He is a former professional football coach, in the CFL as head coach of the Montreal Alouettes (1973–1977), and in the NFL as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs (1978–1982) and the Buffalo Bills (1986–1997), coaching the Bills to four consecutive American Football Conference Championships. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
Levy’s family emigrated from Montreal, Quebec, Canada. His father, a decorated World War I veteran, ran a small business on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, USA. He graduated from South Shore High School in Chicago, in 1943. Following graduation, he enlisted in theArmy Air Forces and spent the remainder of World War II in the military; Levy was discharged from the army shortly after the war ended. Though he was known to use historical examples to inspire his teams, Levy corrected those who used war and combat metaphors to describe football games by telling them that he actually fought in a war and that football and war were in no way comparable. Referring to the Super Bowl, he once said “This is not a must-win; World War II was a must-win”.
Levy enrolled at Coe College in Iowa. There he earned varsity letters in football, track, and basketball. He obtained a degree in English literature, was granted membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and was twice voted student council president. He was also a member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity. He was admitted to Harvard University for graduate studies in 1951, earning a masters degree in English history.
His first coaching job was at St. Louis Country Day School, coaching football and basketball, the latter in which he coached to a championship. Two years later, Levy returned to Coe College as an assistant football coach (1953–1954) and in his second stint as a head coach, he also won a championship — once again in basketball. In 1954, he joined the coaching staff at the University of New Mexico and was named head coach in 1958. In two seasons as head coach, he guided the Lobos to a 14–6 record and earned Skyline Conference Coach of the Year honors both years. He interviewed with the University of California, Berkeley on February 2, 1960, and was announced as the new head coach of the Cal Bears on February 5, 1960. Despite selecting a young Bill Walsh as a coaching assistant, Levy’s best record during his four season tenure as head coach at Cal from 1960-1963 was 4-5-1. He finished his college-coaching career with a five-year stint as head coach at the College of William and Mary where he twice earned Southern Conference Coach of the Year honors.
Levy began his professional football coaching career in 1969 as kicking teams coach for the Philadelphia Eagles before joining George Allen’s staff as a special teams coach for the Los Angeles Rams in 1970. He followed Allen to Washington DC in 1971, where he served as the Washington Redskins‘ special teams coach for two seasons. Levy then served as the head coach of the Montreal Alouettes of theCanadian Football League for five seasons. He coached Montreal to three CFL Grey Cup appearances and two championships, and won the Annis Stukus Trophy (Coach of the Year) in 1974. Levy returned to the NFL in 1978 as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. He coached the Chiefs for five seasons with steady improvement each year, but was fired at the end of the strike-shortened 1982 season with a 3–6 record.
Midway through the 1986 season, following a two-year hiatus from coaching and one season as the head coach of the Chicago Blitz of the USFL, Levy returned to the NFL as head coach of the Buffalo Bills. He finished the season with a 2–5 record. In 1987, his first full season with the Bills, the team returned to respectability with a 7–8 record and were in the playoff hunt throughout most of the season. The following season the team posted a 12–4 record and won the first of six AFC Eastern Division titles. With his high-powered “no-huddle” offense, Levy’s Bills went on to lead his AFC championship team to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
From 1988 through 1997, the Bills were first in the AFC in winning percentage and second only to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL. Levy, the winningest coach in Bills’ history, recorded a 112–70 regular season record and was 11–8 in the playoffs during his eleven seasons with the Bills. He was named NFL Coach of the Year in 1988 and AFC Coach of the Year in 1988, 1993, and 1995.
Levy’s coaching tree is among the largest of any NFL head coach; however, this is largely due to the fact that he once had Bill Walsh as an assistant and most of Walsh’s assistants never worked under Levy. Among notable non-Walsh coaches are Wade Phillips, who succeeded Levy as the Bills’ head coach and also served as head coach of the Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys (along with interim coaching stints for the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons), as well as former Baltimore Ravens and Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts coach Ted Marchibroda, and New York Sentinelshead coach Ted Cottrell.
Outspoken pundit Chuck Dickerson worked under Levy for several years in Buffalo before being fired.
Levy retired in 1997 and became an analyst for NFL.com. In 2001 Levy was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Along with former Bills’ special-teamer Steve Tasker, Levy did local broadcasts for the Bills’ pre-season games until being appointed the Bills’ general manager in 2006. During the regular season he was a part of the Chicago Bears pregame show on ESPN Radio 1000, as well as a Bears postgame show on Comcast SportsNet.
On January 5, 2006, Bills owner Ralph Wilson enlisted Levy, at the age of 80, to act as General Manager and Vice President of Football Operations for the Buffalo Bills. Following the resignation of Mike Mularkey, there was initial speculation (created by Levy’s own comments at a team press conference) that Levy would resume a coaching role with the team. To eliminate this speculation, and to minimize any future tension between Levy and the Bills’ new head coach, team owner Wilson said: “To say it very, very succinctly, Marv Levy is our general manager. He will never be the coach.”
Levy’s first order of business was to hire a new coach as a replacement for Mularkey, who resigned within days of Levy’s appointment. After a strenuous interview process Levy and team owner Wilson hired Detroit Lions interim head coach Dick Jauron as coach. Jauron formerly was head coach of the Chicago Bears.
Following the Bills’ last game of the 2007 season, Levy decided to step down as GM of the Bills (his two year contract had expired). He has returned to live in his native Chicago, although he has also spent some time in Montreal mentoring Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman.
In 2009, Levy collaborated with Buffalo football historian Jeffrey Miller (Professional Football Researchers Association) to write a book entitled Game Changers: The Greatest Plays in Buffalo Bills Football History. In August 2011, Levy published a second book, Between the Lies, featuring a team based loosely on the Bills (including a quarterback named “Kelly James”) progressing to the Super Bowl against a Los Angeles-based team and its take-no-prisoners head coach, while a scandal erupts, placing the integrity of the game at risk. Levy has indicated he has future books planned, some of which may not involve football.