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'Wide right' nightmare

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Marv Levy who coached the Buffalo Bills during the Super Bowl years has a book coming out soon. He was the best football coach in Bill's history. He sometimes made more sense than the mayor of Buffalo. :frusty: He and his team will never be forgot in Buffalo.


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'Wide right' nightmare




LEVY: 'The ball leapt into the sky and soared toward the beseeching arms of the goalposts.'








In a new book excerpted here, the former Bills coach Marv Levy reflects on a crushing loss, Scott Norwood's character and the wonder of Buffalo's football fans.



This is the first of five excerpts from Marv Levy's book, "Marv Levy: Where Else Would You Rather Be?" The next four parts will run in the Sports section Monday through Thursday.

• • •



The ball rose, twirling end over end into the balmy Florida night sky. Forty-seven yards away from where it had been launched, the goal posts beckoned. An eerie silence descended on the packed stadium as the eyes of more than 70,000 people followed the solitary missile on its lonely journey. Elsewhere, in front of television sets throughout the world, millions of enthralled viewers joined in the vigil.


Standing just outside the perimeter of the playing field, I too, mouth agape, gazed transfixed as the ball's flight reached its apex and then continued hurtling toward the uprights' outstretched arms.


The seven-month odyssey we had begun on a hot, humid July day at our training camp site in Fredonia, N.Y., was split seconds away from its culmination. The New York Giants were leading our Buffalo Bills, 20-19.


At stake? The Super Bowl championship!


Just a minute and 26 seconds earlier - it had seemed like ages ago - we had taken possession of the football on our own 15-yard line with a minute and 30 seconds remaining to be played in the game. We would have this one final opportunity to achieve the most coveted of all football triumphs.


We went to work.


No huddle. Jim Kelly to Andre Reed; a screen pass to Thurman Thomas; and then Thurman again, this time on a draw play. Another completion to Andre. The clock kept running. Spike the ball. Kill the clock. Now it was Jim to James Lofton, who caught the pass inches inside the left sideline stripe. Quickly, James stepped out of bounds at the Giants' 29-yard line. There were four seconds left to play.


I sent our field goal team out onto the field.


Snap! Hold! Kick! The ball leapt into the sky and soared toward the beseeching arms of the goal posts. Closer and closer it came. And then - it fluttered on by, a scant two feet outside of the right upright.


The game was over. The Giants were Super Bowl champions. Imagine their jubilation. Imagine our desolation.

• • •


When you are a coach in the National Football League, there always comes one specific moment on game day when you are going to experience one of two intense emotions. Either a wave of ethereal serenity will wash over you, or - at the other end of the spectrum - you will become the victim of a despair so gripping that you can feel it physically. It is when you have lost the game, of course, that the latter sensation takes hold, and if that loss represents your outcome in the Super Bowl, the impact of what you are feeling is multiplied by infinity.


It starts with a throbbing in your temples; then you feel it creeping tightly up the back of your neck. You sense a weakening in all your joints and an invisible constriction clutching at your throat. . . . Most of all you feel the energy from that despicable frustration flowing from your torso down your arms into your balled-up fists while your psyche screams at you to pound those fists against any inanimate object in the area.


Every coach knows when that exact moment is going to come. Surprisingly, it does not occur as the final gun sounds, and the certainty of victory or defeat has been determined. The game may have ended, but there are still many tasks that need immediate attention.


In leaving the field a coach must be gracious in victory and able to maintain his dignity in defeat. In the locker room there are tired, bruised, and often injured players. They, along with the assistant coaches and everyone else who had been so immersed in that week's effort, need a head coach who is in charge and who can provide a sense of perspective. Very soon after the game the coach will meet with the media. His words and his demeanor will come under close scrutiny.


It is only when he returns very late at night to the lonely quiet of his bedroom or hotel room that the coach realizes there is nothing more to be done until the following day when he begins preparations for the next game. (WHAT NEXT GAME? WE JUST LOST THE SUPER BOWL, DAMN IT!) That's when it really hit me.


