SPORTS WATCH

The happy comeback of what’s his name

Overnight, Levy’s return from surgery brought something four Super Bowl trips had failed to do—national attention without any stigma

TRENT FRAYNE December 4 1995
SPORTS WATCH

The happy comeback of what’s his name

Overnight, Levy’s return from surgery brought something four Super Bowl trips had failed to do—national attention without any stigma

TRENT FRAYNE December 4 1995

The happy comeback of what’s his name

SPORTS WATCH

TRENT FRAYNE

Overnight, Levy’s return from surgery brought something four Super Bowl trips had failed to do—national attention without any stigma

Past triumphs sometimes bestow a mantle of genius upon sport’s tall foreheads that endures long after their teams have lost their lustre. Think of Don Shula winning in the Super Bowl. Think of Tony LaRussa in World Series dugouts. Think of Glen Sather awash in Stanley Cup champagne. These days, each has been a stranger to success for a very long time. Still, the mantle clings.

And then there are leaders whose teams have soared yet who are seen as lucky passengers. Remember Rudy Pilous? Long gone but still the only coach to win the Stanley Cup for the Chicago Blackhawks since 1938. Remember AÍ MacNeil? Al led les Canadiens to a Stanley Cup in 1971. During the playoffs the team’s star centre, Henri Richard, called AÍ the worst coach he’d ever played for.

Similarly, through four successive Super Bowl years, who was there to pin an accolade upon Marv Levy, the Buffalo Bills coach, whose teams managed to lose all four visits to the American finale? It didn’t seem to matter through four 16-game seasons and ensuing playoffs that Levy’s teams reached the ultimate game. What was remembered was that what’s his name had blown another one. In hockey terms, Marv was right there with Rudy Pilous and AÍ MacNeil.

And then a funny—no, a singular—thing happened. Levy developed prostate cancer. He was compelled to leave the Buffalo team’s coaching duties to his assistants while he underwent surgery. Three weeks later he was back coaching as the Bills beat Atlanta and followed that victory with another one over the New York Jets. By then Marv had been the central figure in TV clips across the United States and Canada, the subject of praise and no mention of Super Bowl losses. Newspapers ran the 67-year-old Marv’s picture, his face ashen under a woollen tuque pulled low around his ears. Then The New York Times ran a rare profile. Overnight, his return from surgery brought

something four Super Bowl trips had failed to do—national attention without any stigma.

This was in contrast to his soaring reputation 20 years earlier in Canada, where he guided the Montreal Alouettes to the Grey Cup game three times. The Alouettes won twice and missed a sweep by a single point when their field-goal unit somehow managed to miss a mere 19-yarder with less than a minute left on the clock. This was on the frozen tundra of Calgary’s McMahon Stadium in 1975, when the Edmonton Eskimos escaped by a 9-8 score.

Levy was as unassuming back then as he was in returning from surgery to guide the Bills when scribes asked him following the Atlanta game the difference between watching on television and coaching on the sideline. “When you’re at home, all you can do is give it a little body English,” he told his audience. ‘Today, I had to make decisions about whether we should go for it or not. At home, I had to make a decision between potato chips and popcorn.”

When he says thing like that, a twinkle lights Marv’s black eyes. I remember talking to him once in his Alouette days when the team played in the old Autostade on the

banks of the St. Lawrence and his office was a gloomy cave under the stands. Back then, the Alouettes employed a ground offence featuring a flashy import, Johnny Rodgers, and Levy said he preferred the running game not just because of Rodgers.

“When your quarterback throws the ball, three things can happen,” Marv said. “And two of them are bad.” As your agent absorbed this observation, Marv smiled. “I think Abraham Lincoln was the first to say that,” he added.

It’s odd Levy has never been elevated by the hard-thinking scribes to the top echelon of National Football League coaches—up there with Miami’s Shula and Tom Landry of Dallas, for instance, if not quite alongside Vince Lombardi, the patron saint of all coaches. Levy is an entertaining and at times scholarly fellow with a master’s degree in English history from Harvard, attributes that often charm media giants if not every inkstained wretch.

But the thing that happened to Marv was that following the 1977 season in Montreal, he was tapped by Lamar Hunt, the wealthy owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, and signed a five-year contract as the coach of a team that could barely lick its lips. (In 1977, they had won twice and lost 12.) As he’d said, he liked the running game, and he installed an unspectacular item called the Wing T. The team responded mildly, but not enough. In Levy’s fifth season, a player strike shut the league down. When it ended, the Chiefs lost four in a row, killing public interest. They drew 11,902 in their closing home game and Levy’s contract was not renewed.

“The Kansas City experience and Marv’s low-key personality have made it easy for him to be overlooked by the national media,” Larry Felser says. Felser is the friendly, chubby sports editor of the Buffalo News who has covered every Super Bowl game (all XXIX of them) and has crossed the Peace Bridge into Canada for numerous Grey Cup games. When he talks about Levy, he likes to point out that, in comparisons between him and Miami’s Shula, Marv has won 15 of the 20 times their teams have met.

In these days of stunningly wealthy athletes, the trick for coaches is not so much putting the right x’s and o’s on a blackboard; it’s handling player egos. In this area, Felser likens Levy to Cito Gaston, manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. “Their success is built on how they’ve handled temperamental players. Cito had Dave Winfield, Joe Carter, Robbie Alomar and Jack Morris. In Buffalo, when you’ve got Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett, you’re dealing with major-league egos.”

Levy’s calm manner lends a sense of security to at least some players. Cornerback Thomas Smith told Felser he felt a sense of loss during the three games when Marv was recovering from surgery. “It was like when you were a little kid and they took away your teddy bear,” Felser said, quoting the player and chuckling. Now who ever thought that about St.Vincent Lombardi?