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LEVY PROVING HE HASN'T LOST HIS SENSE OF TIMING

It was 11 months ago that the Bills' official family gathered in the Ralph C. Wilson Field House to hear Jim Kelly do the right thing, retire as an NFL player.

This afternoon the official family was to reconvene there to hear Marv Levy do the right thing, retire from coaching after 12 seasons as the team's leader on the field.

There will be speculation that Levy is being nudged out by owner Ralph Wilson, or that he is being hounded out by the media. Whether there is truth to any of that, or whether he made the decision on his own, does not matter.

All that does matter is that his retiring now is the right thing.

Levy supervised the Golden Era of Bills' football. It will be his legacy. So will the team's appearance in four consecutive Super Bowls, despite losing all of them. It is a feat far better appreciated by his colleagues in the NFL than in Buffalo, where most people don't seem aware that only 12 teams ever won a Super Bowl. A third of the NFL has never even appeared in one.

It was a remarkable and vastly underrated coaching performance, spurring his team to get off the floor and keep fighting after all those disappointments. His detractors keep yelping about what he lacked as a strategist and football technician. They don't get it.

This is the '90s. A head coach can hire strategists and technicians. In these times the main task of the head guy is to get the players to play for you, to push the right buttons. This Levy did nobly. With a roster full of brimming egos it was a difficult task, but he kept pulling it off.

His detractors refuse to give him credit for that. They would like to think the Bills were on automatic pilot during those great seasons. That the infamous Bickering Bills of 1989 just naturally healed, came together and won the AFC championship the next year. What garbage!

The fans would have loved to have seen it go on indefinitely with Kelly, forever young, throwing to an ageless Andre Reed, handing off to an ageless Thurman Thomas and Levy making playoff plans for them every season.

It doesn't work out that way, however. Football eras have a short life. The Bills' unforgettable era ran longer than most. It might have been a good idea if Levy had stepped down at the same time as Kelly, especially since the two were so closely allied in creating those good times.

The last two seasons Levy discovered that you can't keep an aging team winning by applying band-aids. The Bills flat out have to rebuild. With free agency it can be done faster, but not fast enough for a coach who would be 73 in the next training camp. This is a long-term project for a younger man.

Apparently Levy came to that conclusion in the last few days. By removing himself from the coach's office he allows the Bills to get at the job with fresh carpenters and bricklayers, which are needed badly around One Bills Drive.

He also removes himself from a lot of headaches that a coach his age and of his accomplishments doesn't deserve to suffer.

A great many of his coaching colleagues discovered there is life after football. Chuck Noll of Pittsburgh did. So did Tom Landry. And Joe Gibbs, Bud Grant and Chuck Knox. Don Shula is learning it. Bill Walsh had a brief dalliance in college football, then learned it all over.

Levy may have a pang or two next September, but he'll discover other delights, too.

Meanwhile, the 1998 Bills will have work to do. They have so many things to fix it will take them a couple of seasons. Bill Polian, Levy's old protege, is in Indianapolis now, Bill Parcells is with the Jets, Jimmy Johnson in Miami and the best talent in the AFC East remains in New England.

One of Levy's legacies is that the standard of Bills football was raised considerably. Now the fans expect an elite product.

Buffalo's task is formidable and it needed a fresh perspective. Now it will get it. Marv is doing the right thing.

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