I spent most of that tormented night trying to refrain, sometimes unsuccessfully, from kicking away my blankets and from pummeling my mattress. In the darkness I winced as I listened to an occasional sob from my dear wife, Frannie. She had dried the tears from the cheeks of our daughter, Kimberly, just before we finally returned to our room that night, and now it was Frannie's turn to weep.


A few hours earlier I had been in a stadium rocking with noise, music, fireworks and fanfare. I had stood along the sideline when Whitney Houston sang the most beautiful and stirring rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" I had ever heard. The spirit of patriotism that permeated our nation, then in the throes of the Gulf War, showed in the faces of the capacity crowd and of the players and coaches near me as fighter planes from the United States Air Force roared low over the stadium during the pregame ceremonies.


I recalled the pride that had welled up inside of me as our Buffalo Bills, AFC champions, were introduced to the welcoming accompaniment of thunderous cheers just prior to the kickoff. The excitement, the adrenaline rush, and, yes, the confidence I felt while having to make 200 or more split-second decisions during the course of the game had been exhilarating and consuming.


Now, just a few hours later, I lay there in the darkness, disconsolate. As I tossed about, occasionally grunting in anger, I kept replaying the game in my mind, but it always came out the same. We had lost.


At about 5 a.m. I was exhausted, but still awake, when some words, in the form of a question, invaded my consciousness. I sat up in bed, startled, and then, whimsically, I gave voice to those words by whispering their challenge into the quiet of the night: "What are you going to do about it?"


My mind was racing now, and faster than any damn Internet hookup ever it went directly back to a day I hadn't thought about for more than 47 years. It was Dec. 13, 1943, and I was riding on a troop train full of recent enlistees heading from Chicago to Greensboro, N.C., where we were to begin basic training as members of the Army Air Corps. Just before I departed from Union Station in Chicago, my mother had given me a slim volume of English poetry, and as the train chugged southward, I opened the book and began to read.


There was one poem I reread several times because its message fascinated me. In its entirety it was composed of just four simple, poignant lines. An unknown English writer had composed it in tribute to some 16th-century Scottish warrior.


I did not recall having read those lines again since that forgotten day during World War II, but as I sat in bed and as this tortured night neared its end, the words sprang at me again, pristine and clear:

"Fight on, my men," Sir Andrew said.


"A little I'm hurt but not yet slain.


"I'll just lie down and bleed awhile,


"And then I'll rise and fight again."


I repeated the question to myself, "What are you going to do about it?"


This time, however, I spoke it firmly and resolutely because I now knew exactly what I was going to do (Thank you, Sir Andrew! Thank you, Mother dear!), and I'd begin first thing in the morning. I glanced over at Frannie, finally sleeping peacefully. Less than 60 seconds later I was, too.


After all, I had to be fresh for tomorrow.

• • •


I settled into my seat for the airplane trip back to Buffalo on the morning after we had played in Super Bowl XXV. The airline had provided a stack of newspapers for us at the entry door. No one picked one up.


As they came onto our charter flight, our players were more subdued than I could ever recall having seen them. They were somber, but they came aboard - coats, ties, clean shirts, clean-shaven, their heads held high. There was no "angry with someone else" attitude about any of them. Quietly they filed back to their seats.


Once the plane was airborne, I made my way back down the aisle, something I did, win or lose, on the journey home after every road game. I didn't say much, and neither did any of the players. It wasn't the time for that, and we all knew it. I could feel their pain, and they could feel mine, too. Most of the players looked up as I came by, and when they did, we would exchange a reassuring glimmer of a smile.


However, as I continued moving toward the back of the airplane, I became aware that it wasn't the faint smiles tugging at the corners of their mouths that struck me. It was the look in their eyes. What I saw reflected was not defeat. I saw resolve. And do you know what? That's what I had expected. How could I not have been proud to coach men such as these? I had expressed that exact sentiment to our team as soon as I could after the game the night before.

