Chicago’s Own Marv Levy, The Best Since Papa Bear

If there were a Mount Rushmore for Chicago football coaches, the countenances of George Halas, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Mike Ditka, and Marv Levy would be set in stone.

Among the four, Levy is one of a kind.

That’s because the Chicago coaching resume of the man who grew up in the South Shore neighborhood and now at age ninety-one is living the good life in a condo across from Lincoln Park on the Near North Side, consists of a 5-13 season in the spring of 1984 with the Chicago Blitz of the flash-in-the-pan United States Football League. To contrast that record compiled with a team on its last legs with the Chicago accomplishments of Halas, Stagg, and Ditka: Halas won six National Football League titles from 1920-1967 with the Bears, the franchise that the aptly nicknamed Papa Bear founded, owned, and passed on to his heirs; Stagg made the University of Chicago one of the nation’s most powerful college football teams and a seven-time Big Ten champion when he coached the Maroons from 1892-1932; and Ditka has the distinction of giving the Bears their only Super Bowl victory in 1985, and he also won six divisional championships during his tenure from 1982-92.

Yes, each of these men is ingrained in the D.N.A. of Chicago football the same way that the Daley family is ingrained in the D.N.A. of Chicago politics. But just as Chicago can call President Barack Obama one of its own even though the native of Hawaii spent most of his pre-presidency years elsewhere, so also is it conversely fitting and proper to look upon Chicago born-and-raised Marv Levy as a Chicago coach, even though the achievements that put him in the Hall of Fame took place elsewhere.

On further review, make that a multiple Hall-of-Fame career because, in addition to being a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Levy is a member of the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame, the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame, the Academic All-American Hall of Fame, the Coe College Athletic Hall of Fame, and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

Levy shows off the fourth of his A.F.C. championship rings, which he won consecutively while coaching the Buffalo Bills in the nineteen nineties. (Photo by Rhonda Holcomb)

Levy shows off the fourth of his A.F.C. championship rings, which he won consecutively while coaching the Buffalo Bills in the nineteen nineties. (Photo by Rhonda Holcomb)

The most significant of his many accomplishments are being the only coach to take a team to four straight Super Bowls, a run by the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills that began in 1991 and continued through 1994, and winning two Grey Cups, emblematic of the Canadian Football League championship, when he coached the Montreal Alouettes from 1973-77.

“I know we wouldn’t have gone to four Super Bowls in a row without Marv Levy,” his Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly said during an ESPN interview in conjunction with the network’s Greatest Coaches in N.F.L. History series. Nevertheless, when Levy was under consideration for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame those Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants in 1991, the Washington Redskins in 1992, and the Dallas Cowboys in 1993 and 1994 entered the discussion. “I was on the Hall of Fame Selection Committee when Marv’s name came up,” remembered Don Pierson, the retired Chicago Tribune sportswriter who earned the coveted Dick McCann Award for making “a long and distinguished contribution to pro football through coverage” during his forty-year career. “He went to the four Super Bowls in a row, which is unprecedented, but people brought up he didn’t win any. 

“I remember somebody saying—I think it was Jerry Magee of the San Diego Union(-Tribune) who said it—‘But Marv ennobled our profession.’ I’ve always remembered that. That’s the kind of guy Marv is. He elevated the discourse with his demeanor and his personality. There are very few guys in the coaching profession who do that. There aren’t many guys like him in the business. I think probably the N.F.L. and pro football were beneath his calling, if there is such a thing.”

When Levy retired as Buffalo’s coach in 1997, he was seventy-two years old, matching Halas as the oldest coach in N.F.L. history. He and his wife, Fran, then returned to Chicago. Although he went back to Buffalo to serve as the Bills’ general manager in 2006 and 2007, Levy, with Fran, kept his Lincoln Park condo, and after that stint ended, they made the Windy City their year-round home.

