '80s he got younger, and now he gives his age as 66. It's easy to understand why—the NFL is not a codger-friendly organization, and a man of Levy's bearing should not be bound by a standard clock. ""He was pretty old-sounding even in the mid-'70s," laughs Hunt. At any rate, even at 66, Levy is the oldest coach in the league, and. as he puts it, "there's not a generation gap between me and my players, there's a two-generation gap."

He has a hearing aid, but he doesn't wear it. "It's great in a movie," he says. "But I don't use it at something like a party, because it amplifies everything." He ponders the hearing situation a moment. "We have an alarm system in our house," he notes. "I can't hear it, but fortunately it has a light."

When the Bills were testing new speakers at Rich Stadium this year during a team practice, the sound was just loud enough so that it was audible but sub-Marv. "We were all dancing to the Steve Miller Band," says Hull affectionately.

No. 6. "Hey, Kelly, leave some champagne for everybody else."

Let's take a moment and list Levy's coaching jobs, all of which came after he spent three years in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Stateside, working as a meteorologist because of his nearsightedness: 1951-52, St. Louis (Mo.) Country Day School; 1953-55, Coe College; 1956-59, University of New Mexico: 1960-63. University of California; 1964-68, College of William and Mary; 1969, Philadelphia Eagles; 1970, Los Angeles Rams; 1971-72, Washington Redskins; 1973-77, Montreal Alouettes (CFL); 1978-82, Kansas City Chiefs; 1984, Chicago Blitz; 1986-present, Buffalo Bills.

Some of those jobs were as an assistant coach, and some were as the head man, but almost everywhere Levy went, he improved his team's record; and until he got to the Bills, he never had an offensive talent like quarterback Jim Kelly.

Together the two make an unlikely team—Levy calmly putting the keys to his trademark hurry-up offense in the hand of this most aggressive, confident and focused of drivers. "Marv is just a quality, class guy," says Kelly. "He tells all these old war stories, but they all mean something."

Levy knows that if he didn't have a self-motivated player like Kelly at the throttle, his own inability to be a rah-rah guy might prove fatal. He could never talk a reluctant quarterback into running an offense that is as frenzied and nerve-racking and potent as a big dragster. "Other coaches have told me they've tried the hurry-up, but their quarterbacks don't like it," says Levy. "But Jim does. He's swashbuckling. He believes he's going to win."

Kelly's special status on the team makes him a critical factor in the clubhouse, where the Bickering Bills of a few years ago almost came apart. To say there are big and fragile egos on the Bills is to say Lake Eric is wet. Levy never berates players publicly, never embarrasses them, and he'll even let them play jokes on him if it makes them happy. Two years ago rookies and free agents were stunned to see Thurman Thomas toss a clump of grass at the coach's head as a gag. "We love to pull jokes on Marv," says Kelly. "Once, we had this big piece of paper with circles on it, and I said, 'Marv, these circles are trees. Take a pen, close your eyes, and see if you can ski from point A to point B without hitting a tree.' He said, 'I know I'm in for trouble, but I'll do it.' He moved his pen along, and then I smacked him right in the forehead. 'Geez, Marv, you hit a tree!' I said. I hit him pretty hard. He probably went to his office and took some Nuprin."

"That absentminded-professor stuff is more contrived than true," notes Bill Polian, formerly the Bills' general manager and now G.M. of the Carolina Panthers. "He uses his lack of hipness for effect. I remember before the Pasadena Super Bowl [1993]. he told the players they didn't need to go on those shows like David Letterman and Jay 'Leeno.' Just for effect." Polian is a huge Levy' fan, calling him the "best teacher I've ever seen." He marvels that Levy never allows his ego to interfere with the team's plans. "Never, never, never," Polian says. "You look forward to coming to work with Marv, because it's always so positive."

But do the players always understand Levy's shtick? "To see Marv try to give a pep talk is like watching a librarian get all fired up," says former Bill nosetackle Fred Smerlas, not a Levy fan." "Your eyes glaze over. I'd write down his words and then ask him the definitions. Chuck Knox used to say '——him where he breathes!' to get you up. Marv tells you about some 1902 war."

Most of Smerlas's attitude springs from the less-than-up-front way he felt Levy left him unprotected under Plan B in 1990. "I wanted him to tell me face-to-face what was happening," Smerlas says. "For a while I wanted to head-butt him to death." Smerlas shrugs. "But who wants to tell a 300-pound Greek he has to go?"

