The Buffalo Bills never in their history had a coach quite like Marv Levy and they probably will not again.
Levy, who ended his 11 1/2 -year tenure by retiring Wednesday, leaves an unparalleled record of success in the 37-year history of the Bills' organization. And he did it with a style and approach that was distinctly his own.
It has become a cliche to describe the 72-year-old Levy as professorial. But Levy always has defined his role as coach as that of being both a teacher and a leader.
His approach helped produce remarkable results. Levy, who coached for five seasons in Kansas City prior to his tenure in Buffalo, leaves his job as the 10th winningest coach in NFL history, including playoffs, with a career mark of 154-120. He is, of course, the only coach to lead a team to four straight Super Bowl appearances, and he is by far the winningest coach in Bills' history.
"He's a Hall of Fame coach," said Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian, Levy's close friend and former Bills GM. "But as good as he is as a coach, he's a far better person. That's probably the secret of his success, the qualities he possesses -- honesty, integrity, fairness, empathy, humor.
"He connects -- to use a '90s term -- with everyone around him," Polian said. "And he's the greatest teacher I've ever been around."
Teaching is the basis of Levy's coaching philosophy.
His greatest coaching influences were Dick Clausen and Harris Lamb, his coaches at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Bud Wilkinson, the legendary coach from the University of Oklahoma, whom Levy emulated. From those men, he learned to love the precision and discipline required from football, "the greatest team sport there is," as Levy likes to say.
Levy established himself from the start of his Bills career in 1986 as a coach who treated his players with respect at all times and who emphasized hard work, preparation, repetition and learning from mistakes.
It was almost never Levy's style to berate players for poor performance. His approach was to find players who were self-motivated and then teach them, over and over, when they made mistakes.
From his first week on the job, in November 1986, players seemed to respond to his style, which contrasted to that of his predecessor, Hank Bullough.
"He's not a rah-rah kind of guy," said Jim Kelly after Levy's first game, a 16-12 win over Pittsburgh. "It's a new atmosphere around here now. We're not in meetings 10 hours a day. We were physically and mentally drained before. Football is fun around here again."
Levy always took pride in the brevity and efficiency of Bills practices, and he never used practice as punishment, like many football coaches. It's a philosophy that stemmed from Wilkinson and is copied by a few NFL teams, most notably San Francisco.
Levy's aversion to the rah-rah, hard-nosed coaching stereotype often drew criticism. His training camps have been referred to as "Club Marv."
However, it's hard to argue with the results of his practice plan. The Bills never lost a key player to injury in any Levy training camp and usually opened the season flying. The Bills have the second-best September record of any NFL team in the '90s.
"I think we have beaten teams at times because their enthusiasm has been dulled or, psychologically, they've left it elsewhere," Levy said once.
Levy, however, did give his players plenty of leeway. He is not a stern disciplinarian and rarely motivates by fear. It's probably a fair criticism that at least once in a while he needed to treat his players like children instead of always like men.
It could be argued that a lack of discipline exhibited itself most prominently in the Bills' first Super Bowl loss, to the New York Giants in January 1991. The Bills' defense played a woefully undisciplined game -- missing tackles and getting out of position instead of relying on a team concept to make plays.
That loss no doubt haunts Levy, as it does all Bills followers. The Bills widely are viewed as having a better team than the Giants that season. However, such was not the case in the other three Super Bowl losses. While Levy benefited from a remarkable collection of talent, Buffalo did win at times when it had no business winning. The team got to the Super Bowl two separate years with a defense ranked 27th -- second from the bottom -- in the NFL. That happened in both 1991 and 1993.
Levy is staunchly loyal to his players and associates, again sometimes to a fault. He refused to criticize or even sometimes acknowledge obvious flaws in players. He has been reluctant to make changes in his coaching staff. In fact, the one firing of a coordinator that took place in his tenure -- when Walt Corey was let go in 1994 -- was forced by owner Ralph Wilson.
And, his retirement is believed, at least in part, to be precipitated because he was reluctant to make changes in his offensive staff.
On the other hand, a strong case can be made that Levy was the perfect coach for the athlete of the '90s, in particular the group of Bills players over the past 12 years. The Bills have had a collection of big -- some would say giant -- and fragile egos in their locker room.
"I got here a year after Bruce (Smith) and a couple years ahead of Thurman (Thomas)," said special-teams ace Mark Pike. "And those guys were, I don't want to say renegades, but free spirits. I mean, they settled down a long time ago. I know Marv had a lot to do with that. I mean, when Hank Bullough was here, it was a war every day between him and Bruce."
"Leadership is the ability to get other people to get the very best from themselves," Levy often stated. "Accomplishing this depends not upon persuading others to follow you but upon succeeding in getting them to join you."
That has been Levy's approach from Day One, as evidenced by his comments after his first game with the Bills.
"You try to promote philosophical ideas," Levy said. "The goal was to get them to be unselfish and rely on the other players. Winning didn't need to be the goal. Winning will come if you do all the other things."
Levy had a lot of those kinds of favorite catch phrases, and many had something to do with resiliency and indefatigability.
Those are qualities that Levy rightly is credited with instilling in his team. The "resilient" Bills also became a cliche in the '90s, and why not?
The Bills were called the Sisyphuses of football and the Rasputins of the NFL (you can't kill them) for continuing to lose in the Super Bowl and then return the next year.
The reputation was cemented on an afternoon Bills fans never will forget -- Jan. 3, 1993. That's when the Bills rallied from a 35-3 deficit to defeat the Houston Oilers, 41-38, in overtime. It is the greatest comeback in pro football history.
Levy's personal hero -- Winston Churchill -- is Levy's role model for resiliency. A Churchill poster with the quote "never, never, never, never surrender" hangs in Levy's office, and it's safe to say Levy has read every book there is to read on the former prime minister of Great Britain. Levy's quoting of Churchill and other great men of generations gone by quickly became a source of humor for the team.
However, the message frequently sank in. And virtually every Bill who played for Levy has the coach's catch phrases stuck in his head:
"Where would you rather be than right here, right now."
"Systems don't win, players do."
"Adversity is an opportunity for heroism."
"The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender."
"What it takes to win is simple, it's not easy."
"Plan your work and work your plan. If you have everything prepared, the rest will take care of itself."
"What you do should speak so loudly that no one will hear what you say."
"Expect rejection, but expect even more strongly to overcome it. There will be many 'failures' sprinkled among the successes you enjoy. A failure becomes just one bad time at bat if you refuse to let it defeat you."
Said Pike, "I know that 20 and 30 years from now I'm still going to be quoting Marv Levy."