Thanks to a shoe full of staples, Marv Levy didn’t always lose the championship game.
When most football fans think of Levy, they recall most vividly that he is the only NFL head coach to lose four straight Super Bowls, a feat of both remarkable tenacity and painful memory. The Buffalo Bills were arguably the most dominant team in the NFL between 1990 and 1993, going 49-15 and winning four straight AFC championships, a winning percentage of .777. Yet because each of those seasons ended in defeat, Levy is thought of by some as a loveable loser when he was anything but.
Officials of the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame disabused those who may carry such erroneous thoughts last week when they announced Levy as only the second coach in both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the CFL Hall of Fame when he is inducted by the CFL later this year. It is an honor long overdue for the 95-year-old Levy, who remains as spry and chipper in retirement as he once was prowling the Montreal Alouettes’ sideline from 1973 through 1977 during his first stint as a pro football head coach.
Levy went 43-31-4 during his five-year tenure in Montreal and reached the CFL’s version of the Super Bowl three times, twice winning the Grey Cup and losing his shot at a third by the same one-point margin the New York Giants would beat his Bills by in the first of those four Super Bowl defeats. In both cases, it was an errant field goal try that brought his team down.
Scott Norwood famously missed a 47-yard field goal in the final moments of Super Bowl XXV, sending it wide right by a matter of inches in a 20-19 defeat. Fifteen years earlier, Levy had watched the same scenario unfold on a day so bitterly cold he was advised not to coach from the sidelines in the second half because his fingers were nearly frost-bitten.
Levy refused the doctor’s advice and stood there helplessly as the snap on a 19-yard potential game-winning field goal was bobbled by frozen fingers. The result was Don Sweet’s kick went, yes, wide right, and Levy’s Alouettes were defeated, 9-8.
Two years later, however, he would have them back in the Grey Cup for the third time in four years, and he would come away a champion again in what became his final game in Montreal.
He had a stapler to thank for it.
It was a frigid day at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, with a record crowd of 68,205 shivering fans in the stands. The field was better suited for the Montreal Canadiens than the Alouettes, frozen solid and slick as an ice rink.
With traction sure to be a problem, an aptly named Alouettes’ defensive back named Tony Proudfoot decided to punch staples into the bottom of his cleats to get better traction. It worked. And soon, without Levy’s knowledge, Proudfoot was handing the stapler around to his teammates, who quickly followed suit.
Now wearing shoes that functioned like snow tires, the Alouettes romped to a 41-6 victory over their baffled and slip-sliding-away opponent, the Edmonton Eskimos.
"The weather was awful," Levy told CBC after his election to the CFL Hall of Fame. "One of our players got someone to put staples in the shoes of our players unknown to me. That was unfair, but it gave us better traction than our opponent."
With that win, Levy achieved both goals he set for himself when he left the NFL’s Washington Redskins following the 1972 season after serving there as George Allen’s special teams' coach. He’d won championships and a head coaching job back in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I was a bit intrigued about Montreal and Canada, and I really admired and liked the owner [Sam Berger]," Levy recalled. "They offered me the head job, I don't know if it was with a raise or not, that didn't make any difference.
"I knew there'd been coaches who'd coached in the CFL and, if they did well, sometimes moved on to big boosts in pay with an NFL head job. Bud Grant [who went from Winnipeg to the NFL's Minnesota Vikings] was one of them. It was a variety of things: Head coach; great ownership; wonderful city; intrigued with the league and enthusiasm for something new. That inspired me."
Levy did not fare as well in Kansas City. But four years after being fired he took over the lowly Bills and built a dominating franchise in Buffalo, one that will always be remembered for its tenacious refusal to give up even in the face of yearly disappointment.
Those four Super Bowl losses tend to obscure the fact Levy went 112-70 in Buffalo, a winning percentage of .615, and 11-8 in the playoffs. Add his stints in Montreal and Kansas City and Levy went 186-143-4 as a pro football head coach while reaching the league championship game seven times.
If one also factors in his two-year stint running the Chicago Blitz of the doomed USFL, Levy ranks 12th all-time with 209 coaching victories. Yes, none of those came during the four straight seasons he took the Bills to the Super Bowl, but, as his record in Montreal shows, that wasn’t because he didn’t know how to win “the big one.”
He and Bud Grant are the only coaches to have been named Coach of the Year in both the NFL and the CFL and also are the only two to have led teams to both the Grey Cup championship and the Super Bowl. It’s ironic that Grant, too, lost all four of his Super Bowl appearances while leading the Minnesota Vikings.
What Levy’s election to the CFL’s Hall of Fame should remind us all is that it is folly to judge a coach by the loss of a championship game or two. Or three. Or even four. Levy, an Army veteran of World War II, put it best one year when asked if this latest Super Bowl was a “must win” because of the Bills’ past failures.
“This is not a must win,’’ Levy said. “World War II was a must-win.”
That is a perspective on sports, even at its highest level, we all could benefit from coming from someone who not only served 24 years as a head coach in pro football circles (17 in the NFL, five in the CFL and two in the USFL) but was a Phil Beta Kappa graduate of Cole College, with a degree in English literature, and the holder of a Master’s degree from Harvard in 1951. The following fall he found himself teaching English and coaching football at St. Louis Country Day School, launching a remarkable career as a coach, a winner and the coiner of a phrase that seemed to sum up his view of life.
“Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?’’ he used to ask his players.
Win or lose, that was how Marv Levy looked at his football life. A life that has now placed his name in the only two Pro Football Hall of Fames there are.