Even Steve Tasker, Levy's beloved special teams ace—and the first player Levy acquired after replacing fired Bill coach Hank Bullough with seven games to go in the 1986 season—acknowledges that Levy has one glaring shortcoming: "He's not a strong motivator, and he covers himself by saying, if I have to motivate you on game day, then I've got the wrong team.' Still, there are times when we need to get chewed out. But Marv doesn't have it in him to do it." And yet, Tasker adds, Levy knows this. His defensive coordinator is Walt Corey, a man who never found a butt he couldn't blister. "Walt will just scream," says Tasker. "You need that on defense. But offense, that's more subdued and cerebral. You have to be on your toes, reading defenses. There really isn't time for ranting and raving."

No. 5. "What do you mean there's two more quarters?"

Part of the deal is that Levy is just an old-fashioned gentleman. Rusty Jones, his strength and conditioning coordinator, gets the players into tip-top, low-fat shape, and Levy teaches them what to do. It's that simple. "Why would players respect you if you're just brutal?" asks Levy. In fact, Levy's teams are always well rested and full of pep. "I think we have beaten teams because their enthusiasm has been dulled or, physiologically, they've left it elsewhere." says Levy. He hates scrimmages, senseless contact and dangerous drills. "I liked Bear Bryant, and I watched his practices at Alabama," Levy continues. "They weren't Bataan death marches. Paul Brown used to say, 'The coach who scrimmages all the time doesn't know what to practice.' "

So what about the full-metal skirmishes encouraged by a coach like, say. Buddy Ryan? "As Bobby Dodd from Georgia Tech once said, 'The longer it's been since a coach played, the more he forgets what it's like to play,' " Levy says.

One of Levy's heroes when he was a kid was Joe Louis. The Brown Bomber intrigued him partly because of his skill at a dangerous game but most of all because of his modesty and security as a man. "After a win he'd say, 'Just another lucky night,' " Levy says. "But you knew it wasn't. In football your players shouldn't have to prove their manhood every day. As Bud Wilkinson used to say, 'You can make a player prove he's tough so many times that finally he'll no longer enjoy the game.' "

It is far better, in Levy's philosophy, to have a coach who is thinking than a coach who is testing. "There are so many drill sergeants, and of course there are those with no control." says Hull. "But Marv is such a diplomat. He won't humiliate you, but he will call you to the office and fine you. He can reprimand someone like Bruce Smith without embarrassing him."

Levy keeps Tasker and fellow special teams expert Mark Pike on the Bills even though neither is a very skilled position player. Because Levy has allowed them to become adept at their phases of the game, they have won far more games for the Bills than ""skilled" bench warmers could have. Why don't other coaches use their rosters this way? "I couldn't tell you," says Tasker.

No. 4. "Let's plan exactly how you're gonna dump the Gatorade on me."

No. 3. "O.K., boys, get out there and start sucking."

No. 2. "Wait a minute. If we win, we have to go to Disneyland."

Before a game last season Levy promised his boys that if they won, he would sing a pertinent song to them. They won, and he warbled a ditty called It Ain't What You Do, It's the Way What You Do It, by that happening band Bob Crosby and the Bobcats. What arc Generation X-ers to make of this? They also hear Levy sing raunchy numbers from World War II days and turn the misadventures of Adolf Hitler into a lesson about away games. "I reminded them how Hitler almost conquered the world," says Levy. "But then he got bogged down in Russia. And you know what his problem was? He couldn't win on the road!"

Polian says it is just such enthusiasm combined with a complete absence of pretense that makes Levy the outstanding coach he is. Back in 1979, when he was with the Chiefs, Levy wrote a masterly season-ending report on the status of the entire organization, from players to coaches to facilities. He recommended to Kansas City management not only that quarterback Steve Fuller spend more time developing his throwing skills but also that the Chiefs get a "better headset and telephone setup at our games" and that they adopt a good fight song ""to fully capture fan and city spirit." Levy wrote the fight song himself and presented it to Hunt, and the Chiefs sang it for several years. "This is a guy," notes Hunt, "who pays attention to detail."

Proof that all of this works, says Polian, is that the Bills keep coming back. Year alter year. They lost their first Super Bowl by a point, the second by 13 points, the third in a rout and the fourth by a depressing 17 points after leading at the half 13-6. But they always come back to the Big Game. Drive for Five in '95! It's painful, but it is, in truth, amazing. "That resiliency is a direct reflection of what Marv Levy has taught all his players," says Polian. "They may not realize it now, but in 15 or 20 years, when we have our first Super Bowl reunion, they'll be saying, 'This was a unique man—he taught us how to be champions.' "

At the Bills' annual Kickoff Luncheon at the Buffalo Convention Center in late August, Levy leads his troops into the hall, looking like a tailor presenting the models for a big-and-tall men's catalog. The sellout crowd gazes with admiration, high spirits and, yes, a bit of concern. Can Buffalo truly be jinxed? Why can't Americans realize that second place is still a hell of a place? Will the Bills be remembered, as Smerlas fears they will, "not just for losing the Super Bowls, but for being like a circus act"?

