Levy doesn't regret leaving law books for playbooks


January 25, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

TAMPA,FLA. — TAMPA, Fla. -- He was going to be a lawyer. He was a Phi PTC Beta Kappa graduate of Coe College in Iowa, and Harvard Law School had accepted him. This was in 1951. Marv Levy was walking Harvard Square and taking classes, installed on a career track leading to fortune, prestige and an obituary in The New York Times. There was only one problem. He wanted to be a football coach.

"Finally," he said yesterday, a smile on his Jason Robards face, "I came to the realization that I wasn't going to be happy unless I tried it. The hardest part was making the phone call to my father. When I told him I was going to be a football coach, there was this long pause. He finally said, 'You better be a good one.' "

It was just that football seemed more an avocation than a vocation to his father, an ex-Marine who survived the Depression selling produce on the south side of Chicago. The skepticism was not unfounded. Levy, who'd played halfback at Coe, left Harvard after getting a master's degree in English history and took a job as the assistant junior varsity coach at St. Louis Country Day School. It was a long way from torts. His salary was $3,500.

He approached his new profession in lawyerly fashion, accumulating as much knowledge as possible. "I must have gone to a hundred clinics," he said. "I was just this kid out hustling. I followed Bud Wilkinson wherever he went. He looked down at one clinic and said, 'You, again?' "

That his abandonment of law school wound up a wise decision is evident these days, as Levy, 62, readies the Buffalo Bills for Sunday's Super Bowl -- "the game," he said, "for which I have been preparing all my life." The lazy conclusion to make is that this is the payoff for four decades of hard work. It isn't so. Levy didn't need this to substantiate his life as a coach. It long ago made him a happy man.

He has been an assistant or head coach for six pro teams in three leagues, the head man at three colleges. He has won championships and gotten fired, coached stars and slugs. The losing wasn't fun, and there was a fair amount of it, but the

challenge never waned, and, after wins and losses alike, the promise of next year always captured his whimsy. "It has," he said, "always been a stimulating process."

No one is saying he is a chalkboard genius suddenly uncovered; at the center of the Bills' success is sheer talent, not coaching acumen. Yet Levy has played a central part, drafted well, been organized and resourceful. It is his life's story. He just kept doing his best. This time, it mattered.

It wasn't always the case. He was fired after winning eight games in three years at California, and had one of the worst teams in the fly-by-night USFL, the Chicago Blitz, with whom he went 5-13 before the team folded.

"I was at Cal during the student movement (1960-63), and it was very hard to recruit," he said. "Any time you stepped into a house, you answered parents' questions for three hours. The Blitz offered a different hardship. They were absolutely devoid of funds. We took school buses to the airport. There was no toilet paper in the locker room."

For each misadventure, there were many successes, though. After a five-year run at William and Mary, he hooked up with George Allen, who became his mentor. He was a special-teams coach with the Rams and Redskins, went to a Super Bowl and learned from Allen "more than anything, how to enjoy this. No one had a greater love for the game."

He got his chance as a head coach in 1973, with the Montreal Alouettesof the Canadian Football League. "My first day," he said, "the owner, Sam Berger, said to me, 'Marv, you're going to love me as an owner. I don't know the first thing about football.' " He won two championships in five seasons. The Kansas City Chiefs hired him.

His Chiefs improved for four straight years, but never made the playoffs, and he was fired after the fifth year. He wound up doing color commentary back at Cal, bumming rides from reporters to games. He had gone back to the Alouettes as a general manager when the Bills hired him in 1986.

No illusions, please. He was hired because the Bills' new general manager was Bill Polian, who had been his general manager with the Blitz. But Polian admired Levy's organization and perspective, and particularly his enthusiasm. He is the oldest head coach in Super Bowl history, but full of vigor. "I get up at 5:30 every morning," he said, "but I'm not a candidate for burnout. I do no banquets. I do no clinics. I just coach the team. And I love it."

His players enjoy him. They kid about needing a dictionary when he gives a speech. He is fond of giving them history lessons. "One of my favorites was where Hitler lost the war because he couldn't win on the road," linebacker Darryl Talley said. When the Bills won their first-round playoff game two weeks ago, Levy broke into a post-game rendition of "One More River to Cross."

He has been a walking smile in a Super week of muted emotions, a man clearly thrilled to be here recounting the many turns of his life, even the blocked punt that gave his first team at St. Louis Country Day an undefeated season. "But I don't want to get too caught up in the thrill of this," he said. "I'll go back to the hotel tonight, study film and work on short-yardage situations. I've waited 40 years for this. I'm not going to cut any corners."

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