Meet the Hall of Fame Class of 2001
Levy had hunch Hall would call
Class of 2001
Marv Levy recalls his first coaching job and the almost-mythical players of that time.
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Change of plans
Marv Levy talks about the day he told his father he decided to quit Harvard to coach football.
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Saturday, August 4, 2001
Marv Levy made his own history
By Greg Garber
CHICAGO -- Marv Levy, wearing a crisp suit and wielding even crisper diction, looks precisely like the college professor he very nearly became.
"In the darkest days of World War II," he begins in his best lecture-hall baritone, "Winston Churchill inspired the English people with words like, 'Let us brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for one thousand years, men will still say: This was their finest hour.' "
Levy is reciting Churchill, the man he believes was the preeminent historic figure of the 20th Century, for ESPN's cameras. As it turned out, Levy may have been the NFL's preeminent historic figure in the decade of the 1990s, when his Buffalo Bills won more games than any other team. Their finest hour? Reaching an unprecedented four straight Super Bowls, XXV-XXVIII -- a feat that probably never will be duplicated.
On Saturday, Aug. 4, the day before his 73rd birthday, Levy will be awarded a bronze bust of himself in Canton, Ohio and enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"When I heard my name announced, I was stunned," Levy said in January, the day the vote was announced in Tampa, Fla. "Earlier, I heard the words of Deacon Jones, who said that from the Hall of Fame team you can't be cut, you can't be traded and you can't quit. Did he say anything about being fired?"
In 12 seasons in Buffalo (1986-97) and five (1978-82) in Kansas City, Levy compiled a record of 154-120. That was No. 10 on the all-time list when he retired, ahead of people named Walsh, Lombardi, Gibbs, Madden, Parcells and Stram.
Levy, slight and silver-haired, was a teacher and a communicator. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Coe College, Levy spent three weeks at Harvard Law School before deciding that coaching was his true love. Still, he earned a master's degree in English at Harvard and taught history and language while he learned his Xs and Os. Somehow, the World War II anecdotes and the Churchillian exhortations to never, never, never give up found their mark. His players sometimes rolled their eyes, but they always got the message.
"Teaching," Levy says, "is very important. The nature of your personality isn't that important. Lombardi was very extraverted, very bombastic. Landry very quiet, reserved. Both were great teachers and great coaches."
"Ronald Reagan was dubbed The Great Communicator," said Colts president Bill Polian, who was the Bills' general manager for seven of Levy's 12 seasons with the team. "Marv ought to be dubbed The Great Communicator 1A. He can reach any audience, any time, on virtually any subject."
|Marv Levy, ever an emotional catalyst for the Bills, inspired his players with his return to the sidelines after undergoing cancer surgery in 1995.|
Said former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly: "He always had the right things to say at the right time. His timing was just unbelievable. He brought Winston Churchill into it, Patton ... But he was always able to say it in a way we were able to understand."
Perseverance was Levy's mantra and, eventually, the Bills came to embody his gritty resilience.
Buffalo already had lost consecutive Super Bowls, to the Giants and Redskins, when they found themselves in the AFC Wildcard Game against the Houston Oilers in January, 1993. Trailing by the score 35-3 in the third quarter, the Bills' playoff run was, quite obviously, over. But then a curious thing happened: With backup quarterback Frank Reich under center, the Bills scored four touchdowns in that quarter and ultimately prevailed in overtime, 41-38, on Steve Christie's 32-yard field goal.
It was the greatest comeback in NFL playoff history and it allowed the Bills to return to the Super Bowl, which produced what Polian calls the signature play of the Marv Levy reign. With the score hopelessly out of reach -- the Dallas Cowboys would win, 52-17 -- Cowboys defensive lineman Leon Lett recovered a Reich fumble and rumbled 64 yards for what appeared to be an insult-to-injury touchdown. But, just as he passed the Bills' 1-yard line, Lett had the ball knocked
||He always had the right things to say at the right time. His timing was just unbelievable. He brought Winston Churchill into it, Patton ... But he was always able to say it in a way we were able to understand. ”
||— Former Bills QB Jim Kelly
from his hand by Bills wide receiver Don Beebe, the fastest Bill on the field, who had sprinted from the other end.
"A direct reflection of Marv Levy, and I'm sure Don Beebe would be the first to tell you that," Kelly said. "We were getting blown out and for him to do that ... it sends chills down my body every time I see it, because Don Beebe reflected the Buffalo Bills, the whole attitude of the team, in just one play."
Says Levy: "It had no impact on the outcome of the game, but it had a great impact on the rest of the lives of those football players to see that example."
Like Bud Grant and the Minnesota Vikings, who lost all four Super Bowls they appeared in, albeit during a span of eight seasons, the Bills are universally viewed as losers. This, of course, isn't true. In some ways, Buffalo's ability to return year after year is more impressive than, say, one-year wonders like the 1985 Chicago Bears or the 1999 St. Louis Rams.
Levy admits the gaping hole on his resume sometimes bothers him.
"We never believed we would not win a Super Bowl," he said. "We were intent to get there and win one. We didn't do it, and I feel a little bit like Don Quixote here. It would be something that I would be very proud of, I would be happy and say, 'Yeah, that is great.'
"But to say my life is unfulfilled, no. The journey has been too much fun, too gratifying, to say that because we didn't win a game all of that means nothing. Absolutely not. It means a lot to me."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Buffalo Bills receiver Don Beebe, playing with a never-give-up attitude instilled by Marv Levy, prevented Leon Lett from scoring a touchdown late in Super Bowl VII.|