Read an Excerpt
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Buffalo Bills
Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from Buffalo Bills History
By Scott Pitoniak
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 Scott Pitoniak
All rights reserved.
When Marv Levy was hired to replace Hank Bullough midway through the 1986 season, many believed the new Buffalo Bills coach would wind up being a bust rather than receiving one.
The smart money was on his NFL career dying in the coaches' graveyard that was Buffalo rather than him being immortalized with pro football legends such as Lombardi and Shula in Canton, Ohio.
Not only was Levy walking into what seemed like a hopeless situation — the Bills had won just six of their previous 43 games — but he was coming to town with an uninspiring head coaching resume that included a 31–42 record in five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.
The fact that Levy was 61 at the time only added to the belief that he would be nothing more than an interim coach, destined to follow in the forgettable footsteps of Bullough, Kay Stephenson, and Harvey Johnson.
"There was a lot of skepticism on the part of the fans and the media, and I understood that because I had made some coaching decisions in the past that you might say didn't exactly work out," said Bills owner Ralph Wilson, chuckling. "But I had a strong feeling things would be different under Marv. He was a very, very impressive person, extremely intelligent. He had a great knowledge of the game of football and a great sense of humor. I just had this intuition that he would be the perfect person to turn things around. I really believed he would hit a home run for us."
Try a grand slam.
Levy, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001, fit the Bills perfectly. Under his guidance, they won six division titles and four conference championships, led the NFL in attendance six consecutive seasons, and made it to the Super Bowl an unprecedented four straight times.
And although they lost each of those Bowl games, they earned the respect of the sports world for their ability to bounce back from disappointment season after season after season.
The source of their resiliency was no secret. It came from Levy, who staged a remarkable comeback from prostate cancer surgery.
"I think you take on the personality of your head coach, and we took on Marv's," said Jim Kelly, the quarterback of those great Bills teams. "He taught us it was OK to mourn those losses for awhile, but then it was time to pick yourself up and move on."
There were many lessons Levy provided. His use of words as big as former offensive tackle Howard "House" Ballard resulted in furrowed brows and sent players and reporters scrambling for dictionaries.
"My vocabulary improved tenfold playing for Marv," center Kent Hull once joked. "There was a whole lot of head-shaking going on when Marv used those ten-dollar words you've never heard of. Heck, for all I knew he could have been making those words up."
Levy, who was big on war analogies, once alluded to the German army's overconfidence during World War II and the importance of "crossing one river at a time, like Hannibal."
"To be honest," Levy replied when asked about the metaphor, "I don't know how many of these guys even knew what World War II was, and they probably think Hannibal is an offensive tackle for the Jets."
They probably didn't know much about their coach's history either. But had they done some research on Levy, they would have discovered the embodiment of the American dream. The son of Jewish immigrants who came to America from England at the dawn of the 20th century, Marvin Daniel Levy grew up on Chicago's south side. His father, Sam Levy, ran a produce market and instilled in Marv the importance of a strong work ethic and a good sense of humor. From his mother, Ida Levy, Marv developed a love for literature and history.
Sam Levy established himself as the Windy City's top high school basketball player in the early 1900s, but his dreams of college were dashed when he was drafted by the army to fight in World War I.
Marv inherited his father's athletic genes and wound up excelling in football and track in high school and at Coe College in Iowa. He also excelled in the classroom, earning his Phi Beta Kappa key and admission to Harvard Law School. But after a month at Harvard, Levy realized he had no desire to become an attorney. His heart was in teaching and coaching. He transferred to Harvard's graduate school, where he earned a degree in English history. From there, he landed a job at St. Louis Country Day School in Missouri, where he began a coaching odyssey that would last 47 years.
Along the way, he would coach football at Coe College, the University of New Mexico, the University of California (Berkeley), and the College of William & Mary.