Why Chicago? “I grew up in Chicago and my wife is from Chicago,” he answered. “Our only child (his step-daughter) Kimberly Alexopoulos lives in Northbrook with her husband, Greg, and our little grandkids, Angela and Georgey. Fran has two sisters, Tess and Kathryn, living here, and my sister, Marilyn, lives two blocks away from us. We have many friends here, too, and I’ve always liked Chicago. All these things compelled us to come back.”

Although Levy is no longer actively engaged in football, he remains active. Almost every day he works out for an hour, going on brisk walks and jogging in Lincoln Park and lifting weights. And he continues to work, going around the country to give speeches and writing books and poetry. “I have agents who get me speaking engagements, maybe eight to ten times a year,” he related. “I go to a variety of venues and speak to tremendously varied audiences. Before the Super Bowl, I also have done some things on TV.

“What I talk about varies from audience to audience. In constructing speeches, I gear them to the audience. The right approach, I think, is start out with something that grabs their attention, whether it’s humor or a story. Involve the people in the audience some way or other. Convey what the theme of your talk is going to be. The main theme that spills over is what it takes to succeed. What it takes is simple, but it isn’t easy. What it takes to succeed is good PR, and by that I mean, P for preparation and R for resilience. Then, I develop my theme. I try to inject some humor into every one of my talks, unless it’s a very sad occasion.”

“I think probably the N.F.L. and pro football were beneath his calling, if there is such a thing.” — Don Pierson, retired Chicago Tribune sportswriter

Indicative of Levy’s impact on his diverse audiences, All-American Speakers Bureau charges a booking fee of between ten thousand and twenty thousand dollars for his services; however, if Levy sees fit, he has been known to adjust the ante, as he did for DePaul women’s basketball coach Doug Bruno, who for the past twenty-five years has been teaching a course called Theory and Techniques of Coaching at the university.

“I drive to DePaul every day and I would always see coach Levy jogging in Lincoln Park and I’d say to myself that it would be nice to have coach speak to the class,” Bruno related. “I met John Holecek (the Loyola Academy football coach who played for Levy in Buffalo) at the Ed Kelly sports dinner and spoke to him about it. Through John, I got a hold of coach Levy.” When Bruno asked Levy about speaking to the class he informed the coach: “Unfortunately, I have a budget of zero to pay you.” Levy told Bruno: “I want three times that!”

“He came to DePaul last spring and gave one of the most unbelievably inspirational speeches I’ve ever heard,” Bruno said. “He was magnificent. Here is a guy who gets paid a heck of a lot of money and he comes to DePaul to speak for nothing. We had about seventy-five to a hundred people show up to hear him. He spoke about simple concepts of leadership and service and he wove in stories and anecdotes and poetry and literature. He said leadership is about service, and through all those different methods he wove together the strands of service and leadership. I can’t put into words how magnificent his speech was. You had to be there.

“The other thing important to add is the normalcy in which he just jumped in. In no way did he act like a big shot. Marv is just a special man.”

Speaking from the experience of having spent the first three seasons of his eight-year NFL career playing for Levy, Holecek agrees wholeheartedly. “He was so different than the majority of football coaches I had,” reflected Holecek, who has made Loyola Academy one of the top high school teams in the state since coming to the Wilmette school in 2006. “He’s definitely special, certainly one of a kind. When he spoke (at team meetings), you sat up straight and your eyes were on him. His message and his observations always were right on.”

According to Holecek, as a coach, Levy was a delegator and a motivator who put premiums on professionalism and preparation. “He always talked about being motivated, going through every single checklist and outworking your opponent,” the Loyola coach continued. “I’ve tried to incorporate his professionalism.

“I don’t see any difference in him today than when he coached me twenty years ago. He’s sharp as a tack. When he walks into a room, you know he’s the smartest, most impressive person there. He’s a wonderful human being; he’s generous, kind, and warm. With all of his accomplishments, he’s still worried about doing the right thing and connecting people.”

