LEVY Led, Buffalo Bills Followed

Thursday, August 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) _ Coach and history buff Marv Levy always had a fitting war story handy to rally his Buffalo Bills.

Former special teams star Steve Tasker remembered one, involving U.S. Marines forced to cross an open field to take out a German machine-gun emplacement during the First World War.

``They had a guy leading the wave, and he was asked, 'What are you going to do to get these guys across the field?''' Tasker recalled. ``And he said, 'I'm just going to tell them two words: 'Follow me.'''

Just like the Bills followed their own leader into the NFL history books, in the 1990s becoming the only team to reach four straight Super Bowls. They lost all four but they kept going back.

Fittingly, as a result of his ability to captivate the Bills' imaginations, Levy will be the first from that group to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he is inducted Saturday in Canton, Ohio.

``Telling that story to a bunch of football players was inspiring,'' said Tasker, who under Levy emerged as a blue-collar hero in Buffalo. ``You see guys like Bruce Smith and Andre Reed and Jim Kelly and Cornelius Bennett, and I tell you what, whether they admit it or not, we followed Marv. We followed Marv.''

Although a keen strategist, Levy is best regarded for his ability to mold the group of talented young players he inherited in 1986.

``Superstars don't make teams,'' said Kelly, the team's quarterback, who is eligible for the Hall of Fame this year for the first time. ``He became our coach at a time when he was with a lot of young players that had potential but we needed direction.''

Levy provided that.

``He's a smart guy. He knew,'' Kelly said. ``You think of all the guys we had on our team. If you weren't the right coach, and you didn't know how to handle the type of players we had, it could've been a disaster.''

That Levy's Bills never won a Super Bowl becomes less material as time passes. More remarkable is that he had it in him to coax that group _ a team that put Buffalo on the map as a city of chokers _ to make it back each and every January.

``The first thing I did when we got to training camp,'' Levy always said, ``was to tell them it was a new season and to forget everything that happened the year before.''

While vindication might not be in Levy's vast vocabulary _ he considers it recognition _ many perceive his induction to be just that.

``It's very much vindication,'' said Larry Felser, retired Buffalo News football writer. ``Absolutely, he should be the first of that group to get in because he created that team. Marv was the guy who came in and put it together. He was the carpenter.''

Levy, who played at Coe College in Iowa and went on to earn a graduate degree at Harvard, took the long way to get to Buffalo, while following his lifetime desire to coach football. Among his stops included teaching history and English as well as coaching 16 years at the college ranks, and in the Canadian, the now-defunct U.S. football leagues and the Kansas City Chiefs, where he improved the team each year but ended up getting fired, a decision Chiefs executives still regret.

It's when he arrived in Buffalo _ hired by longtime colleague Bill Polian, who will introduce him Saturday _ that the pieces fell in place. The Bills were a raw but promising group that included Kelly, and Smith and Cornelius Bennett and added Thurman Thomas and Reed,

Levy became their motivator, mostly with an unwavering knack for saying the right thing.

There was his standard: ``Where would you rather be than right here right now?''

Yet Levy managed to maintain a perspective unlike most others in his profession, a quality evoked in perhaps his most memorable comment.

It was days before the 1993 Super Bowl, the last the Bills would reach. At his last news conference, Levy was asked if the game was a ``must-win'' in light of his team's three previous losses.

``World War II was a must win,'' Levy retorted.

The Cowboys won handily, 30-13. Levy left with his self-respect intact.

``My idealism prevails,'' he once said. ``For I believe that the day a person becomes a cynic is the day he loses his youth.''

Levy, who turns 76 the day before his induction, hasn't lost that.

``I hope I haven't. I don't hear as well as I once did but, other than that, I don't think I've lost it,'' he said. ``I love the game. I've been very fortunate.''

Levy retired at the end of the 1997 season. His 123 victories are the most in Bills franchise history and his 154 career wins _ the other 31 in Kansas City _ rank him 10th in the league.

Now an NFL analyst for Fox Sports Net, Levy is the 11th coach to be inducted, and third member of the Bills, joining O.J. Simpson and Billy Shaw.

``Certainly, when I went into coaching, I never had any idea that something like this might happen,'' Levy said. ``I went in because I enjoyed the idea of coaching. I'm thrilled. I have to admit it. And anybody that isn't doesn't belong in the hall.''

Levy credited his players for the honor. Yet he was the one who instilled in them the desire and leadership to succeed.

``Leadership,'' Levy said, ``is the ability to get other people to get the best out of themselves. And it's manifested by getting them not to follow you but to join you.''

It's like the Marine commander in the war story. It happened in the World War I Battle of Belleau Wood, where Levy's father was among the soldiers to cross that field.

``That was a Marine Corps tenet. The leaders never said, 'You guys go.' It was, 'Follow me.' You have to pay the same price,'' Levy said. ``I'm very complimented that Steve remembered that.''