Marv Levy without a doubt is one of the most storied football coaches of all time. His book Where Else Would You Rather Be is a biography of his over 40 years of coaching. He lead the Buffalo Bills to four Super Bowls, but worked his way through the college football ranks and as a special teams coach on a few NFL teams. He is without a doubt a storied football coach.
Listen to the Marvy Levy CYInterview:
(Backup Player: Including IE)
Chris Yandek: First off how are you?
Marv Levy: “Fine Chris. A pleasure to be with you.”
CY: Your 400 page book Where Else Would You Rather Be is probably the best book for anyone who wants to be a coach and most complete look as you go from one place to next through over 40 years of coaching. Tell me about it.
ML: “Well, Chris I actually wrote more than that. The editor very wisely probably compressed it down. He continued to capture the essence of what I wanted to get across. I wanted it to be more than a book about touchdowns, interceptions, and how we prepared for this game and so on. I hoped there would be some laughs. Some real insights on what happens in the locker room. How I got to where I got. How I was a football player and played in a division three program. It’s unusual probably. It was a lot of fun to write. I thought way back to the first time I became a coach. I was the youngest college coach at a major university in the country in 1958. I was just so thrilled. As I lined up along the sideline for the opening kick off before the first game I would ever coach, the players would line up around me and you’re supposed to give them wisdom, but they hardly listen. A feeling I blurted out was where else would you rather be right here and right now. I have said that before the kickoff of every game for the next 40 years that I coached.”
CY: You ended up with a degree from Harvard University. During your coaching career you gave many speeches to your players about Winston Churchill, Adolph Hitler, and many other well know people. How much do you think the education you received helped prepare your players with the speeches about history you gave?
ML: “Well, first of all a good education prepares you well for anything. I didn’t talk about those types of things all the time. 98 percent of what we did was teach fundamentals and preparing for a game plan. On a rare occasion I might take a story from history and relate it to something that was happening in a game. I tried to make it an entertaining story so it would capture the players’ imagination. Sure education is valuable in any respect regardless of what field you are in. If I could translate some of that into stories that might help prepare our players I did so. I didn’t do it that often as it would become a bore. On the occasion where I felt I might have an impact, I did it. The 12 years I was in Buffalo I might relate to an important situation maybe eight times through a 12 year period.”
CY: You were the head coach at New Mexico, but what I found more interesting was when you were the head coach at California University. You talk about in the book about the tough recruiting restrictions and how tough it was to win at University of California in the early 1960’s while you were there. Tell me about that.
ML: “Went to the University of California at a time when there was no affirmative action. There were very few minority players on our team. The entrance requirements were totally unbending. The university was being overwhelmed by student numbers. We were only able to recruit two players from out of state while I was there. Every player coming in had to have at least a B average in four years of English, a foreign language, science, history, and they had to have that. If they were one B of short of that goodbye. Combine that with the fact in the 1960’s was a period of high student activism, political activism, and anti war activism. Nowhere was it more prevalent than on the campus of the University of California. A large continent of student body was against intercollegiate athletics. All those things added up and we put together a fantastic coaching staff. Bill Walsh would go on to coach the San Francisco 49ers. Mike White would go on to coach the University of Illinois and with the Oakland Raiders. Dick Vermeil was also there, but we couldn’t win. After four years I was gone.”
CY: You say in the chapter after you left the University of California that no coach should resign under pressure by other influences within a college or organization. Why do you honestly think that?
ML: “Well, there were some people in the athletic department that wanted me to resign. We are getting better and improving a little bit, but it was incremental. I wasn’t a big name coach and they wanted to bring one in to raise money. I understood that. I wasn’t going to resign. I didn’t want to. I liked living there and thought we could get a little better. We kept plugging away, but finally was persisted enough. I realized at a later time to have them fire you was in essence what it was anyway. If you believe you are doing a good job in which you enjoy and like, then don’t resign regardless of the pressures.”
CY: In 1967 in your fourth year as the head coach of William & Mary you defeated the number one ranked Navy Midshipmen 27-16 in a huge upset. What do you remember about pulling off that major upset, but also about your players who you called the most courageous young men you surrounded yourself around?
