Marv Levy: Where Else Would You Rather Be?
By Marv Levy
Sports Publishing LLC
Marv Levy was tossing and turning in his bed at 5 a.m. the morning after his Buffalo Bills lost Super Bowl XXV to the New York Giants.
Finally, unable to sleep, he sat up and his mind raced back to 1943. He was riding on a troop train full of recent enlistees to the U.S. Army Air Corps. The train was going from his hometown of Chicago to Greensboro, N.C., and Levy was reading a book of English poetry his mother had just given to him before he left for basic training. Levy turned to a four-line poem written in tribute to some 16th century Scottish warrior.
"I did not recall having read those lines again since that forgotten day during World War II," Levy says, "but as I sat in bed, and as this tortured night neared its end, the words sprang at me again, pristine and clear:"
Fight on, my men, Sir Andrew said.
A little I'm hurt but not yet slain.
I'll just lie down and bleed awhile,
And then I'll rise and fight again.
With that anecdote, Levy is off and running in his new autobiography, "Marv Levy: Where Else Would You Rather Be?" -- released in Buffalo-area bookstores this week.
Levy, as all Bills fans know, was not your typical football coach. So it's no surprise this is not your typical football book.
First, it's written solely by the 79-year-old Hall of Fame coach. Would we expect any different from a man who has a master's degree in English history from Harvard University?
Second, while the book covers Levy's 50-year career in the game of football, it would be a misnomer to call it a football book.
So many football books get bogged down in the retelling of game after game. "On third and 6 from the 45-yard line, we threw a 10-yard pass. And then two plays later ..." And so on, and so on.
Levy's story is one vivid anecdote after another -- about the game, about growing up, about leadership, about winning and losing, about respect and hard work, about a life lived to the fullest, for better or worse.
"It's autobiographical but I hoped to make it entertaining and humorous in spots with some pathos in spots," Levy said by phone from his home in Chicago. "I didn't do it in collaboration with anyone because I liked the process of writing."
The highlight of Levy's career - his 11 1/2 -year tenure as coach of the Bills - takes up about 30 percent of the book. This should not come as a disappointment to Bills fans. The story of Levy's meandering road to Buffalo is fascinating and tells a lot about how he handled the challenges he faced with the Bills.
"Initially they wanted me to write all about when I was with the Buffalo Bills," Levy said. "I thought many of those books have been written. When I get them, even of coaches I admire, they go past me. I wanted to make it more of a story, not just an account of touchdowns and interceptions. This is a story of lessons learned by me, and I hope for the reader as well."
Levy's charm and wit is on display from the start, in his descriptions of his boyhood days on the South Side of Chicago.
On his 15-cents-a-week allowance as a youngster:
"Once you have had to agonize over whether to have a "slider' at the White Castle Hamburger House or to invest instead in one of those individually wrapped, single-portion Dolly Madison cherry pies at Mr. Cook's School Store, you'll never have a problem when it comes to deciding between punting or going for it on fourth down."
On his high school football coach, Nate Wasserman:
"No one ever asked Nate Wasserman a question! Not unless he wanted to hear bells until the following Wednesday. Nate had a cute habit of showing his displeasure by rapping a player vigorously on the side of his helmet, accompanying that action by vocally directing his favorite epithet, "Numb nuts!' at the recipient of his ire. We started many games at South Shore High School with anywhere from eight to 13 guys lining up for the opening kickoff."
On his affinity for all things Mexican, including Bing Crosby's song, "South of the Border":
"Once in 1942, I put the last five nickels I owned into a jukebox so that I could listen to good ol' Bing croon that number five straight times."
Levy also has an endearing knack for self-deprecating humor. Never does he slip into a "let me tell you the great things I did" tone.
Levy explains how his hiring as head coach at the University of California in 1960 was met with a tepid response. He was at least the fourth or fifth choice for the job, so at his introductory press conference, Levy said. "I guess you were expecting Marilyn Monroe, and Ma Kettle showed up instead."
On his first preseason game as Los Angeles Rams special teams aide under legendary head coach George Allen:
"My first play for the Rams had resulted in a 95-yard touchdown return - for the other team. George was looking around frantically trying to find me. He'd have a hard time doing it; I was hiding behind (defensive end) Deacon Jones."
Ultimately, Levy's story is one of perseverance. His early coaching stops - at New Mexico, California and William and Mary - all were at schools that were athletically undermanned in comparison to the opposition. Talent and hard work kept Levy moving up the coaching ladder - from Los Angeles to Washington to Montreal in the Canadian league to Kansas City and on to Buffalo in 1986.
Perseverance, of course, became the trademark of Levy's Bills.
Levy gives interesting accounts of the Bills' rise to power, including great advice he got from Ralph Wilson's then-wife upon being hired, the signing of Steve Tasker, the trade for Cornelius Bennett, the drafting of Thurman Thomas, and the genesis of the no-huddle offense. His description of his first meeting with Fran Kozlowski, the woman who would become his second wife, is wonderfully charming.
The one game that gets somewhat of a blow-by-blow retelling is the record-setting, 32-point comeback victory over Houston in the playoff game of January 1993.
There are no blockbuster revelations for Bills fanatics. Levy refrains from telling any tabloid-style secrets we've never heard. There also is no gnashing of teeth or mea culpas about not winning the Super Bowl.
The 52-17 loss to Dallas in Super Bowl XXVII? Too many turnovers, Levy says. The 30-13 loss to Dallas in Super Bowl XXVIII? Dallas was better at running and stopping the run.
What it takes to win, as Levy loves to say, is simple but it's not easy.
Why not closer scrutiny of the what-ifs, more than a decade after the fact?
"There is no merit in doing it," Levy says. "Now you're no longer living your life ahead of you. You're sitting there and waiting for the end to come. It's too morose to dwell on the what-ifs. There's a million what-ifs."
If Levy was the kind of man who dwelled on the what-ifs, he and his Bills probably would not have been able to follow Sir Andrew's advice and risen up to fight - again and again and again.