• • •


When I had returned to the locker room after congratulating the Giants' coach, Bill Parcells, most of them were sitting on the stools in front of their lockers gazing vacantly at a far wall or at the floor. You could hear the fan as it whirred overhead, but not much else. The only other sound was an occasional ripping of tape as a few of them absent-mindedly pulled the wrappings from their wrists.


I knew they didn't want to listen to some long-winded speech at that grieving moment. . . . But there was still one player with whom I wanted to visit personally. It was our place kicker, Scott Norwood.


Scott was a quiet, somewhat introspective person. He was conscientious, dependable, and respected by his teammates and coaches. On several occasions during our march to the AFC championship Scott had delivered the game-winning kick in the game's final moments. There would also be contests in the following season when Scott's last-minute heroics would once again propel our Bills to a crucial victory.


His outward appearance now as he sat with his teammates in the almost silent locker room didn't seem much different from any of theirs, but I could only imagine the torment he felt inside. I found a stool, pulled it over, and sat down next to Scott. While I was searching my mind seeking the right words to say, some other stalwarts did it for me.


Linebacker Darryl Talley and defensive back Nate Odomes stopped by, and Darryl spoke. "Hey, Scott, if Nate and I had tackled their receiver on that third and 14 during their touchdown drive, it wouldn't have come down to one last kick." Nate nodded his assent.


Then our great wide receiver, Andre Reed, drifted over.


"You know, Scott," he said, "if I'd have hung on to that pass on their 15-yard line in the first half, we probably would have come away with seven points instead of three."


Defensive lineman Jeff Wright also approached Scott.


"Doggone it, Scott, when Bruce Smith sacked (Giants quarterback Jeff) Hostetler in the end zone and forced him to fumble, we could have had a touchdown instead of just a safety if I'd been able to recover it."


They kept on coming. Carlton Bailey, Pete Metzelaars, Kirby Jackson, Cornelius Bennett, Kent Hull, Frank Reich, Mark Kelso, Kenny Davis, Steve Tasker, Jim Kelly, Shane Conlan, Dwight Drane, Keith McKeller, Mark Pike, and others. Each with his own mea culpa.


I knew by that time that Scott didn't need a "me too" from his coach. I patted him on the shoulder, and as I walked away, I couldn't tell whether that film of moisture I saw was in his eyes or in mine.

• • •


When our plane arrived at Greater Buffalo International Airport, we boarded the team buses expecting to go directly to Rich Stadium. Instead, we headed toward City Hall in downtown Buffalo. Why, I wondered. We had lost. We had let our fans down! What was there to celebrate? In the next hour or so we found out.


The buses parked behind City Hall, and we were shepherded in through the back entrance. Then we proceeded down the long, quiet hallways to the foot of a winding stairway at the front of the building. We ascended several floors and emerged onto a spacious, old stone balcony that overlooked historic Niagara Square. Assembled below in the biting January cold and snow were 30,000 Buffalo Bills fans.


How long had they been waiting? I didn't know; and they didn't care.


As our party moved out onto the balcony, a tumultuous welcome erupted from the assembled throng. They sustained the clamor. On and on it reverberated. When finally the noise began to subside, several of the fans started a chant. Quickly, others joined in. Soon they were bellowing in unison, "We want Scott! We want Scott! We want Scott!"


The crescendo mounted, and at last Scott Norwood, urged forward by several nudges from his teammates, stepped forth to speak. His voice was cracking, but he spoke for us all when he said, "I know I've never felt more loved than right now. We will be back. You can count on it, and we are dedicating next season to the fans of Buffalo."


We learned a great deal about those Bills fans on that day and in the weeks that followed. Their support, their healthy ardor, and their warmheartedness were always there to uplift our team whenever we needed it most. The resilience and admirable qualities of character that were to mark our Bills teams were inspired in great measure by the people of Buffalo. There are no fans anywhere like Bills fans.