Levy's first NFL job came in 1969 as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles. A year later, George Allen hired him as the special-teams coach of the Los Angeles Rams. His years under Allen in L.A. and with the Washington Redskins would further shape his coaching philosophy.
After the Redskins lost the Super Bowl in January 1973, Levy took the head-coaching job with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League and led them to two Grey Cup titles in five years.
His success caught the attention of Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, who hired him to resuscitate a Kansas City team that had been 2–12 in 1977. Slowly but surely, Levy turned things around there, improving the Chiefs to 9–7 by 1981. But the NFL players' strike the following year tore the team asunder, and Levy was fired. At the time, Chuck Knox was leaving Buffalo to take a job as head coach with the Seattle Seahawks, and Levy interviewed for the Bills vacancy. Marv had an excellent interview, but Wilson opted instead to promote Bills offensive coordinator Kay Stephenson.
"I was extremely impressed with Marv then, but I thought I owed it to Kay," Wilson said. "It was one of those 51–49 decisions. Nothing against Kay, but in retrospect, I made the wrong decision. I should have hired Marv then and there."
After a year with the Chicago Blitz of the now-defunct United States Football League and a year out of football, Levy headed back to Montreal to become the Alouettes' director of football operations in 1986.
"I didn't know if I would ever get another opportunity to coach in the NFL," he said. "I knew it would be a long shot."
Wilson replaced Stephenson with Hank Bullough four games into the 1985 season, but the losing continued — even after Jim Kelly joined the roster before the 1986 season kicked off. After the Bills stumbled to a 2–7 start in Bullough's first full season, Wilson found himself in the market for yet another head coach.
"I finally got it right in 1986," Wilson said. "When I was thinking about replacing Hank, I called Lamar to see what he felt about Marv. He said, 'Ralph, I never should have fired him.' That was good enough for me."
Levy couldn't believe his good fortune.
"I was licking my chops because I saw Buffalo as a sleeping giant," he said. "Talk about being a lucky guy. I walk into my first meeting and there's a young Jim Kelly and a young Bruce Smith and a young Andre Reed. Much of the puzzle was already constructed by the time I arrived. And I had a general manager [Bill Polian] who was an astute judge of talent and an owner who was hungry and committed to winning. If we avoided catastrophic injuries, I believed we could turn it around in a hurry."
And they did.
Thanks to shrewd trades and drafting, which added the likes of Cornelius Bennett, Thurman Thomas, and Shane Conlan, the Bills reached the AFC Championship Game by Levy's second full season. By his fourth full season, they were in Super Bowl XXV, where they lost a heartbreaking 20–19 decision after Scott Norwood's 47-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide right.
Three consecutive Super Bowl defeats would follow.
"I would have loved to have won at least one of them, but life goes on," Levy said. "The last thing I want my players to feel is that their careers were somehow less significant because they didn't win a Super Bowl. There is something to be said for making it that close to the summit of the mountain four straight times."
His corny, self-deprecating sense of humor, along with his sense of fairness and the courage he displayed while missing three games to have his cancerous prostate removed, endeared him to players, coaches, reporters, fans, and club executives. His ability to laugh at himself and with others helped him flourish in a profession that often devours its practitioners.
Levy loved to tell jokes at team meetings. He often quoted Churchill or Roosevelt or some other historical figure.
"There is a method to his madness," Thomas said during one of Levy's final seasons as coach. "He does and says things for a reason. When you really think about what he says you see how it pertains to what the team or you are going through. He's not just book-smart; he's people-smart."
He obviously was football-smart, too. Levy's teams went 123–78 and won six divisional titles and four conference titles. Twice, Levy was named NFL Coach of the Year. He coached the Bills until age 72, tying him with Chicago legend "Papa Bear" George Halas for the record as the oldest coach in league history.
When he retired following the 1997 season, he wrote his memoirs and worked as a network television football analyst. Though he itched to coach again, no one would give him a shot because they believed he was too old.
