ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The night before a game, Marv Levy tells them war stories. No, not football war stories -- real war stories, World War II war stories. Stories about Adolf Hitler and his field marshals, Rommel and von Rundstedt, and the fall of the Third Reich. Stories about Gens. Patton and Bradley and Eisenhower, or the occupation of Paris, or the battle led by a Russian officer whose name no one on the team could pronounce.
Don't ask the Bills for the names or the dates or the locations in these stories; they can't remember them. "We don't know all that stuff," center Kent Hull said. "That's Marv's thing."
Inevitably, though, each story has a moral. Just last Saturday, the night before the Bills played the Chiefs, Levy finished his evening meeting with a tale of Hitler and a late-war Nazi plan. The moral for this one, Hull remembers, was quite simple: "Don't turn over the ball."
There have been other morals to other stories -- "hold the line of scrimmage," "stay focused," "don't get overconfident," -- each one easily relating to football, each one apt. And each one long, and fascinating, and filled with obscure information or facts. Still, though his players joke about having to bring dictionaries [and encylopedias] to practice, his message always gets through.
"It actually had a lot of credence, what he was saying," Hull said of last week's story, the details of which he already can't recall. "We may not remember the specifics, but we always get the point."
This is how Marv Levy teaches football. A 63-year-old Harvard graduate student-turned-football coach, Levy not only is a master of team organization and the no-huddle offense, but also the English language and the modern parable. An Ivy Leaguer in a blue-collar town and a blue-collar business, Levy often has been accused of being an anomaly -- a guy whose post-game news conferences shun four-letter words in favor of the 50-cent variety,
What he is, though, simply is a football coach, "a damn fine one," in the words of his offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda, whose blue jeans, cowboy boots and bottom lip full of chaw are more recognizable than Levy's language in the football world.
Levy has guided Buffalo into the AFC championship game for the third time in four seasons, and a win Sunday against the visiting Denver Broncos would put the Bills in the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year. He has been described as a hard worker and a meticulous organizer, the first guy to arrive in the morning and the last out, a guy who gives his players practice itineraries so perfectly arranged that not one minute is wasted on the field.
He also has been called kind, soft-spoken and respectful of his players -- descriptions that, in this world, generally are kind ways of saying a coach is "soft." But after leading the Bills to 47 wins over the past four seasons and their first Super Bowl appearance, Levy isn't one to draw criticism for the way he handles his team.
Except, that is, from a handful of bigots in Buffalo -- the type of people who recently sent Bruce Smith letters calling him a
"nigger" and labeling Levy "Marv the Jew."
TH "It bothered me a little, no question," Levy told a Toronto reporter
recently. "It's disappointing. . . but I know I can handle it. Most of this city is completely engrossed with the Bills. They are fantastically supportive. . . . I'm not about to let bigots spoil it for everyone else."
He learned that kind of tolerance from his father, Sam, who immigrated to Chicago as a child and ran a produce store for most of Marv's life.
"My father was a blue-collar man; he wasn't educated," Marv said in an effort to explain that he doesn't find much of a gap between himself and the typical Bills fan. "My dad always believed that whatever you do, just do it well."
Short, slender and silver-haired, Levy still doesn't look -- or talk -- like the average football coach, even after 40 years' experience and two NFL head coaching jobs (his first stint was at Kansas City from 1977 to '82).
"He has a great vocabulary," Bills offensive tackle Will Wolford said. "We've all figured out 'proclivity'. . . though it took a while, and I think it would be a lot easier if he just said 'tendency' instead."