Sometimes late at night Mary Frances Levy will be awakened by a disturbance in the dark. It doesn't happen very often now, and when it does, it is certainly not threatening or fearsome. But it reminds her of the forces that work beneath still waters, of the vectors and currents that rule the world regardless of what good men do. It's heart-wrenching, this disturbance. Whoomp. A muffled sound. Something hitting the blankets. A first. "He'll be lying there." says Fran Levy of her husband, Marv, coach of the Buffalo Bills, "and he'll roll over, and he'll punch the mattress."
Does anybody need to ask why?
The top 10 things Levy said to his team at halftime of Super Bowl XXVIII last January, according to talk-show host David Letterman:
No. 10. "We won! Woo! We're Super Bowl champs!"
How is it that a kindhearted, patient, scholarly, organized, successful football coach has become the punch line for jokes about failure, ineptitude, senility and plain old choking? A decent man—and you really have to search to find somebody who dislikes Levy—has somehow been stuck in the corner of this nation's collective sports tavern and had the dunce cap pounded down on his silvery head.
Why? Four Super Bowl losses. No, correct that. Four consecutive Super Bowl losses. Minnesota Viking coach Bud Grant lost four Super Bowls, but he did it gradually, over time, so that it wasn't quite so easy for people to notice the trend. Grant is in the Hall of Fame. People don't make jokes about him. It could be argued, as it could for any coach who takes his team to the ultimate game and loses, that Grant got more out of his charges than he had any right to get. But people don't say that about Levy. Nor do they notice that the AFC has lost the last 11 Super Bowls, that the Bills have simply prevented other AFC teams from getting shellacked by the NFC's New York Giants, Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys. Four in a row! We're talking Grand Slam here, babe! We're talking Joe Btfsltk! Did you hear about the new Dallas Cowboy welcome mats? They're rubberized Buffalo team photos.
Part of it, no doubt, is Buffalo itself. How many jokes are there about that subarctic Rust Belt city? The comedian Carrottop wears a Bill helmet that doubles as a tissue box for wiping away tears and nasal drippings, and the crowd goes wild.
Then there's Levy's countenance—wizened, heavy-lidded, avuncular, earnest, like that of a well-meaning but slightly out-of-it history professor. At times on the sideline during big games, Levy appears almost bemused as the action swirls around him; with his headset on, he could be a senior citizen listening to his favorite Sinatra tune done by Dr. Dre.
There are roles to be played in this world, people will tell you, and Levy and the Bills' role is that of professional opponents. When the Pittsburgh Steelers or the San Francisco 49ers go to the Super Bowl, they win. Every time. When the Bills go, they lose. Every time. Levy is like a cab driver who will take you almost to your destination, then shrug and dump you out.
Is this characterization fair? Hell, no. Do you hear people calling the Bills one of the greatest NFL teams of all time? Of course not. But the Bills' five-year record of 62-21 is the NFL's best in the '90s. Buffalo wins when it has no business winning. Last year's 14-5 squad had the 27th-best defense in the league. And was it not a Levy-coached Buffalo team that staged the greatest comeback in NFL history by beating the Houston Oilers 41-38 in a wild-card playoff game on Jan. 3, 1993, after the Bills trailed by 32 points in the third quarter?