After the Bills' meltdown under General Manager Tom Donahoe and Head Coach Mike Mularkey during the 2005 season, Wilson was looking to shake things up. He asked his old friend Levy if he would be interested in returning to the team as general manager, and Marv jumped at the opportunity. The in-with-the-old, out-with-the-new approach initially was criticized, but it started to look brilliant as the season progressed.
At the ripe old age of 80, Levy pumped new life into the franchise by hiring a head coach who was similar to him in many ways. Ivy League- educated Dick Jauron brought a sense of organization and confidence to the team, and helped J.P. Losman develop into a stable quarterback. Though they finished just 7–9, the Bills were in playoff contention until the final two weeks of the regular season.
Wilson couldn't be more pleased with the job Levy has done.
"I've had some coaches here who treated me as if they owned the team," he said. "They didn't want me around; they acted like Julius Caesar. Marv's not that way at all. He is a man of great humility, not one of those big-me, little-you kind of guys. He has a great sense of humor, great intellect, and a wonderful way with people."
Those who wondered if Levy would be up to the demanding task at his age have been silenced. Levy remains in remarkable shape. He occasionally cites studies at USC and Tufts that indicate work is the best way to ward off the deleterious effects of aging. "Hell, Marv's in better shape than half the players in the league," Thomas said. "His mind's as sharp as it was when I first met him. He seems to be as driven and motivated as he's ever been."
The history buff also can find plenty of historical precedence for not placing age-related restrictions on people. Levy could talk about how Albert Schweitzer was running a hospital at age 89. Or how Michelangelo was still painting at 88. Or how Benjamin Franklin helped write the United States Constitution at 81. Or how George Burns was still making 'em laugh at 100.
Marv Levy's Hall of Fame Acceptance Speech
For as long as he can remember, Marv Levy has admired Winston Churchill. He loved listening to old broadcasts of the late British prime minister's speeches. He was always inspired by the beauty of Churchill's words, the power of his message. "To me, he is the greatest orator that I've been able to identify," Levy said. "I think he was the most prominent historical figure of the 20 century. He was rarely wrong. All through the 1930s, he was warning us about Hitler and he was considered a voice in the wilderness. He rallied a totally defeated people in World War II. He made a great statement at the end of the war when he said, 'It was the British people who had the heart of a lion. I was fortunate enough to provide the roar.' And he did."
For 12 years, Levy provided the roar for the Buffalo Bills. And on Saturday, August 4, 2001, on the sunburned steps of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, the winningest coach in franchise history provided it again with Churchill-like impact and eloquence. In accepting induction into football's most exclusive fraternity, Levy delivered a speech his idol surely would have enjoyed — a speech full of wit, wisdom, and just the right touch of humor. In 141/2 minutes, he hit on the high points of an extraordinary journey and the people who made it possible. To paraphrase Churchill, this very well may have been Levy's finest hour. Here's Marv's speech from that historic day.
Thank you very much. Thank you.
It's been a long trip from the corner of 71 Street and Stony Island Avenue on the south side of Chicago to Canton, Ohio. It's taken me 76 years. But in the words of an old song, I wouldn't have missed it for the world, because on every step of this joyous journey, I've been accompanied by some remarkable companions.
Many of them are here today, and although there are others who are unable to be here, I'll always know exactly where to find every one of you — right here in my heart forever.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is a hallowed institution, and I feel some indescribable emotions today upon becoming an inductee along with these six other men who've contributed so much to the game we all revere. Our welcome in Canton by everyone here has been overwhelming. Thank you for making this such a memorable day in my life. I'm grateful to the Hall of Fame board of selectors, those respected members of the national media — including Buffalo's Larry Felser — for allowing me to join the company of those who have entered this hall before me.
When I first walked out onto the practice field as a high school assistant football coach exactly a half-century ago next month, men like Jim Thorpe, Bronko Nagurski, Sid Luckman, and Marion Motley were mythical gods. They still are, and I tread this ground with great reverence for them and for all who reside here. Never did I dream that someday I might be invited to share these same lodgings with them.
