Marv Levy never coached an NFL team I rooted for, but he’s one of those guys I could never really root against. There was always something likable about him – he gave off an urbane grandpa vibe during his long run with the Buffalo Bills.
The Bills, of course, I couldn’t like because I’m a Jets fan.
And during his stint with Kansas City I couldn’t like the Chiefs, either, also because of the Jets thing.
Chicago Blitz of the USFL? Nah, I was a Birmingham Stallions guy.
But before Levy became a Hall of Fame coach – and long before he took the Bills to an unprecedented four Super Bowls – he learned the pro head coaching ropes in the Canadian Football League.
“It was my first head coaching job in the pros,” said the 95-year old Levy, who spoke via conference call on Thursday. “I had been a head coach at three different colleges (New Mexico, California and William & Mary), but I was an assistant to George Allen for many years in the NFL, and Montreal was my first professional head coaching job. And it was a delight.”
Levy said the opportunity to go to Canada came at the perfect time for him.
“I was with Allen at Washington and we had just gone to the Super Bowl and lost in the dying seconds of the game to the undefeated Miami Dolphins, and the Alouettes had a general manager at the time named J.I. Albrecht who I had known for countless years,” Levy remembers. “He was a scout who used to come to a lot of practices when I was coaching in the NFL. He approached me about the job in Montreal and I was intrigued. I went up for the interview and I really admired and liked the owner of the team, Sam Berger, and they offered me the job. I also knew that there had been coaches in the CFL who did well and sometimes moved on with a big boost in pay to an NFL job – Bud Grant of the Minnesota Vikings is one of them.”
Levy spent five years in the CFL (1973-77), guiding Montreal to a 43-31-4 record and league titles in 1974 and 1977. The Als made the playoffs each year he was in charge, and all three Grey Cup games came against Edmonton.
Montreal won the first showdown, 20-7, in 1974; lost 9-8 in 1975; and took the 65th Grey Cup title in 1977 with a 41-6 rout – Levy’s final game as a CFL coach and one that matched the 1945 contest for the greatest margin of victory in a CFL title matchup.
So while the glass-half-empty crowd might choose to remember his 0-4 record in the pro football’s grand showcase, his 2-1 mark in the Grey Cup had already given him championship credentials in the game played by 12 to a side on a 110-yard long, 65-wide yard field.
“They are so wonderfully memorable in my career,” Levy said. “It was such a joy to be there and I remember moving out of the old Autostade and into Olympic Stadium in 1976 and the fans pouring in – over 60,000 for every game. I remember the tremendous support we got from the fans. It was only five of my 47 years in football, but those were very memorable years.”
The one question I had to ask him concerned the rule innovations in Canada. I love the CFL with its wide-open style and tweaks, and wondered how he felt about them.
“I figured the rules makers knew what they were doing,” he said. “I just tried to make the adjustments. Sure, there were differences – the square yardage of the field was more than double the square yardage in the NFL, and back then the end zones were 25-yards long (in 1986 the end zones were shortened to 20 yards).
“The man in motion could go toward the line of scrimmage, and I think that makes sense. Three downs, you know, were different, but all of them make sense for the nature of the game. The similarities of the game in my opinion are about 85 percent and the differences about 15 percent – but don’t hold me to that exact figure.”
Translation? Football is football.
“I’ve always felt the only thing that counts whether it’s the CFL, NFL, college football or high school football not the system you run but that you run, throw, block, tackle, catch, and kick,” Levy said. “Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals – that’s what counts. Yes, the system is important and the ability of the players is, of course, ultra-important, but systems continually alter and change and it’s the fundamentals, the boring part of the game, that makes the difference. It’s a lot of hard, hard work.”
Regardless, the Canadian Football League made a lasting impact on him.
“I was reading back through a memoir I wrote many years ago and a large part of it was about my time in the CFL,” he said. “It brought back many fond memories of many fine people and some of the great players I coached. I feel so fortunate to have been there.”
After leaving the CFL, Levy rebooted his NFL career in 1978 with the top job at Kansas City. By the time he left the sidelines in Buffalo at the close of the 1997 campaign he had compiled a 143-112 record, which included four AFC championships, six division titles and three Coach of the Year honors.
Nearly a quarter century after exiting the coaching ranks he still takes great pleasure in talking about a game that was the central focus of his professional life. And as for his longevity and long life after football, he chalks it up to “clean living.”
“There was a period of time where I smoked cigars, but I gave them up long ago,” he said. “Exercise, diet, good family, honest living, wonderful professional life, great parents – I’ve been unbelievably blessed with the people I’ve gotten to know in my time.”
It’s hard to root against a man like that.