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No Joke
Rick Telander
October 17, 1994
Four Consecutive Super Bowl losses have made Buffalo Bill coach Marv Levy a target of jests, but seriously, folks, he's one of the NFL's best
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October 17, 1994

No Joke

Four Consecutive Super Bowl losses have made Buffalo Bill coach Marv Levy a target of jests, but seriously, folks, he's one of the NFL's best

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He has a hearing aid, but he doesn't wear it. "It's great in a movie," he says. "But I don't use it at something like a party, because it amplifies everything." He ponders the hearing situation a moment. "We have an alarm system in our house," he notes. "I can't hear it, but fortunately it has a light."

When the Bills were testing new speakers at Rich Stadium this year during a team practice, the sound was just loud enough so that it was audible but sub-Marv. "We were all dancing to the Steve Miller Band," says Hull affectionately.

No. 6. "Hey, Kelly, leave some champagne for everybody else."

Let's take a moment and list Levy's coaching jobs, all of which came after he spent three years in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Stateside, working as a meteorologist because of his nearsightedness: 1951-52, St. Louis (Mo.) Country Day School; 1953-55, Coe College; 1956-59, University of New Mexico: 1960-63. University of California; 1964-68, College of William and Mary; 1969, Philadelphia Eagles; 1970, Los Angeles Rams; 1971-72, Washington Redskins; 1973-77, Montreal Alouettes (CFL); 1978-82, Kansas City Chiefs; 1984, Chicago Blitz; 1986-present, Buffalo Bills.

Some of those jobs were as an assistant coach, and some were as the head man, but almost everywhere Levy went, he improved his team's record; and until he got to the Bills, he never had an offensive talent like quarterback Jim Kelly.

Together the two make an unlikely team—Levy calmly putting the keys to his trademark hurry-up offense in the hand of this most aggressive, confident and focused of drivers. "Marv is just a quality, class guy," says Kelly. "He tells all these old war stories, but they all mean something."

Levy knows that if he didn't have a self-motivated player like Kelly at the throttle, his own inability to be a rah-rah guy might prove fatal. He could never talk a reluctant quarterback into running an offense that is as frenzied and nerve-racking and potent as a big dragster. "Other coaches have told me they've tried the hurry-up, but their quarterbacks don't like it," says Levy. "But Jim does. He's swashbuckling. He believes he's going to win."

Kelly's special status on the team makes him a critical factor in the clubhouse, where the Bickering Bills of a few years ago almost came apart. To say there are big and fragile egos on the Bills is to say Lake Eric is wet. Levy never berates players publicly, never embarrasses them, and he'll even let them play jokes on him if it makes them happy. Two years ago rookies and free agents were stunned to see Thurman Thomas toss a clump of grass at the coach's head as a gag. "We love to pull jokes on Marv," says Kelly. "Once, we had this big piece of paper with circles on it, and I said, 'Marv, these circles are trees. Take a pen, close your eyes, and see if you can ski from point A to point B without hitting a tree.' He said, 'I know I'm in for trouble, but I'll do it.' He moved his pen along, and then I smacked him right in the forehead. 'Geez, Marv, you hit a tree!' I said. I hit him pretty hard. He probably went to his office and took some Nuprin."

"That absentminded-professor stuff is more contrived than true," notes Bill Polian, formerly the Bills' general manager and now G.M. of the Carolina Panthers. "He uses his lack of hipness for effect. I remember before the Pasadena Super Bowl [1993]. he told the players they didn't need to go on those shows like David Letterman and Jay 'Leeno.' Just for effect." Polian is a huge Levy' fan, calling him the "best teacher I've ever seen." He marvels that Levy never allows his ego to interfere with the team's plans. "Never, never, never," Polian says. "You look forward to coming to work with Marv, because it's always so positive."

But do the players always understand Levy's shtick? "To see Marv try to give a pep talk is like watching a librarian get all fired up," says former Bill nosetackle Fred Smerlas, not a Levy fan." "Your eyes glaze over. I'd write down his words and then ask him the definitions. Chuck Knox used to say '——him where he breathes!' to get you up. Marv tells you about some 1902 war."

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