Next: Marv becomes Bills' coach and gets some good advice.

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I don't know. The articles are from The Buffalo News. So I can safely say the articles will be about when he coached Buffalo Bills.


Click For Spoiler
Marv gets the job




At the end of it . . . I could see the goal posts and the empty grandstands . . . For the next 12 years, I would be walking up that tunnel.



Special to The News




Bill Wippert/Buffalo News

Marv Levy patrolled the Bills' sidelines for 11&1/2; years after he replaced Hank Bullough in the middle of the 1986 season.




Associated Press

Over the years our feelings of mutual trust and regard for each other grew . . .

I came to know a man whose sense of humor I savored and whose friendship I valued.

Marv Levy on Bills owner Ralph Wilson



Jane Wilson offers some good advice

This is the second of five excerpts from Marv Levy's book, "Marv Levy: Where Else Would You Rather Be?"

Today's installment deals with Levy taking over as Bills' head coach in 1986.



In late October 1986, I received a telephone call from the general manager of the Bills. He informed me that the team's owner, Ralph Wilson, would like me to come visit with him at his home in Detroit. Four years earlier, I had interviewed with Ralph for the head coaching vacancy that had existed with the Bills at that time, and even though I didn't get the job then, I had liked the gentleman, and I had sensed that a healthy rapport existed between us.


Going into the 1983 season, the Bills had decided to hire Kay Stephenson, a respected assistant from the staff of departing coach Chuck Knox. After a break-even record during his first year at the helm in 1983, the Bills slipped to 2-14 in 1984, and they were struggling badly again in 1985 when Ralph made a midseason switch. He fired Kay and replaced him with Hank Bullough, who had been serving as an assistant on Kay's staff. Once again, however, the Bills muddled through and repeated their 2-14 finish from the year before. It was now 1986, and Hank was feeling the heat. Halfway through the season, they were wallowing with a 2-6 record.


That sixth defeat of the season had been a 27-3 home game embarrassment administered in front of a crowd of more than 77,000 Bills fans by the division rival Patriots. It was the day after that debacle when the call came to me in Montreal from the Bills' general manager. His name, by the way, was - Bill Polian.


Yes, it was that Bill Polian, the one who had left the (Chicago Blitz of the USFL) two years earlier in order to become a personnel scout with Buffalo. As the Bills had floundered during the mid-1980s, Ralph made some bold moves in an effort to reenergize his team. Besides changing coaches, he had also released his general manager and instituted a shake-up in the department of player personnel, as well. More than 10 years earlier, when I was coaching the Alouettes, I had been fortunate enough to discover that there was a man filling a rather obscure role in our organization, one who possessed unique talent and leadership qualities. Now, in 1986, Ralph had come to the same realization, and when he did decide to replace his general manager, he had the courage and the foresight to elevate this same man - Bill Polian - from his job as an out-on-the-road scout to his new role as general manager.


With that move, Ralph succeeded in halting the Bills' downward spiral, and he set in motion the synergy that would propel his team to heights to which they had never ascended before.


When Ralph conferred with Bill about coaching prospects, Bill's first recommendation to him was that he consider interviewing me. Ralph liked that idea. And so did I! I was on my way to Detroit to meet for the second time in four years with the owner of the Bills.


It was midweek when I met with Ralph in Detroit, and during that session he told me that there was a strong possibility, following the Bills' game Sunday in Tampa Bay, that he would relieve Hank from his responsibilities as head coach. He did not want, however, to elevate any of the current staff members to the head coaching slot, and, after we had talked for several hours, he asked me if I was interested in taking over at this midseason juncture. I assured him that I would welcome the opportunity, and he told me that he would be back in touch with me immediately after the game that weekend.


