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Bills In The HOF: Marv Levy – The Man Who Made Buffalo

Continuing with Bills Beat’s Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame series, we’ve arrived at an important juncture in the history of the Bills franchise. There has been just one coach who has been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a Buffalo Bill: head coach Marv Levy in 2001. Levy is one of the most well-known figures in the history of the franchise and is arguably the most responsible figure in turning around the team’s perception.

Levy, 96, has led a long life full of a wide range of experiences. In recent years, he continues to be an active member of public life. Among his recent travails is writing a children’s book called Go Cubs Go! Baseball’s Never Give Up Story is about the 2016 World Series-winning Chicago Cubs, as well as working to get the NFL to recognize the 75th anniversary of World War II and its veterans at Super Bowl LIV in Miami, Florida. In 2021, he was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

From Joke To Juggernaut

More than anything else, Levy is remembered as the head coach for the Bills between 1986 and 1997. During this time, he succeeded in taking the franchise from one of the NFL’s poorest to a well-respected force in the AFC. Despite their struggles in the Super Bowl against NFC teams, his teams held practically complete domination over their AFC opponents for a number of years between the late- ‘80s and early-mid- ‘90s.

Levy’s roots are as interesting as his contributions to professional football. Born in Chicago, Illinois to a family that emigrated to the United States from Montreal, Quebec, he would join the United States Army Air Forces and remain until the end of World War II. His experiences in WWII helped to shape his outlook on both football and life more generally. He was always known for filling his rocker room speeches with lessons learned in war.

A Master’s Degree At Harvard

Levy didn’t; however, conflate war with football. He was always careful about the language he used, no doubt a skill learned in his master’s degree studies in English history from Harvard University. “This is not a must-win; World War II was a must-win”, he once said regarding the Super Bowl. His way of communicating with his team was also distinct, as Steve Tasker once noted he wasn’t in the Knute Rockne tradition.

Levy’s background in English studies and his diverse experiences made him a unique type of coach. Before his tenure with the Bills, he was the head coach for the Kansas City Chiefs for five seasons. But before his time as a head coach in the NFL, he was the head coach of Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. During his tenure with the Alouettes, the team won two Gray Cup Championships – the CFL equivalent of the Super Bowl (1974 and 1977).

The Record Setter

Levy’s most prestigious accomplishments came in the NFL as the head coach of the Bills. Though his teams never won the Super Bowl, they did appear in a record-setting four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. Between 1988 and 1997, under his tenure, the Bills had the highest winning percentage in the AFC and the second highest winning percentage in the NFL overall behind only the San Francisco 49ers.

It should go without saying that Levy is the greatest NFL coach who never won a Super Bowl, though some might make a case for Dan Reeves or Bud Grant. As one extremely thoughtful piece put it: “It’s a shame on many fronts, not the least of which is a grand mischaracterization: The Bills winning four straight AFC crowns wasn’t an annual prelude to disappointment, but rather one of the greatest achievements in NFL history.”

The Best Of The Best

It’s inevitable in sports that the ultimate winner is remembered instead of the runner-up. Rarely does the challenger for the heavyweight championship receive the same coverage as that of the champion; nor does the mere pennant winner the same coverage as that of the World Series winner. The gratification the audience and the media need just isn’t there. But then again, maybe that isn’t the point. Figures like Levy simply make the game better.

Levy was a thoughtful person – an intellectual, bent on lifelong learning. He’s learned thoroughly what matters in life and what doesn’t. This puts him squarely in the same pantheon as Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, and Bill Walsh, men whose contributions to professional football transcend that of their head coaching accomplishments. It’s impossible to know for sure what a certain era of NFL history looks like without his presence.

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