ML: “I went to William & Mary, the second oldest college campus in the country besides Harvard. It was established in 1696. They are a magnificent group of overachievers. I think in that chapter I did call them the overachievers. They were so dedicated and played so far beyond what their physical capabilities might have dictated that they could. It was a great experience. This was another institution with very high academic requirements. It was a very cohesive student body and that certainly helped.”
CY: Your first coaching job in the NFL was special teams coach with the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1969 season. What was that first pro football job like for you and the organization?
ML: “I went in and I enjoyed it. There were some attributes coaching professional football that were much more attractive than coaching college. You didn’t have to recruit. No one was going to flunk out. Everyone had the same entrance requirements. You were on a much more even scale. You could devote your full time to coaching and planning the games. As a collegiate, I think you spend 50 percent of your time recruiting. It is a distasteful process. The caliber of play in professional football compared to college is better and everybody knows it. They don’t realize how much better. What a giant leap forward in the ability of talent level, the speed, and even the grasp of what you are trying to do. There is no other distractions before the players.”
CY: The 1970 NFL season you moved as the special teams coach to the Los Angeles Rams under head coach George Allen. What was that organization like and working with George Allen for the first time?
ML: “George Allen is a renowned coach. He is in the hall of fame. How fortunate I was to be able to go to work for him. He worked you hard, but he was aware of people who worked hard in return. He rewarded them. He gave them credit. He allowed you a lot of personal responsibility as long as you did the job he liked. I owe so much to George Allen and I learned so much from George Allen that I put to use once I became a head coach.”
CY: You spent the 1971-1972 NFL seasons with George Allen as a special teams coach with the Washington Redskins. What are your thoughts on the Super Bowl 7 loss to the Miami Dolphins and the time you spent in Washington?
ML: “In 1972 we did face the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl in Los Angeles, California. That was the season they went undefeated. They beat us in the Super Bowl game and 14-7 was the score. We were in it all the way and might have had a chance to upset them and take the Super Bowl title ourselves. We didn’t, but we had a group of players on our kicking teams Chris that were just unbelievable. It was a time when other teams weren’t implying kicking teams coaches. George Allen had enough foresight to realize how important that aspect of the game was. Our teams set records that would never be paralleled. We blocked 15 kicks in one year. We allowed our opponents a total of 48 yards in punt return for the entire season. The starting point for our opponents after kick off for the full season was inside the 20 yard line. I say it in the book that you’ll never see the likes of them again.”
CY: From 1973-1977 football seasons you coached the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football league that was headed by owner Sam Berger who saved the dying franchise. What do you remember most from that organization and your time in the Canadian Football League?
ML: “I went up there and what a tremendous experience it was. A great cultural experience as well. The city of Montreal I would say is 70 percent French speaking. It helped me polish up a foreign language. It was a wonderful place to be. I savored living there even with the cold weather. A man named Sam Berger was a wonderful older gentleman. He was in his 80’s at that time, but he was so alert and so with it. He was a general in World War 2 in charge of logistics for Canadian forces that were coming into Great Britain. He was a renowned lawyer and also a member of Parliament. The league was about to go under and he bought the team and revitalized them. What a man of high principle. I have been a lucky man in some of the people that I have worked with in George Allen and Sam Berger, as well as many others in future.”
CY: The five years you were as head coach as the Kansas City Chiefs from 1978-1982 seemed to be a team you brought along that improved every year you were their coach. Do you still feel when you got fired that it was a bad decision since they threw away five years of improvement you brought to that team?
ML: “Yes, I said that. The owner of the Kansas City Chiefs was a fine gentleman and his name is Lamar Hunt. There is another man working with him who was the president of the team. We just did not get along. We saw things differently. He did some wonderful things for the Kansas City Chiefs. He was good from the marketing and business standpoint. I thought he meddled so much in football, which was an area he wasn’t that conversed in. We clashed and that happens with everybody sometime. Finally, he was able to say even though we improved our record, which was a team I took over who had two wins the season before, it just wasn’t working out. He convinced Mr. Hunt to let me go which was fine, but I have to say this that three years later Mr. Hunt recommended me to the Buffalo Bills, and that the Kansas City Chiefs had made a mistake in firing me. He was very instrumental in me coming on and being coach with the Buffalo Bills. I am indebted to him for that.”
CY: You took over as the Buffalo Bills coach in 1986 in the middle of the season. What was it like to start coaching a team in the middle of the season?