I had enjoyed our meeting immensely, and I left it feeling that Ralph sincerely wanted me to be his next head coach. Nevertheless, I returned to Montreal without the certainty of knowing whether that "strong possibility" Ralph had mentioned would ever become a reality. He had not stated that he absolutely would take such action, and I could understand that the timing for making such an irrevocable future commitment was awkward when the team was just a few days away from playing a game.


• • •


Sunday arrived, and I sat in my hotel room in Montreal watching the telecast of the Bills at Tampa Bay. The favored Bucs dominated from the outset, and, as the final two-minute warning was sounded, they had an apparently comfortable 34-21 lead. It seemed obvious that the Bills were heading toward their seventh loss of the season. Then "the obvious" disintegrated. The Bills' up-until-then porous defense finally succeeded in forcing Tampa Bay to punt. The punt was an excellent one. The punt coverage wasn't. Buffalo's safety, Ron Pitts, brought it back more than 70 yards for a touchdown, and now the score stood at 34-28. If somehow, in the waning moments of the game, the Bills could eke out one more touchdown and the extra point, they would come home with an always-to-be-remembered one-point victory.


Would a thrilling comeback win, on the road, against a favored opponent cause Ralph to refrain from making a coaching change? Would I once again come "that close" (but not close enough) to becoming the head coach of the Bills? I've got to admit, I was worried.


I relaxed, however, when the Bills' ensuing onside kickoff attempt was recovered by Tampa Bay. Two plays later, they fumbled, the Bills recovered, and I spilled my popcorn and soft drink all over the carpet.


The Bills had a first-year quarterback who, despite the team's woes that season, had shown some definite promise. He went to work, executing a magnificently directed last-ditch drive toward the Tampa Bay goal line. With seconds remaining in the game, the Bills had a fourth down on the Buccaneers' 4-yard line, and, on a called pass play, ace running back Robb Riddick hooked up wide open in the end zone. The quarterback drilled the ball right at Robb's chest. There was only one problem. Robb, who had played courageously with his arm in a cast after having fractured it the week before, was unable to catch the ball, and it slipped to the ground.


For the fifth time in six weeks the Bills went down to defeat. Ten minutes later my telephone rang. The caller was Bill Polian. "Get your *** down here right now!" he shouted jubilantly. "We are having a press conference tomorrow morning to announce - and to present - our new head coach, and you are that man."


Early Monday morning, I packed my bags, turned in my hotel key, made plane reservations, and got my *** out to the airport in less time than it has taken me to type this sentence.


Late Sunday night the Bills had announced the dismissal of Hank Bullough. Because they preferred presenting their new head coach for the first time at a press conference scheduled late Monday morning, they did not want me to fly into the Buffalo airport where they knew that the members of the media would be hanging out in heavy numbers. It was arranged, therefore, that I would arrive at the airport in Toronto - a 90-minute drive from Buffalo - where I would be met by the Bills' director of security, Ed Stillwell. Ed did meet me there early in the morning, and we proceeded toward the Canadian-American border. During the trip, as we got to know each other, I recall musing to myself that if everyone in the Bills' organization was as friendly and as entertaining as this man, I was really going to enjoy working there. How right I was! As we approached the customs booth just before crossing into the United States, for the first time in my life, I saw the inspiring beauty of Niagara Falls. It is a moment and an experience I will always remember.


Thirty minutes later, our car pulled up in the parking lot at Rich Stadium, and Ed led me up the tunnel, past the team dressing room, toward the elevator that would take us up to the media headquarters several floors higher.


Just before entering the elevator, I peered down the long darkened passageway that led out to the playing field. At the end of it I saw sunlight, and I could see the goal posts and the empty grandstands beyond that opening. For the next 12 years, I would be walking up that tunnel. The seats would always be filled, and, on many occasions instead of sunshine there would be swirling snow and icy winds. But the gridiron was always there and so was the rush of adrenaline and those feelings of gratitude that always washed over me every time I strode out into that most special arena.

