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Former Bills coach Marv Levy turns 90 on Monday

Marv Levy will become just the seventh man to present at least four members of the Hall of Fame. AP Photo/Bill Wippert

Marv Levy and several of his former Buffalo Bills players will gather in Canton, Ohio, later this week to witness the induction of former Bills general manager Bill Polian into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The gathering will not only serve as a celebration of Polian's career, but will also mark a milestone for Levy, who turned 90 on Monday.

Levy retired after the 1997 season, when he served as the NFL's oldest head coach at 72. Since then, Levy has presented three of his former players -- Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed -- to the Hall of Fame.

On Saturday, Levy will present Polian for induction, becoming just the seventh man to introduce at least four members of the Hall of Fame to Canton.

I recently caught up with Polian, who now serves as an ESPN NFL Front Office Insider, to reflect on Levy's career, personality and longevity.

"I'm just so thrilled that the timing has been so right for him to present me in the Hall, because it was the easiest and fastest decision I ever had to make in my life," Polian said last month. "He means everything to my career, because I wouldn't have one if it weren't for him."

The lives of the two men have been linked for nearly four decades. Levy took an interest in Polian's scouting reports for the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes and hired him when the Kansas City Chiefs named Levy their coach in 1978. They joined forces to run the United States Football League's Chicago Blitz in 1984, and Polian, after taking over as the Bills' general manager in 1986, hired Levy as his head coach.

"When I had the opportunity to recommend a coach to [owner Ralph] Wilson, there was no hesitation in my mind it was going to be Marv," Polian said. "I knew he was the perfect person for the job.

"Mr. Wilson called Lamar Hunt, who then owned the Kansas City Chiefs, and Lamar gave Marv a rave review, telling Mr. Wilson it was the worst mistake he ever made in football, letting Marv go."

On the field, Levy's success with the Bills is well documented. The team quickly improved from a 2-14 season in 1985 to a 12-4 record and division title in 1988. Two years later, the Bills began their historic run of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.

But it's behind the scenes, Polian said, where Levy made his mark.

"Marv is the greatest teacher I've ever been around," Polian said. "And I dare say he's on par with [former UCLA basketball coach] John Wooden in terms of how he gets his message across and how he does it. I don't think there's ever been a better one that I've ever met or heard of.

"His grasp of the game and how he wants the team to play is communicated clearly, concisely and inspirationally."

Long before coaches like Rex Ryan connected with players by ditching rigid and dogmatic norms, Levy helped pioneer a more positive, upbeat coaching style.

During one of Levy's training camps with the Kansas City Chiefs, he called together his rookies before a scrimmage against the Houston Oilers. Polian expected Levy to issue a militaristic order for his young players to wear the correct footwear for the game, but Levy took a much less authoritarian approach.

"Instead, he said, 'Listen, you guys have worked awfully hard this week, these last two weeks. And you're doing everything we could have asked of you,'" Polian recalled. "'Now you get an opportunity tomorrow to show what you can do and make a career for yourself in pro football. And I want you all to do well. I want you all to do the best you can. Not everybody is going to make it -- we all realize that -- but I want you all to do the best you can.

"'And so that means taking care of the little things. But don't forget your turf shoes. Make sure you pack them when you go in tonight. Because we're on turf tomorrow, and you can't do the best you can if you don't have the right footwear. So make that No. 1 on your priority list when you hit the locker room today. OK? See you tomorrow.'

"I thought to myself, 'Wow. What a way to send a message -- positive, upbeat and highly important way' -- and of course, like him always, nobody forgot their turf shoes the next day. That's an example of how he teaches: positive, upbeat, highlighting the most important things."

Even with Levy's extensive academic background -- he's a member of Phi Beta Kappa who holds a master's degree in English history from Harvard University -- Polian joked that Levy is "far more George Burns than George Santayana," referencing the late comedian and late philosopher.

"The thing that people who don't know and have not been around him greatly don't know is his sense of humor," Polian said. "He's got a great sense of humor. He's always laughing, he always has a joke."

Levy has a coaching and scouting tree that includes -- in addition to Polian -- former NFL coach Bobby Ross, current Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, former Bills general manager John Butler and former Seattle Seahawks general manager Bob Ferguson.

"He connects with the people that he coaches; that really is his gift," Polian said. "He connects in a rare, educational, inspirational way that gets his message across like no other I've ever been around."

Polian will take center stage when he is enshrined in the Hall of Fame this weekend, but the story of Polian's career cannot be told without mentioning Levy, who now enters his 10th decade of life.

"His philosophy lives on and will for generations and all of the people that we've taught over the years," Polian said. "He's a very, very unique individual.

"He's an incredible person on almost every front, including, now, his longevity."