Friday, March 14, 2014

Marv Levy: Champion Without a Ring

It is a paradoxical reality of the sports universe that if one never makes it to the big game one can still be perceived as a winner but if one makes it to the big game repeatedly without winning it then one is generally perceived as a loser. Coach Marv Levy led the Buffalo Bills to an unprecedented four straight Super Bowls (1991-94) and if the Bills had won just one of those games then history would view Levy much more kindly--but the Bills lost all four, including three blowouts plus one game decided on a last second field goal missed by Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood, and thus it is unlikely that Levy will ever get the full credit that he is due.

Rick Telander, a narrative non-fiction master, realized that there is much more to Levy than those four Super Bowl losses; in an October 17, 1994 Sports Illustrated article titled No Joke, Telander explained why Levy is not only a great coach but also a well-rounded human being. Levy possesses the intelligence and determination to succeed in just about any field but the Harvard history major fell in love with football, a decision that did not meet with the immediate approval of his father. When he told Sam Levy what he planned to do, the elder Levy considered the matter in silence before saying simply, "Be a good one."

The stereotypical football coach breathes fire and instills fear but Marv Levy rejected that approach: "I hear sometimes that to be a good coach you have to be mean. I disagree, because the essential quality of a coach is to be a good teacher. Just because my personality is different from, say, Mike Ditka's doesn't mean a thing. What I always say is, 'Plan your work and work your plan.' If you have everything prepared, the rest takes care of itself.'"

After that fourth Super Bowl loss, Levy offered a defiant response when asked if the Bills could make a fifth straight trip to the Super Bowl: "Is our goal to win? No! Our goal is to develop our team, to earn what we get, to learn, to develop unselfish attitudes. If we achieve that, the result is that we'll win."

Those words may sound trite but coaches who have won multiple championships--including Phil Jackson and John Wooden--said very similar things: competing in sports at the highest level is about the process, about doing your work the right way and about having the proper mindset: those things do not guarantee championships but they guarantee that you can look in the mirror and know that you, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, filled "the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run."

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