• • •


As you, dear reader, are undoubtedly aware at this stage in my story, there were numerous career-impacting telephone calls that I received during my lifetime (and I didn't even have a cell phone). On Tuesday morning, the day after I had arrived in Buffalo, there was another one. This time it was from Ralph Wilson's wife, Jane, whom I had met when I visited Detroit for one of the interviews I had with Ralph. One evening Ralph and Jane had invited me to join them for dinner, and she had been a friendly, pleasant lady. The three of us talked about a variety of topics, but whenever the conversation turned to football, she withdrew from the discussion until we might turn our attention back to other subjects that seemed to me to be of more interest to her.


That assumption on my part was accurate, I learned, because when she called me that Tuesday morning she began the conversation by stating she knew very little about the game. On the heels of that admission she went on to say that she was calling, nevertheless, to offer some advice which she believed would be vital in enhancing my chances for success as the coach of the Bills. I remember her exact words. "Marv, talk to Ralph."


I was perplexed. Of course I intended to talk with him, and I asked Jane why she might think that I needed to be prompted to talk to the man who had just hired me. Her explanation was priceless. "So many of the coaches who have preceded you here never seemed to have the time to listen to some of Ralph's opinions," she told me. "They'd become defensive whenever he might directly question some of their decisions or their reasons for using certain players rather than some of the others. They always acted as if he was butting in. They'd cut conversations short, and only rarely did they ever initiate a phone call to him.


"Whenever Ralph would call them, they'd always convey the impression that they were too busy right now for some "small talk.' "


Jane did not need to elaborate. I got the message, and, other than the admonition I had received as a young boy to "always zip up after you go to the washroom," hers was the best advice I have ever received. During the next 12 years I did speak with Ralph often, in season and out. Every Tuesday morning, after our coaches had completed our thorough Monday review of the game tapes from the previous day's game, after we had conducted our staff meeting at which we discussed our conclusions, and after we had received a full medical report from our team doctors, I would telephone Ralph and spend an hour filling him in.


Often he would ask some probing questions. Upon occasion he might offer a criticism about a player, about one of our coaches, or about a decision that I had made with which he did not agree. I always responded by addressing his concerns, and I found out something extremely valuable. He'd listen! Most of the time he was satisfied with the answer he got from me. On a few occasions I recall him finally bringing a topic of discussion to a close by saying, with no rancor in his tone, "Well, I still don't agree with you, but you're the coach."


There were also times when his comments and suggestions merited consideration, and when we implemented some of those ideas that he had advanced, they helped us to perform at an improved level. Over the years our feelings of mutual trust and regard for each other grew, and our conversations were enjoyable adventures. I came to know a man whose sense of humor I savored and whose friendship I valued. He was a person who said what was on his mind, but he never rammed it down your throat. He was willing to listen, to weigh, and to respond to the other person's point of view, even when it might be one that was contrary to his.


One of the qualities I admired most about Ralph was his straightforwardness. If he made a promise, it was kept. In all the time I worked for the Bills I never had an agent. Maybe I was foolish, but I am content with the nature of the negotiations (and the attendant lack of complications) that took place at renewal time while I coached in Buffalo. I recall one instance in the mid-1990s when I was about to enter the final year of my contract. I was standing in the hallway outside of my office chatting informally with Ralph, and when I mentioned that situation to him, he suggested that we step into my office in order to discuss the matter.


Once we were seated, Ralph asked me what I had in mind in terms of a contract extension. I took a deep breath, and then I blurted out some figures, some time-frame considerations, and a list of perks that I would wish to present for his consideration. As I was reaching into my desk drawer in order to pull out a 45-page, handsomely bound treatise that detailed all the compelling reasons why this proposal of mine should be carefully studied, Ralph said, "OK," and then he got up and walked out of the room. Three days later a new contract, containing the exact terms I had presented, arrived for me in the mail.


Several years have passed since I retired as the coach of the Bills, but from time to time I still talk on the telephone with Ralph. As always, we sometimes don't agree, but we sure do have fun.


Next: The Bickering Bills.

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