Levy, who grew up in the South Shore neighborhood, returned to Chicago in 2006 after a short stretch as the Buffalo Bills general manager. (Photo by Rhonda Holcomb)

Levy, who grew up in the South Shore neighborhood, returned to Chicago in 2006 after a short stretch as the Buffalo Bills general manager. (Photo by Rhonda Holcomb)

Since retiring as the Bills’ general manager, Levy has written a fictional novel about a rigged Super Bowl entitled “Between the Lies” and a book of poetry entitled “It’s Time for a Rhyme.” After he retired from coaching, he wrote an autobiography entitled “Where Else Would You Rather Be?”, and earlier he collaborated with Jeffrey Miller in authoring “Game Changers—Greatest Plays in Buffalo Bills Football History.”

Levy’s literary pursuits are an outgrowth of the love of literature passed on by his mother, Ida. She was a Russian immigrant whose schooling ended in first grade, but she was an avid reader of works of Shakespeare and books of poetry by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and John Greenleaf Whittier. The passion for sports was passed on by his father, Sam, who made his living buying wholesale produce from farms and selling it to Chicago grocery stories. Sam was one of the best high school basketball players in Chicago during his junior year. Then, he dropped out to serve in the Marine Corps in France during World War II and earn a Purple Heart for his heroism in the Battle of Belleau Wood.

Sam and Ida’s influence affected Marv’s coaching style. Many of the inspiring speeches Levy gave to his football teams drew upon great works of literature and the oratory of military men and wartime leaders, the most notable of them being Winston Churchill.

Marv Levy first made his mark in sports when he played football and was a sprinter on the track team at South Shore High School, an ethnic melting pot of Jews, Italians, Irish, Greeks, and Scandinavians. “You could only play one leather sport so I played football instead of basketball,” he reminisced. “You’d go home with classmates after school and their parents all would be speaking foreign languages.

“I graduated in 1942. It was during the middle of the war, and twenty-one of my classmates and I enlisted (in the Army Air Corps) the day after we graduated. Nineteen of us came home to a better world. Three of us never came back. I entered (active duty) relatively late. I enlisted when I was seventeen but couldn’t go in until I reached eighteen (on August 3rd). I never went overseas. They sent me to the glider training base in Appalachia, Florida.”

levy-football-timelineFrom then on, until he finally retired from football for good, Levy’s life story reads like a travelogue. When he was discharged from service he was recruited to play football at the University of Wyoming but spent only one semester. “I was looking forward to college very much,” he said. “Then, I went out there and it was football all the time. They didn’t give you one second to study.

“I had never heard of Coe College (in Cedar Rapids, Iowa) but I had a friend from high school who was there. He said: ‘Come here. You can play sports and get a good education.’”

Levy enrolled in January 1947 to study English literature and history. He excelled academically and athletically. He was a Phi Betta Kappa scholar and served as the student body president for two years. Specializing in sprinting, he earned four letters in track, three more in football, and one in basketball. From Coe, he went to Harvard Law School on the G.I. Bill but, as he did as an undergraduate, he quickly changed direction academically. “I was about three weeks into law school,” Levy explained, and “I thought: ‘I don’t want this,’ so they let me transfer to the School of Arts and Sciences. I got a graduate degree in history.”

Then, this diligent scholar embarked on an unusual career path for the holder of a master’s degree from Harvard: He had his heart set on becoming a coach and he followed his dream. “I was fortunate to be exposed to two wonderful coaches at Coe, my football coach, Dick Clausen, and my track and basketball coach, Harris Lamb,” Levy explained. “They had a great influence on me. They pulled me in that direction.”

Clausen wanted to hire him as an assistant, but there were no openings at Coe. So, he took a job as a high school English and history teacher, head basketball coach, and assistant football coach at St. Louis Country Day. The basketball team gave him his first championship as a coach.

