Jews in Sports: Marv Levy: Harvard intellectual as Jewish Super Bowl coach

By Bill Simons

Buffalo, NY, has had its ups and downs. Its population and manufacturing have declined precipitously, and Buffalo snowstorms are a staple of American humor. The Buffalo Bills, an original AFL franchise subsequently incorporated into the NFL, have intermittently given the city a needed boost in morale. Quarterback turned Congressman Jackie Kemp and running-back-gone-bad O.J. Simpson had notable seasons. And this year, the Bills paced their division with a 13-3 won-lost record. It was a Jewish coach and Harvard intellectual, Marv Levy, however, who gave Buffalo its most sustained football glory when the city didn’t have much else to cheer about. 

Levy is the greatest coach in Bills history – as well as the longest serving. From 1986-97, he led Buffalo to 112 regular season victories against 70 losses, good for a .615 winning percentage. During Levy’s 11½ seasons coaching Buffalo, the Bills won six Eastern Division and four American Football Conference championships. Although the NFL title eluded Buffalo, Levy’s Bills are the only team to appear in four consecutive Super Bowls (1990-93). Garnering NFL Coach of the Year (1988) and AFC Coach of the Year awards (1988, 1993 and 1995), Levy was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

A proponent of team balance, proportionality and consensus, Levy asserted, “The offense sells tickets, the defense wins games and the kicking wins championships.” He developed a strong Bills core around quarterback Jim Kelly, receiver Andre Reed, running back Thurman Thomas, linebacker Cornelius Bennett and defensive end Bruce Smith. Emphasizing preparation, confidence, efficiency and resilience, Levy delegated significant responsibilities to his assistant coaches and players, fostering smart play and accountability. Famously, Levy employed a fast-moving, no-huddle “K-Gun” offense, allowing Kelly to call offensive plays, thus disrupting opponents’ defensive strategy. 
For Levy, it was a long road to the glory years in Buffalo. A native of the South Side of Chicago, he was born in 1925, the son of working-class, Jewish immigrants, Sam and Ida. Ida instilled in her son a lifelong love of literature, and Sam, a World War I Marine hero, told Marv, “Son, don’t use being Jewish as an excuse not to do well in sports.” Not surprisingly, Levy’s boyhood sports hero was Sid Luckman, the Chicago Bears Jewish quarterback. Motivated by his father’s encouragement and Luckman’s example, Levy, a football running back, played multiple high school sports. Following World War II Army Air Force service, he earned varsity letters in football, basketball and track at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, IA. 

By the time Levy arrived in Buffalo, he had coached football, at all levels, for nearly 35 years, starting with St. Louis Country Day School (1951-53). Next, he returned to Coe as an assistant before moving on to the University of New Mexico, initially as assistant, then taking command as head coach. Subsequently, Levy served as head coach at the University of California, Berkeley, and William and Mary. During his long collegiate apprenticeship, Levy was named Conference Coach of the Year four times (1958, 1959, 1964 and 1965). 

Moving up to the NFL, the peripatetic Levy was an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles (1969), Los Angeles Rams (1970) and Washington Redskins (1971-72). At age 48, Levy assumed his first pro football head coaching job, with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. In five seasons with the Alouettes (1973-77), he captured two Grey Cup championships, the Canadian equivalent of the Super Bowl. 

Next stop, Levy was named head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, whom he led from 1978-82, with mixed results. In 1984, Levy had the misfortune of coaching the imploding Chicago Blitz of the ill-fated United States Football League. Then, in 1986, Levy, at an age (61) when most coaching careers have already come to an end, took the reins of the Buffalo Bills – and the rest is history. In addition to becoming the pre-eminent coach in Bills history, Levy – with all due respect to Sid Gillman, Allie Sherman and Al Davis – emerged as football’s top Jewish coach. 

Levy’s greatest asset is his intelligence. With a Phi Betta Kappa key, an M.A. in English history from Harvard University and an omnivorous appetite for reading important books, he is an intellectual, an anomaly among formidable, but narrowly focused, NFL coaches. Levy employed his analytical skills to dissect opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, evaluate talent and communicate expectations. From his studies of Winston Churchill’s World War II leadership, Levy found tactics to motivate players and formulate team strategy. Levy’s core values, powerfully articulated, animated his teams: “Ability without character will lose. The Buffalo Bills are going to be a team of high character.” And so, they were. 

Transcending the gridiron, Levy evolved into a cultural icon. A prolific writer, his publications include a memoir, a history of the Bills, a novel, a children’s book and a volume of poetry. A popular commercial depicted Levy intimidating the Bills with the admonition that no one is leaving the room until they figure out how to win the next Super Bowl: tension subsides only when a player fortifies himself for the long siege by taking a bite out of a Snickers – and a mellowed Marv asks if he has an extra candy bar. A “Saturday Night Live” skit wittily juxtaposed the normalcy of Coach Levy with the bizarre questions emanating from sportscaster O.J. Simpson. And the quotable Levy has left his mark across the decades with notable “Marvisms,” such as, “Adversity is an opportunity for heroism.” 

At age 95, the remarkable Marv Levy is still going strong – and enjoying the resurgence of his Bills. Retiring from coaching at 71, he has used his time well as author, motivational speaker, jogger, Bills general manager in his 80s and sportscaster. When he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the mayor of Buffalo proclaimed the occasion “Marv Levy Day.” An eloquent role model for a life well lived, his most famous Marvism has meaning for us all: “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?”

Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.