It’s in a strategic position – just above his desk – one of the first things Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman sees when he looks up from his work. The object in question: a note from Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, the result of a training-camp chat between the two men in 2008, Trestman’s first year at the helm.
“We had talked periodically when we were both in the NFL, but we didn’t have a long-standing relationship,” Trestman said. “He just wanted to give me some insight into the league and tell me how great his time was here. It was very thoughtful of him.”
It was the sort of personal attention and old-fashioned courtliness that define Levy; he may be out of the game, but he’s never far away.
“The one thing about Marv is he has never, ever forgotten the CFL or the guys who played for him,” said Wally Buono, vice-president and general manager of the B.C. Lions. “He’s always been there to help, he’s always stayed in touch.” Buono, who played for Levy in Montreal, wasn’t surprised that one of the first calls came from Levy when Buono set the CFL record for most coaching wins two years ago.
These days Levy is pushing 90 and is living in contented retirement from football in Chicago, the city of his birth, although it would be more accurate to say he lives in quasi-retirement, given he recently published a football-themed novel – this third book – and is at work on a new tome.
“I’m about 75 pages into a book,” he said recently from his home, “and I don’t know if anyone will be remotely interested in reading it – of poetry.”
Levy’s knowledge of literature and command of the English language befit the Harvard scholar that he is, although one can argue that the existential turmoil and agony that can only come from repeated heartbreak and failure – as in four straight Super Bowl losses – may be more helpful when it comes to composing verse.
The volume will be the first Levy has written on a non-football subject. His most recent book, a 2008 novel called Between the Lies, describes an unscrupulous coach who paid bonuses to players who hurt opponents. Asked if he’d been spending a lot of time in New Orleans during the research, Levy laughed and said he couldn’t have imagined fiction imitating life so closely, and that he mainly got the ideas in the book from his days working for George Allen in Washington.
“I had no idea any of [the bounty] stuff had happened,” Levy said. “There have always been coaches in the league who thought stuff like that was going on, though. Allen was always convinced people were cheating on him. He used to check the meeting rooms for microphones, all that stuff.”
Whatever his literary prowess, the grocery wholesaler’s son from Chicago’s flinty south side will mostly be remembered for the gridiron accomplishments that earned him a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio, a career he dropped out of law school to pursue.
And long before the words “wide right” were seared into the consciousness of Buffalo sports fans, the professorial, silver-haired gentleman who long prowled the Bills’ sideline had a good thing going in Montreal.
They were heady times for the CFL, which in those days could compete head-to-head with the NFL for talent, a notion that almost seems quaint now. It was only a mild surprise, then, when Montreal Alouettes general manager J.I. Albrecht poached an assistant coach named Marv Levy from the Super Bowl finalist Washington Redskins. The Als had just caused a splash by signing Heisman Trophy winner and NFL first-rounder Johnny Rodgers, a brilliant running back and receiver out of Nebraska.
It was the spring of 1973.
“We weren’t a very good team at all when [Levy] arrived,” said Buono, a linebacker on that squad. That changed quickly under Levy, a war veteran and Phi Beta Kappa member who was ahead of his time in many respects.
“He brought a certain professionalism to the Alouettes that’s still there today,” said Buono, who says his view of the game was profoundly influenced by his experience under Levy. “He expected you to be a man and take ownership of what you do. He was innovative in that he allowed guys, particularly veterans, to participate in the game planning and in calling the game. He was a delegator.”
There is also a story – possibly apocryphal, given Levy has no memory of it – that he and Albrecht engineered a 1975 rule change allowing teams to block on punt returns, a tweak that made Rodgers, one of the game’s most dangerous players, nearly impossible to defend.
Though it was his tenure as Allen’s special-teams coach that gave him his first shot at a head-coaching job, Levy had been an accomplished coach at the NCAA level, at William and Mary and the University of California, among others.
Levy’s coaching tree is thick with verdant branches – it includes former NFL coaches Wade Phillips, Bobby Ross, Ted Marchibroda and fellow Hall of Famer Bill Walsh – but Montreal was his first opportunity as a head man in professional football.
“When I came up for the interview, [then Als owner] Sam Berger asked me why I would be a good coach for his team, and I told him ‘Mr. Berger, you don’t need a good coach, you need a good coaching staff,’ ” Levy said.
Once hired, he brought in future CFL bench bosses like Rod Rust and Cal Murphy. Levy and Albrecht also set up a large network of part-time scouts across Canada and the United States – a novel practice for the day - that included Bill Polian, the future general manager of the Buffalo Bills.
The net result was three championship games in five years (and two Grey Cup rings), and a 50-34-4 record. It’s a mark surpassed only by Trestman’s 59-31 record over the same time period.
Levy’s acumen and success landed him a job as head man of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1978, where he stayed for five years before jumping to the USFL. He eventually went to Buffalo, where he fibbed about his age, thinking they’d be more inclined to hire someone under 60.
After that followed a 123-78 record and an unprecedented four straight AFC championships (and no, he has no regrets over never winning the Super Bowl).
His legacy, by any standard, is a grand edifice.
And its foundations extend all the way to the CFL.