The Buffalo Bills are coached by an English history scholar who, long ago at Harvard, wrote his master’s thesis on a somewhat arcane subject--Franklin Roosevelt’s lend-lease activities during World War II--and who often quotes Chaucer, Churchill and Napoleon at team meetings.
So, when the Bills flew home two years ago after losing Super Bowl XXV by one point, they knew who had tacked a poignantly relevant poem to their locker room bulletin board, a poem reputedly turned out in the 14th Century by an anonymous European writer.
The Bills stood a little straighter as they read:
“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.”
Marv Levy, the Buffalo coach, couldn’t have said it better. That is why he put it up.
And taking the poet’s sentiments to heart, the Bills responded with the poise and perseverance that Levy had instilled in them, bleeding awhile, then fighting back to another Super Bowl a year ago.
It was one of the NFL’s great achievements. Only rarely do Super Bowl losers summon the inner strength to return immediately to the game.
Then last year, the Bills lost another Super Bowl. That put them in position to fight their way back again, which, as a wild-card team this year, they did.
And what is to be made of that? Consider:
--In the first place, it’s unprecedented. No other two-time loser has come back to make a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance.
--More significantly, win or lose today, the achievement stands as a monument to Levy.
Somehow he kept the Bills together and winning after a pro football calamity of enormous proportions.
The debilitating effects of losing the Super Bowl are often underestimated. More than one player has said, and meant, that losing the game is worse than not getting there.
It is destructive to the psyche. The stigma of losing a Super Bowl is branded on many players like a tattoo on the forehead.
And that’s if you lose one .
On the whole, getting back after losing two in a row is probably harder than winning one.
A dozen teams have won at least one. No other team has done what the Bills have done.
How did they do it?
One explanation is the competitive nature of their quarterback, Jim Kelly, whose forceful personality daunts even his teammates. Two years ago, with Levy’s blessing, Kelly virtually took over the offense from the coaching staff--the first quarterback to do so since Norm Van Brocklin at Philadelphia 32 years ago.
A second reason for the Bills’ tenaciousness is Bill Polian, the club’s general manager, who recruits talent with that quality and who in the last six years has lifted the Bills out of the cellar. What Polian wants are players with size, speed and heart--the will to play hard in adversity. There was a Buffalo-Houston game earlier this month that made the point.
Primarily, however, the Bills are what they are, and where they are today, because of what Marv Levy is.
“He is stable, mature and fearless,” Polian said this week, mentioning some of the same Levy attributes that an earlier NFL winner, George Allen, talked about a quarter-century ago when the Buffalo coach was his special-teams assistant with the Rams and Washington Redskins.
The stability comes through to those who watch him on the Buffalo sideline, where this season it wasn’t always fun. Through an up-and-down year, as the Bills staggered and stumbled toward a third consecutive AFC title, their coach showed the steadiness that kept them from coming apart.
Levy’s maturity is a consequence of his many years of study at two schools, Coe and Harvard, and then with four pro clubs in three leagues in two countries.
This is his 42nd season as a coach, counting his work in the Canadian Football League and the United States Football League and on various prep and college staffs. It is his 12th season as an NFL head coach.
At 64, son of a Chicago produce worker and his wife who brought up a boy and girl, Levy is the NFL’s oldest coach, old enough to be the grandfather of any of his players.
He appears to be about half the size of Kelly. Neat and gray, Levy was once described as a runner-up in the annual Jason Robards look-alike contest.
At a Los Angeles news conference last week, where Levy was the only one of the hundreds there wearing a coat and tie, he was asked if he had made any plans to retire.
“If you say you plan to retire in two or three years, you’ve already retired,” he replied. “I do not intend to retire.”
All week, his intellectual side burst through in Super Bowl interviews--as it has now for three years running--and his self-confidence and relative absence of ego were also on display.
When Associated Press reporter Dave Goldberg rephrased one of his answers, Levy said: “I wish I’d put it that succinctly.”
Bill Walsh never made such an unaffected confession. Neither did Vince Lombardi.
When Detroit reporter Jerry Green asked for the name of the book he is now reading, Levy replied: “I’ve been reading two of them--'Truman’ by David McCullough and ‘You Gotta Play Hurt’ by Dan Jenkins.”
Many of the books Levy enjoys most have Civil War or World War II themes.
He once summarized World War II in six words: “Hitler couldn’t win on the road.”
A broad-scaled social activist, Levy is best known among educators as a proponent of greater adult literacy, and among hunters as an opponent of their sport. He delivers anti-hunting commercial messages.
When asked about all that, he politely begged off direct answers.
“I’d rather stay focused on football this week,” he said.
But as his activism suggests, Levy is a coach who, like Mike Ditka, doesn’t fear standing up to be counted.
He is most surely identified by his fearlessness. One year when Sam Wyche surprised him with a no-huddle offense, Levy wasn’t afraid to condemn the Cincinnati Bengals’ coach publicly.
Then, when he saw that Wyche was right, Levy put in the no-huddle offense himself, showing no fear of the ridicule he knew was coming.
On another memorable day, when Levy thought it best to bench his best defensive player, Bruce Smith, he wasn’t afraid to do it.
And although losing today would make three in a row for Levy, he isn’t afraid of that, either.
“I have no dread at all,” he said.
That’s because, as a onetime George Allen ally, he is wholly prepared for the Cowboys and knows he’s prepared, win or lose.
“I was born at night,” Levy said. “But it wasn’t last night.”
No poet could say it better.
* REGULAR SEASON
Year, Team W L T 1978 Kansas City 4 12 0 1979 Kansas City 7 9 0 1980 Kansas City 8 8 0 1981 Kansas City 9 7 0 1982 Kansas City 3 6 0 1986 Buffalo 2 5 0 1987 Buffalo 7 8 0 1988 Buffalo 12 4 0 1989 Buffalo 9 7 0 1990 Buffalo 13 3 0 1991 Buffalo 13 3 0 1992 Buffalo 11 5 0 Totals 98 77 0
Year, Team W L T 1988 Buffalo 1 1 0 1989 Buffalo 0 1 0 1990 Buffalo 2 1 0 1991 Buffalo 2 1 0 1992 Buffalo 3 0 0 Totals 8 4 0 Overall Total 106 81 0
* 1988--Won divisional playoff against Houston, 17-10; lost conference championship to Cincinnati, 21-10.
* 1989--Lost divisional playoff to Cleveland, 34-30.
* 1990--Won divisional playoff against Miami, 44-34; won conference championship against Raiders, 51-3; lost Super Bowl XXV to New York Giants, 20-19.
* 1991--Won divisional playoff against Kansas City, 37-14; won conference championship against Denver, 10-7; lost Super Bowl XXVI to Washington, 37-24.
* 1992--Won wild-card playoff against Houston, 41-38 (overtime); won divisional playoff against Pittsburgh, 24-3; won conference championship against Miami, 29-10.
Times researcher Tom Lutgen contributed to this story.