After two years, there were openings at Coe, and Levy went back to his undergraduate alma mater as the head track coach and an assistant coach of the football and basketball teams.

The basketball coach left in Levy’s third year at Coe and he was promoted to head coach. His team won the Midwest Conference championship and went to the N.A.I.A. Tournament, then the most prestigious postseason tournament for small colleges.

But football was the sport for which he was most passionate. “Our football teams were blowing away everybody, and Dick Clausen got the head coaching job at New Mexico,” Levy recounted. “I wanted to be the head football coach but the president (at Coe) had someone in mind so I went to New Mexico to become Dick’s assistant (in 1956 and 1957).”

When Clausen left to become Arizona’s athletic director in 1958, Levy was promoted to head coach at New Mexico. At age thirty-two, he was the youngest college coach in the country. He would remain a college coach for ten years, going on to the University of California and the College of William & Mary before entering the N.F.L. as the kicking coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1969. “Buffalo and William & Mary are the two places I remember most fondly,” Levy said. “The players at William & Mary were the epitome of the student-athlete. In my five years there, I can’t think of one guy who played that didn’t graduate. I could have stayed forever.”

The challenge of breaking into pro football, however, proved to be too enticing. He spent four years as an assistant in the N.F.L., a year with the Eagles and with the Los Angeles Rams, also as the kicking coach, and two with the Washington Redskins as an assistant coach.

The next stop in Levy’s coaching odyssey was Montreal, where in 1973 he made his debut as a pro head coach with the Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. His New Mexico and Wake Forest teams had won conference championships on the collegiate level, but it was during his five years in the C.F.L. that he took his career to new heights by winning two Grey Cups and advancing to another C.F.L. championship game before losing.

(Photo by Rhonda Holcomb)

(Photo by Rhonda Holcomb)

“Our mantra was play hard, play clean, play to win but win or lose, dig right back in,” Levy said. “Whether it’s college or pros, total organization wins. It isn’t just a good coach or just a good quarterback. It’s having a good coaching staff and the good relationship with all of the departments in the organization. … During my forty-seven years as a coach, I put in many long hours seven days a week but I’ve never worked a day in my life. It was fun.”

In 1978, Levy went back to the N.F.L., this time as head coach of the then-downtrodden Kansas City Chiefs. Although the team improved incrementally, he was terminated after five seasons.

He was out of coaching and working as a football broadcaster for a little more than a year before returning to spend a year in the U.S.F.L. with the short-lived Chicago Blitz, which played a spring schedule. After the team went out of business, he went into broadcasting for two years.

Then came what turned out to be the biggest break of Levy’s career. Bill Polian, a former protégé who’d worked as a scout for Kansas City and Montreal when Levy coached there and after that as personnel director for the Blitz, had become the Buffalo Bills’ personnel director. In December of 1985, Polian was promoted to general manager.

With the Bills floundering during the first half of the 1986 season, Polian told owner Ralph Wilson that he wanted to hire Levy as coach. Wilson was skeptical because Levy had been fired in Kansas City. So, the Bills’ owner called Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt, and Hunt said firing Levy had been a big mistake.

Levy took over as Buffalo’s coach in the middle of the 1986 season, and his coaching accomplishments there through 1997 proved to be his ticket to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

When Levy was inducted, fittingly Polian was the presenter.

“It is said that leadership is the unique quality which enables special people to stand up and pull the rest of us over the horizon,” Polian told the audience. “By that or any other definition, Marv Levy is one of the greatest leaders this game has ever known.”

Levy was eloquent in his acceptance speech.

“Don’t tell me I’ve never had a son,” he said. “I’ve had thousands of them of every shape, color, faith, and temperament, and I’ve loved every one.”

About the author

For forty years, Neil was a byline writer for the Chicago Tribune and his beats included the Chicago Blackhawks, Big Ten football and basketball, and horse racing. Among his many national and regional awards, he was a member of a reporting team that earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

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