The announcer proclaims. "Only one man in the world can say he coached his team to four consecutive conference championships: Marv Levy!"

The coach steps up to the microphone, adjusts his glasses and his notes, and speaks. "The feeling of exultation or of being down lasts about two weeks," he says. "As Rudyard Kipling said, triumph and disaster are both impostors."

He looks at his players in rows at long tables on either side of him. "Ability without character will lose," he says. He introduces his assistant coaches, apologizing at one point for missing an offensive coach because, he says, "I've got lights shining in my eyes."

Then he confronts the question one more time: "Are we going to the Super Bowl again?" He clearly is irked, the professor who has heard one too many times from the stupid frat kid in the back of the hall. "Who the hell knows who's going!" Levy says. "There are about six or seven teams in each conference that could go."

This isn't exactly what the folks want to hear. Wouldn't Jimmy Johnson promise something? Wouldn't Don Shula say something firm and inspirational?

"Is our goal to win?" Levy asks. "No!" he bellows. "Our goal is to develop our team, to earn what we get, to learn, to develop unselfish attitudes. If we achieve that, the result is that we'll win."

He finishes to polite applause. He says the things that the great teaching coaches say—men like John Wooden, who almost never used the word win when talking to his UCLA basketball squads. Do what you are supposed to do, and success will follow. But do not blindly pursue success. It is an almost Zen-like directive, a circular and elusive one, and it is one that does not wildly stimulate eager fans.

Later Fran Levy will wonder about Marv's speech to the boosters. She sat quietly and listened to it all, and when he asked her afterward, "Did it sound like a lecture?" she said. "Yes, it did."

She met Marv when he was coaching the Blitz. She was a secretary and lived in suburban Des Plaines, near the high school field where the Blitz practiced. Fran and Marv were married in February 1993, both for the second time. Fran knew nothing about football, but she rejoiced at her bonding with a man she describes as private, even-keeled, happy "and so cute." But she thinks that a lot of people don't appreciate him for the good man he is. She knows they don't appreciate his speeches. She says, "I wanted to tell him, 'Don't say that. People won't understand the part about achieving this and this and then it leads to this." They will probably say, 'Yeah, that's just what we thought—you don't want to win a Super Bowl!' "

No. 1. "Hey, fellas, more fudge?"

Marv Levy has no children of his own, though Fran has a 26-year-old daughter, Kimberly, to whom the coach freely offers advice. Before Kimberly went on a vacation to Las Vegas, Marv, dusting off an old one, asked her if she'd heard about the man who drove there in a $20,000 Pontiac. "I thought, Uh-oh, a long story," recalls Fran. "Then he says, 'Yeah, he came home in a half-million-dollar Greyhound bus." "

"He is a very happy man," Fran says. "He can sing the words to every college fight song ever written. He sings when he's shaving and in the car. He can go on and on." But there was that time last spring when they were driving through Washington, D.C., and Marv had been cranky about little things, and Fran wondered what was wrong. There was a button he couldn't button, a bridge they missed, a traffic jam they got stuck in. "I finally stopped him and said, 'You're so mad. Why? Are you unhappy in the marriage? I'm never going on a vacation with you again. We used to have so much fun.' "

The coach looked at his wife for a moment and then said, "Did you ever think I might be frustrated over the loss of the last four Super Bowls?"

Saying that seemed to cure him of his mourning. He became Teacher Marv once more, but Fran is now plagued by a severe case of the what-ifs. "I get angry that the players didn't win a Super Bowl for him" she states. "I told him he should get mad at them and tell them, "You should have won for me! You let me down!' " She sighs and smiles, amused at and proud of his response. "He said, 'Never!' The thought of it amazed him."

Not long after she made her suggestions, Marv Levy came to his beloved bride and said, "Franny, don't tell me how to coach."

She doesn't anymore. She simply says, "He's such a good guy. I don't know how he can be. But god bless him."





Super Bowl blues: Levy held on for Norwood's kick in '91 (above), ripped a ref in '92, suffered in '93 (top) and joined Johnson in '94, to Buffalo's delight.



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Levy (top, right) went from running relays at Coe to running the football team at Country Day (far left).



Levy's affinity for special teams goes back two decades to his two seasons as a Redskin assistant.



The Bills' No. 1 fitness fanatic needs no sign to jog his memory about the team's accomplishments.



A fan named Fran is Marv's biggest supporter both at home and at the football stadium.