This is the second of five excerpts from Marv Levy's book, "Marv Levy: Where Else Would You Rather Be?" Today's installment deals with Levy taking over as Bills' head coach in 1986.
In late October 1986, I received a telephone call from the general manager of the Bills. He informed me that the team's owner, Ralph Wilson, would like me to come visit with him at his home in Detroit. Four years earlier, I had interviewed with Ralph for the head coaching vacancy that had existed with the Bills at that time, and even though I didn't get the job then, I had liked the gentleman, and I had sensed that a healthy rapport existed between us.
Going into the 1983 season, the Bills had decided to hire Kay Stephenson, a respected assistant from the staff of departing coach Chuck Knox. After a break-even record during his first year at the helm in 1983, the Bills slipped to 2-14 in 1984, and they were struggling badly again in 1985 when Ralph made a midseason switch. He fired Kay and replaced him with Hank Bullough, who had been serving as an assistant on Kay's staff. Once again, however, the Bills muddled through and repeated their 2-14 finish from the year before. It was now 1986, and Hank was feeling the heat. Halfway through the season, they were wallowing with a 2-6 record.
That sixth defeat of the season had been a 27-3 home game embarrassment administered in front of a crowd of more than 77,000 Bills fans by the division rival Patriots. It was the day after that debacle when the call came to me in Montreal from the Bills' general manager. His name, by the way, was -- Bill Polian.
Yes, it was that Bill Polian, the one who had left the (Chicago Blitz of the USFL) two years earlier in order to become a personnel scout with Buffalo. As the Bills had floundered during the mid-1980s, Ralph made some bold moves in an effort to reenergize his team. Besides changing coaches, he had also released his general manager and instituted a shake-up in the department of player personnel, as well. More than 10 years earlier, when I was coaching the Alouettes, I had been fortunate enough to discover that there was a man filling a rather obscure role in our organization, one who possessed unique talent and leadership qualities. Now, in 1986, Ralph had come to the same realization, and when he did decide to replace his general manager, he had the courage and the foresight to elevate this same man -- Bill Polian -- from his job as an out-on-the-road scout to his new role as general manager.
With that move, Ralph succeeded in halting the Bills' downward spiral, and he set in motion the synergy that would propel his team to heights to which they had never ascended before.
When Ralph conferred with Bill about coaching prospects, Bill's first recommendation to him was that he consider interviewing me. Ralph liked that idea. And so did I! I was on my way to Detroit to meet for the second time in four years with the owner of the Bills.
It was midweek when I met with Ralph in Detroit, and during that session he told me that there was a strong possibility, following the Bills' game Sunday in Tampa Bay, that he would relieve Hank from his responsibilities as head coach. He did not want, however, to elevate any of the current staff members to the head coaching slot, and, after we had talked for several hours, he asked me if I was interested in taking over at this midseason juncture. I assured him that I would welcome the opportunity, and he told me that he would be back in touch with me immediately after the game that weekend.
I had enjoyed our meeting immensely, and I left it feeling that Ralph sincerely wanted me to be his next head coach. Nevertheless, I returned to Montreal without the certainty of knowing whether that "strong possibility" Ralph had mentioned would ever become a reality. He had not stated that he absolutely would take such action, and I could understand that the timing for making such an irrevocable future commitment was awkward when the team was just a few days away from playing a game.
Sunday arrived, and I sat in my hotel room in Montreal watching the telecast of the Bills at Tampa Bay. The favored Bucs dominated from the outset, and, as the final two-minute warning was sounded, they had an apparently comfortable 34-21 lead. It seemed obvious that the Bills were heading toward their seventh loss of the season. Then "the obvious" disintegrated. The Bills' up-until-then porous defense finally succeeded in forcing Tampa Bay to punt. The punt was an excellent one. The punt coverage wasn't. Buffalo's safety, Ron Pitts, brought it back more than 70 yards for a touchdown, and now the score stood at 34-28. If somehow, in the waning moments of the game, the Bills could eke out one more touchdown and the extra point, they would come home with an always-to-be-remembered one-point victory.
Would a thrilling comeback win, on the road, against a favored opponent cause Ralph to refrain from making a coaching change? Would I once again come "that close" (but not close enough) to becoming the head coach of the Bills? I've got to admit, I was worried.
I relaxed, however, when the Bills' ensuing onside kickoff attempt was recovered by Tampa Bay. Two plays later, they fumbled, the Bills recovered, and I spilled my popcorn and soft drink all over the carpet.
The Bills had a first-year quarterback who, despite the team's woes that season, had shown some definite promise. He went to work, executing a magnificently directed last-ditch drive toward the Tampa Bay goal line. With seconds remaining in the game, the Bills had a fourth down on the Buccaneers' 4-yard line, and, on a called pass play, ace running back Robb Riddick hooked up wide open in the end zone. The quarterback drilled the ball right at Robb's chest. There was only one problem. Robb, who had played courageously with his arm in a cast after having fractured it the week before, was unable to catch the ball, and it slipped to the ground.
For the fifth time in six weeks the Bills went down to defeat. Ten minutes later my telephone rang. The caller was Bill Polian. "Get your *** down here right now!" he shouted jubilantly. "We are having a press conference tomorrow morning to announce -- and to present -- our new head coach, and you are that man."
Early Monday morning, I packed my bags, turned in my hotel key, made plane reservations, and got my *** out to the airport in less time than it has taken me to type this sentence.
