American Football: Levy provides levity and depth: History and poems inspire Buffalo's head coach

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The Independent Online
AS HE stands surrounded by a swarm of microphones, Marv Levy reminds you of many characters. Of a kindly grandfather with his old-world manners and forgiving nature. Of a Harvard professor with his ready intelligence and willingness to pontificate. Sometimes he even reminds you of one of those vaudeville comics, George Burns perhaps, with his quick wit and gift for self- mockery. What he does not remind you of is an American football coach.

Levy, the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, was once described as the runner-up in the annual Jason Robards lookalike contest, and in all the hoopla that has preceded Sunday's Super Bowl the dapper 65-year-old has presented an incongruous but hugely sympathetic figure.

American football is a young man's game. Played principally by those in their twenties and early thirties, it is now coached, by and large, by men in their forties and early fifties. In among the deluge of comment and counter-comment here this week there has been much to admire in the confident way the sport's ambassadors handle the media, their openness and their patience. But not much depth.

Levy's daily talks with the press, on the other hand, have been a delight. Mixing dry humour with a heavy dose of perspective, he has never been bland.

'Are you glad it's the Dallas Cowboys again?' he was asked of the opponents the Bills will meet in the Super Bowl for the second year running. 'I'm glad it's the Buffalo Bills again.'

Does he have any superstitions? 'I do have a superstition about football. Just one. It's bad luck if you don't block and tackle.'

His knowledge of the past precedes him, and there has been a constant demand for historical comparisons. After the umpteenth, he sighed, 'Put me on the injury list for strained analogies.'

His love of the past began as an English history scholar at Harvard in the early 1950s and his thirst for knowledge remains.

Quite what his players make of their erudite, eccentric leader is difficult to fathom. Three years ago they lost a desperately close Super Bowl to the New York Giants. Returning home they found a note pinned to the bulletin board in the locker-room. It read:

'Fight on my men,' Sir Andrew said,

'A little I'm hurt but not yet slain;

'I'll just lie down and bleed a while,

'And then I'll rise and fight again.'

It was a 14th century poem, author unknown, and as a motivational aid it was certainly more original than, 'Tough luck guys, let's try again next season'.

Levy's disdain for convention stretches to his concerns outside the game. He campaigns vigorously to improve adult literacy and is an active member of the anti-hunting lobby.

Perhaps his catholic outlook is the result of the perspective gained from a lifetime's work as a coach. After graduating in history he was six weeks into a course at Harvard Law School when he decided to make his career in football, which he played enthusiastically as a student. There followed a long apprenticeship in the college game and he also coached in Canada before getting his first head coaching job in the NFL, with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1978. He made progress but after four years was fired in 1982.

He then spent a period in the broadcasting booth but in 1986 was invited to become head coach of the Bills, at that time just about the worst team in the league. The matching of the scholarly Levy with Buffalo, whose fans could teach most teams a thing or two about offensive lines, proved an inspired one. Assisted by his general manager, Bill Polian, the Bills were divisional champions within two years.

In 1991 the Bills made it to their first Super Bowl, and they have come back every year since. They have lost each game.

When Levy retires, which he shows little inclination of doing, the NFL will lose one of its most remarkable head coaches. And one of its funniest. Asked once to summarise the Second World War, he chose to do so in a way the ordinary fan could understand. 'Hitler,' he said, 'couldn't win on the road.'