How could it happen? Well, it's because of some wondrous people, without whose love, abilities, and counsel I'd not be standing here today. My father Sam, by his lifelong example, displayed for me the virtues of an honest day's work and of great personal courage.
You as avid football fans undoubtedly have witnessed many exciting runs from scrimmage. But the greatest run I ever knew of was by my father, who during World War I, along with his comrades from the storied Fourth Marine Brigade, raced several hundred yards into withering machine-gun fire, across the wheat fields at Belleau Wood in France. Their valor on that June day in 1918 succeeded in halting the German army advance just 25 miles from Paris.
He was my hero even before I was born. One day many years later I telephoned my father to tell him I was leaving Harvard Law School and that I wanted to be a football coach.
Thirty seconds of painful silence followed, and then the old Marine said simply, "Be a good one!"
I hope I haven't disappointed him.
My dear mother Ida enjoyed more peaceful pursuits, and although she never went beyond first grade in elementary school, she'd read the complete works of Shakespeare and countless others. And from her I acquired an appreciation of literature and of the worthy deeds which great literature inspires. Both Sam and Ida have been gone for many years now, but I feel their presence with me here today. And because of them I have my sweet sister Marilyn, who is indeed here to share this occasion with me. In her you'll find the best qualities of our parents. Lucky lady.
Today, fond memories are flashing through my mind. I still recall the fearsome exhortations — look it up, Thurman — of my high school coach, Nate Wasserman, and another great Chicago high school coach, Joe Kupcinet. I remember my teammates at South Shore High School, and I remember with pride those 21 classmates whom I joined when we all enlisted in the Army Air Corps on the day after we graduated high school in 1943.
"Nothing can stop the Army Air Corps!" I told you I'd sing up here, fellas.
Nineteen of us came home after the war. The other three remain forever young. Two close friends from my high school days are here today — Herb Melnick and Nick Kladis. What great friends!
I remember my teammates at Coe College, and I remember with affection my college football coach, Dick Clausen. He showed me what a noble profession coaching can be. It was my privilege to play for Dick Clausen and later to serve on his staff at my alma mater and then at the University of New Mexico, where I got to coach Don Perkins, who became the first in that string of great Dallas Cowboys running backs. I remember fondly the warmhearted eloquence of a brilliant educator, Davis Y. Paschall, president of the College of William & Mary.
As a head coach in professional football, I've worked with three different owners, men of impeccable integrity. First was Sam Berger of the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League. The two Grey Cup championships I shared with that distinguished gentleman, with those superb players and uplifting fans in Montreal, leave me with treasured memories. Merci, mon ami.
In 1978 Lamar Hunt, an NFL legend, hired me to coach the Kansas City Chiefs and players like Tom Condon, Fuzzy Kremer, and Joe Delaney. I will always value my association with Lamar and the fine people in Kansas City.
And then there is Buffalo's Ralph Wilson. I worked for him for 12 glorious years. But he wasn't my boss. He was my friend, and he remains my friend. His contributions to this game are unbounded. He deserves to be enshrined here in Canton, and may that day come soon.
The rookie general manager who brought this then-out-of-work 61-year-old coach 18 years his senior to Buffalo was Bill Polian, who honors me by being my presenter today. Together Bill and I decided to employ some obscure USFL scout as our director of player personnel. His name was John Butler.
Bill Polian and John Butler, the two best general managers in football. Smart, honest, witty, energetic, astute, and incredibly capable. To them and to personnel directors Bob Ferguson, A.J. Smith, Dwight Adams, Norm Pollom, and their excellent staff of scouts, I am indebted for that parade of talented, high-character players whom I am so proud to have coached.
Excerpted from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Buffalo Bills by Scott Pitoniak. Copyright © 2007 Scott Pitoniak. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.