Late Sunday night the Bills had announced the dismissal of Hank Bullough. Because they preferred presenting their new head coach for the first time at a press conference scheduled late Monday morning, they did not want me to fly into the Buffalo airport where they knew that the members of the media would be hanging out in heavy numbers. It was arranged, therefore, that I would arrive at the airport in Toronto -- a 90-minute drive from Buffalo -- where I would be met by the Bills' director of security, Ed Stillwell. Ed did meet me there early in the morning, and we proceeded toward the Canadian-American border. During the trip, as we got to know each other, I recall musing to myself that if everyone in the Bills' organization was as friendly and as entertaining as this man, I was really going to enjoy working there. How right I was! As we approached the customs booth just before crossing into the United States, for the first time in my life, I saw the inspiring beauty of Niagara Falls. It is a moment and an experience I will always remember.
Thirty minutes later, our car pulled up in the parking lot at Rich Stadium, and Ed led me up the tunnel, past the team dressing room, toward the elevator that would take us up to the media headquarters several floors higher.
Just before entering the elevator, I peered down the long darkened passageway that led out to the playing field. At the end of it I saw sunlight, and I could see the goal posts and the empty grandstands beyond that opening. For the next 12 years, I would be walking up that tunnel. The seats would always be filled, and, on many occasions instead of sunshine there would be swirling snow and icy winds. But the gridiron was always there and so was the rush of adrenaline and those feelings of gratitude that always washed over me every time I strode out into that most special arena.
As you, dear reader, are undoubtedly aware at this stage in my story, there were numerous career-impacting telephone calls that I received during my lifetime (and I didn't even have a cell phone). On Tuesday morning, the day after I had arrived in Buffalo, there was another one. This time it was from Ralph Wilson's wife, Jane, whom I had met when I visited Detroit for one of the interviews I had with Ralph. One evening Ralph and Jane had invited me to join them for dinner, and she had been a friendly, pleasant lady. The three of us talked about a variety of topics, but whenever the conversation turned to football, she withdrew from the discussion until we might turn our attention back to other subjects that seemed to me to be of more interest to her.
That assumption on my part was accurate, I learned, because when she called me that Tuesday morning she began the conversation by stating she knew very little about the game. On the heels of that admission she went on to say that she was calling, nevertheless, to offer some advice which she believed would be vital in enhancing my chances for success as the coach of the Bills. I remember her exact words. "Marv, talk to Ralph."
I was perplexed. Of course I intended to talk with him, and I asked Jane why she might think that I needed to be prompted to talk to the man who had just hired me. Her explanation was priceless. "So many of the coaches who have preceded you here never seemed to have the time to listen to some of Ralph's opinions," she told me. "They'd become defensive whenever he might directly question some of their decisions or their reasons for using certain players rather than some of the others. They always acted as if he was butting in. They'd cut conversations short, and only rarely did they ever initiate a phone call to him.
"Whenever Ralph would call them, they'd always convey the impression that they were too busy right now for some 'small talk.' "
Jane did not need to elaborate. I got the message, and, other than the admonition I had received as a young boy to "always zip up after you go to the washroom," hers was the best advice I have ever received. During the next 12 years I did speak with Ralph often, in season and out. Every Tuesday morning, after our coaches had completed our thorough Monday review of the game tapes from the previous day's game, after we had conducted our staff meeting at which we discussed our conclusions, and after we had received a full medical report from our team doctors, I would telephone Ralph and spend an hour filling him in.
Often he would ask some probing questions. Upon occasion he might offer a criticism about a player, about one of our coaches, or about a decision that I had made with which he did not agree. I always responded by addressing his concerns, and I found out something extremely valuable. He'd listen! Most of the time he was satisfied with the answer he got from me. On a few occasions I recall him finally bringing a topic of discussion to a close by saying, with no rancor in his tone, "Well, I still don't agree with you, but you're the coach."
There were also times when his comments and suggestions merited consideration, and when we implemented some of those ideas that he had advanced, they helped us to perform at an improved level. Over the years our feelings of mutual trust and regard for each other grew, and our conversations were enjoyable adventures. I came to know a man whose sense of humor I savored and whose friendship I valued. He was a person who said what was on his mind, but he never rammed it down your throat. He was willing to listen, to weigh, and to respond to the other person's point of view, even when it might be one that was contrary to his.
One of the qualities I admired most about Ralph was his straightforwardness. If he made a promise, it was kept. In all the time I worked for the Bills I never had an agent. Maybe I was foolish, but I am content with the nature of the negotiations (and the attendant lack of complications) that took place at renewal time while I coached in Buffalo. I recall one instance in the mid-1990s when I was about to enter the final year of my contract. I was standing in the hallway outside of my office chatting informally with Ralph, and when I mentioned that situation to him, he suggested that we step into my office in order to discuss the matter.
Once we were seated, Ralph asked me what I had in mind in terms of a contract extension. I took a deep breath, and then I blurted out some figures, some time-frame considerations, and a list of perks that I would wish to present for his consideration. As I was reaching into my desk drawer in order to pull out a 45-page, handsomely bound treatise that detailed all the compelling reasons why this proposal of mine should be carefully studied, Ralph said, "OK," and then he got up and walked out of the room. Three days later a new contract, containing the exact terms I had presented, arrived for me in the mail.
Several years have passed since I retired as the coach of the Bills, but from time to time I still talk on the telephone with Ralph. As always, we sometimes don't agree, but we sure do have fun.
Next: The Bickering Bills.
This excerpt is taken from the new book, "Marv Levy: Where Else Would You Rather Be?" ($24.95; Sports Publishing L.L.C.), written by former Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy. It is available in bookstores, by calling the toll-free number, (877) 424-2665, and online at www.sportspublishingllc.com.