Former Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy was on campus Tuesday, March 9 to give a lecture in the series entitled, “The Necessity of Failure: Achievement Through Adversity.” Levy’s lecture, “Overcoming Adversity and Achieving Success,” included many humorous football anecdotes and also focused on the tools and techniques necessary to be successful.
Levy was introduced by Assistant Professor of Political Science and Bills fan James McAllister. McAllister said Levy was the “best possible speaker for this subject. I couldn’t come up with anyone more qualified to speak on the subject of failure than Marv Levy.”
McAllister also stressed that even though Levy lost four Super Bowls, “People forget how many big games have to be won to get to the Super Bowl.” Levy’s Bills won four consecutive American Football Conference Championships from 1990-93, and appeared in an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls from 1991-94.
McAllister concluded his introduction by calling Levy “The Winston Churchill of coaching,” and crediting him with resurrecting the city of Buffalo in the 1980s.
After a long round of applause from the substantial Chapin Hall audience, Levy began his remarks with an anecdote about Churchill and then retold his 1991 Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants.
“Late in the evening on the last Sunday of January in 1991, I stood along the sidelines at Tampa Stadium. Gathered there with me were approximately 50 other Buffalo Bills and coaches. . .. The attention of a sports loving nation was transfixed out on that field as well. . ..And now the numbers on the scoreboard clock, there in Tampa, showed that a mere eight seconds remained. . ..The score was 20-19, the New York Giants were winning. We had taken over the ball on our own 15-yard line a minute and 30 seconds earlier. At stake, the Super Bowl Championship. . ..We were down on their 29 yard line, we sent our field goal team out onto the field, we lined up, I remember standing on the sideline holding hands with all of our players. Our place-kicker kicked the ball and it rose into the night Florida sky, about that far [holds his hands three feet apart] outside the right upright.”
Levy said that the loss helped him learn how to overcome challenges, disappointments and failures. More importantly for him, he learned how to build for future successes. Speaking about his team “There was a certain fiber about that group of men with whom I associated with that has enriched my life tremendously. They knew how to battle back from disappointments and failures and achieve great successes.”
Levy illustrated this point with another Buffalo playoff game, the 1992 first-round match against the Houston Oilers. The Bills were losing 28-3 at halftime, and were playing without star running back Thurman Thomas, linebacker Cornelius Bennett and starting quarterback Jim Kelly, who was injured.
On the Bills’ first offensive play of the second half, quarterback Frank Reich’s pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. The Bills now trailed 35-3. In the final 25 minutes of the game, the Bills made the biggest comeback in NFL history, winning the game 41-38 in overtime.
Levy then discussed his method of rallying from his disappointments and failures. “When you lose, there is a period of time that you mourn. Then, you put it behind you. You don’t continue to mourn forever because you take on the mantle of a loser. Then you own up. What could we have done differently?. . .Third, you recognize the good. If you want to come back from failure, you’ve got to believe in the principles and the people who are going to be involved in recovering from some endeavor that did not succeed. . ..Then you form a plan. You don’t just lie there in the fetal position, you work very hard, begrudgingly sometimes, in forming a plan. And then, you act. A brilliant idea is just a job half done.”
Levy then discussed leadership. “As a coach I have the responsibility for providing leadership and for developing attitudes which bring success.” He told the crowd that he is qualified to speak about leadership because he has been coaching for 47 years, which is such a long time that his Social Security number is four.
Levy believes leadership is “the ability to get other people to get the very best out of themselves. How is it manifested? Not by getting them to follow you, but by getting them to join you.”
While leading the Bills, Levy had two only rules for his team: be on time, and be a good citizen. For everything else, he tried to educate his players about the right course of action.
On success he said, “Success is not a destination, it’s a journey. The only way to succeed is to be brave enough to risk failure, and to experience it too. If you’re going to achieve it is never going to be one smooth unmarred road. Never. Persistence is the toughness of spirit. . ..Success is measured by the effect that you have on the people with whom you interact.”
Near the conclusion of his remarks, Levy exhorted the audience to “Enjoy what you’re going to do. Love the work you’re going to do, that’s the important thing. Security shouldn’t be your main concern. Take a chance. The most common debilitating human ailment there is is cold feet. If Michelangelo had wanted to play it safe, he would have painted the floor of the Sistine Chapel. You’ve got to take a chance. Welcome some uncomfortable moments, they provide you with the opportunity to enhance your self-esteem.”
Levy’s favorite aspect of his job as a football coach was that he had to make 200 decisions every game and had only 30 seconds to make each one.
Levy concluded his remarks with a wish list for the audience.
“I wish for all of you an idealism that lasts a lifetime because the day you become a cynic is the day you lose your youth. I wish you difficulties, but not an inordinate number. I wish for you to laugh often, and frequently at yourself. I wish for you friends who’ve earned your trust, and the trustworthiness that earns you friends. I wish for you just the right amount of impatience. I wish for you the opportunity, on occasion, to be a seven-point underdog. I wish for you tolerance, given and received. I wish for you being able to say often and with a touch of wonderment in your voice, where else would I rather be than right here, right now. Finally, I wish for you certain mechanical skills, the kind that will enable you, when necessary, to rebuild broken dreams. The kind that will allow you to say always, whether you’re 8 or 88, the best is yet to come.”
After his remarks, Levy answered a few questions from the crowd, including whether or not he would coach again.
He responded, “When and if positions are open, that’s the time when a person who has an interest to express any interest he might have. . ..Would I coach again? Possibly. I’m more rested than I was a year ago. But if someone wants somebody my age  is another story.”
Levy’s lecture included a broad range of anecdotes and included quotes from such a disparate group of men as Knute Rockne, Booker T. Washington, Harry Truman, Bear Bryant, Andrew Jackson, William Thackery, Martin Luther King, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. He illustrated most of his points and philosophies with often-humorous anecdotes and stories from his highly successful coaching career.
Levy is tenth in career wins in NFL history, and was named AFC Coach of the Year in 1995. In addition to coaching in the NFL, Levy has also been a Canadian Football League head coach and has coached in the college ranks. In the CFL, Levy coached the Montreal Alouettes for five years, winning the CFL Grey Cup title twice. Before coaching at the professional level, Levy was a highly successful college coach. He was the head coach at Williams & Mary for five years (1964-68), and was twice named Southern Conference Coach of the Year. He has also held head coaching positions at the University of California (1960-63), and at the University of New Mexico (1958-59), where he earned the Skyline Conference Coach of the Year honors both years.
A Chicago native, Levy graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Coe College, playing football and running track. He also received a master’s degree from Harvard University in English History.