He says, "I get letters from high school coaches saying, 'I want to be an NFL coach. What do I do?' I think their perspective is warped. I never thought I'd be an NFL head coach. I just do the best 1 can. Those letters hit me wrong—they reflect that the men's energies are focused on getting a job rather than doing it, rather than performing. I hear sometimes that to be a good coach you have to be mean. I disagree, because the essential quality of a coach is to be a good teacher. Just because my personality is different from, say, Mike Ditka's doesn't mean a thing. What I always say is, 'Plan your work and work your plan.' If you have everything prepared, the rest takes care of itself.' "
It's odd that after you get Levy to address the most obvious football issues, you're left wondering not so much why his teams do what they do, but why this man is a football coach at all. It's a question that stumps even his wife. "I don't understand it," Fran says. "It's a mystery."
A professor, absolutely. A doctor, an accountant, a shrink, yes. A man of the cloth. Or a stand-up comic, one of those deadpan guys like Steven Wright, stunned at such things as the order of the letters in the alphabet. Levy listens to a lot of country and western music. Why? "I like the humor," he responds. He is obviously a caring, studious man. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Coe College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1950—"I don't know any dumb Phi Beta Kappas," says Lamar Hunt. "Do you?"—then enrolled at Harvard Law School but realized after six weeks that torts and briefs were not for him. He switched fields, earning a master's degree in English history from Harvard in 1951. So how did he wind up as an NFL coach? He had been a starting halfback in high school and at Coe, and something about the game simply stuck to him. infiltrating his core like a virus. When Marv called his dad back in Chicago to say that he felt compelled to be a coach of the roughest of games, Sam Levy was silent a good while before responding simply, "Be a good one."
"I played the game. I enjoy it, I know it, I like the people," Levy says to explain his calling. At Coe he had been drawn to the logic and intellect of coach Dick Clausen. Football may have been a hard game, but under Clausen it was also a controlled and scientific game, one that responded as much to order and precision as to brute force. These were notions that appealed to the teacher in Levy. And there was a coach at Oklahoma who absolutely mesmerized the young man. His name was Bud Wilkinson, and he would set football records with a quiet grace that was almost professorial, very nearly priestly.
To say that Levy was obsessed with Wilkinson's teachings would not be overstating the case. On summer vacations from Coe, Levy would drive his old jalopy to wherever Wilkinson was giving a seminar or clinic. He would take a seat somewhere in the stands and listen as if he were Plato studying Socrates. "Reno, Missoula, the Black Hills of South Dakota; Whitewater, Wisconsin; Canton, Ohio—I'd go wherever Wilkinson went," says Levy. "After he saw me for about the eighth time, he looked shocked. 'Are you here again?' he said. Through the years I probably saw him 75 to 100 times."
In Wilkinson. Levy saw a man with a makeup like his own, an even-tempered, meticulous, learned teacher. "Wilkinson was quiet and low-toned and had a great knack for encouraging players," Levy says. "He'd find something positive in a player, even the smallest thing, and jump at it. You'd see the player's self-esteem go up. Wilkinson did nothing for show, nothing superfluous. He could get right to the kernel of it. Good night, his drills' were precise! His practices were short."
And so are Levy's. "I would guess we have the shortest practices in the NFL," he states proudly. Indeed, Bill practices are legendary for their brevity and effectiveness. Some preseason sessions last just 70 minutes.
"Before Marv came, I used to get here at 7:30 a.m. and not leave until 6," says veteran Bill center Kent Hull. "Now it's 9 to 3:30, and we accomplish even more."
The strategy Levy uses is that of the professional manager whose workers need to be aimed, not meddled with. He doesn't fire up, he teaches. "I was at an evening practice back in 1984 when Marv was the head coach of the Chicago Blitz of the USFL," says veteran sportswriter Bill Jauss of the Chicago Tribune. "The team was terrible, because George Allen had taken most of the good players down to become the Arizona Wranglers, and Marv was left with rookies and culls. But after practice he politely lectured a rookie punt rusher, telling him that if he took the proper stance, took precisely six steps, leaped toward the kicker in a certain manner and watched the ball into his hands, he would surely block a kick in the scrimmage against the Wranglers the next day. It was just like a teacher saying, 'Here is what the final exam is going to be.' He said, 'Do precisely what I say and you will block a punt." And the kid did."
Levy was born in 1925, though somewhere in the late '70s or early '80s he got younger, and now he gives his age as 66. It's easy to understand why—the NFL is not a codger-friendly organization, and a man of Levy's bearing should not be bound by a standard clock. ""He was pretty old-sounding even in the mid-'70s," laughs Hunt. At any rate, even at 66, Levy is the oldest coach in the league, and. as he puts it, "there's not a generation gap between me and my players, there's a two-generation gap."