ML: “You can’t come in with your program with your offense and defense. Not even the coaching staff you might have selected. It was invigorating. I was back in the NFL. There I was out at practice with players. Many of the coaches remained from the staff of the coach that had been let go. They’re good men, coaches, and teachers who I was fortunate to again work with. The general manager Bill Polian, who there was no parallel to what he was like to work with and his intelligence, and the way we were able to coordinate with each other. The director of player personnel John Butter who later became general manager when Bill moved on. I said it at my induction after 12 years at the Hall of Fame that I worked for Ralph Wilson, but he wasn’t my boss. He was my friend and remains my friend. I stepped into a team that had lost the previous three past seasons that won two games each of those seasons. I stepped into a room with a young Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, and Andre Reed that would all end up in the Hall of Fame. We were also able to add Thurman Thomas and Steve Tasker. We were able to get better fast.”
CY: In Super Bowl 25 you lost to the New York Giants 20-19 when your kicker Scott Norwood missed the last second field goal. What I find interesting is after the game in the locker room many of the other players made an excuse to make him feel like it wasn’t his fault he missed that kick and it shouldn’t have come down to that. Tell me about that and Super Bowl 25 as a whole.
ML: “It was a close fought game. It was 20-19. The New York Giants were leading and we put together a last second desperation drive. We got down close enough to attempt a 47 yard field goal on the last play of the game and it did go two feet outside the upright. Naturally the kicker Scott Norwood was crushed. He was well liked by our players. A quiet unassuming person. On our road to the Super Bowl we had won three or four games by his last minute making of a kick. The players all realized it. One after another they realized the pain he was feeling by his locker. They said if I would have done so and so or I would have done this or I would have held on to a pass. They let him all know we lost Scott, not you. The year after we went back to the Super Bowl Scott won three or four more games on our trip back there.”
CY: What was it like to coach against Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins for as many years as you did with you both being around football for decades?
ML: “I have been coaching for quite a while. It was an honor to stand on the sidelines opposite men like Don Shula. Over the years we played them and sometimes in the playoffs, I got to know Don Shula very well. I have great respect for him. He was the same person after the game whether his team won or your team won. I admired that in him. We remain friends today. I have the highest regard for a man with a one loss record that will ever be equaled. He has won 347 games in his career. People have to realize that would be like having 20 consecutive 17-0 seasons.”
CY: What did it feel like in 2001 when you were added into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
ML: “Well, Chris if anybody isn’t excited or feeling a sense of almost disbelief or awe about being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and you don’t experience those emotions he doesn’t belong there. Yes I was thrilled. When you say a few words at the podium upon the induction I looked out to the audience and there were guys who had been inducted 30 or 40 years ago and they still have that glow about them like gee am I really here. Look at all these guys and I understood it.”
CY: How do you think football has changed since the last three decades you were around the NFL?
ML: “Well, every profession has changed. Journalism has changed. Medicine has changed. Technology has changed and it evolves. The same is true of football. Free agency has now allowed teams to be a dynasty as they have been before. It is not a great thing for the fans, but it is a good thing for the players. In one aspect it’s good for the fans because it allows a weak team to get healthy more quickly than they had been in previous years. It evolves since it’s founding way back in 1869. It has been a little bit different 15 years down the road than it had been those 15 years earlier. I think people are much more aware about how important the kicking game is. You just don’t talk about it. They work on it and practice it. Defenses have become more complex and difficult for quarterbacks to operate. I think that it might have been 20 or 30 years ago, but it’s still football and the same things will win the game. If you run, throw, block, kick, tackle, and catch you’re going to win. It’s not about x’s and o’s. It is about fundamentals.”
CY: Finally, is there any chance you will ever coach again and if not, what else is in store for your future?
ML: “Well, is there any chance of course there is. I would never say no I am not going to. If I wind up back there I told a lie. It won’t be the first one I have ever told, but I never wanted to tell one. If not I am doing a lot of media work. I write a column for www.nfl.com. I do pre game for the Chicago Bears and post game TV wrap up. If I don’t I may write. I enjoy the process. I enjoyed writing Where Else Would You Rather Be. I have enjoyed this opportunity with you to talk about it. I do want to say again it is not just a football book. There is some poetry in it. There is some pathos in it. There are some insights in it.”
To find out more information and purchase a copy of Where Else Would You Rather Be check out the follow link http://www.sportspublishingllc.com/book.cfm?id=628