February 26, 2021

O’Leary: A trip down football’s memory lane with Marv Levy

Photo: MontrealAlouettes.com

In his five years coaching the Montreal Alouettes, Marv Levy got the full Canadian experience.

He learned the three-down game and all of its nuances. He played for three Grey Cups and won twice, in 1974 and 1977. And in one particularly cold pursuit of the league championship, he got frostbite.

“I do remember it well. It was bitter, bitter cold,” Levy said of the 63rd Grey Cup, played on Nov. 23, 1975 in Calgary. It was the first time that the Stampeders hosted a Grey Cup.

“At halftime I was suffering badly from frostbite in my fingers and hands. The doctor told me I should not go out for the second half. I couldn’t listen to that, of course. I had to go back out there.”

Edmonton won that game 9-8, in the lowest scoring Grey Cup game since 1950. No team scored a touchdown on that chilly minus-10 C afternoon. Levy’s Als had a chance to win on a field goal with 45 seconds left, but kicker Don Sweet missed after a bad snap was hurriedly planted down for him.

“It was a bitter loss but nevertheless, I certainly do remember that game,” Levy continued.

“I remember the weather that day almost as much as I remembered some when I was in the Army Air Corps during World War Two.”

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Marv Levy steered the Alouettes to Grey Cup wins in 1974 and 1977 (Photo: MontrealAlouettes.com)

Levy held a virtual court with a horde of reporters from across the country on Thursday afternoon, reminiscing on his time coaching in the CFL, NFL and NCAA. To hear him run through the minute details of games that took place 40-plus years ago was remarkable and really the only indication that Levy is now 95 years old.

The reason he got on the call was to help promote the CFL’s Grey Cup Portal, which this week added Grey Cup games from the 1970s, including the three that Levy’s Alouettes took part in.

“Oh, that’s wonderful. I’m glad to hear that,” Levy said of the games being made available to a new generation of CFL fans.

“Fond memories. Actually, in preparing for this call-in program that we’re on right now, I did read back through a memoir that I wrote many years ago. A large part of it, or certainly a considerable segment was about my time in the CFL and living in Montreal. It brought back many fond memories, memories of many fine people, some of the great players I coached. It was just a delight. I feel so fortunate.

“My wife and I frequently hope to travel back to Montreal, we enjoy it very much. During the time I was coaching in Buffalo of course, we were very close to the border. We were (often) across at Niagara-On-The-Lake and in Toronto on occasions and always enjoyed visiting there.”

Very early in the call, Levy was asked about one his linebackers from those days with the Alouettes. Wally Buono was a key contributor on those Grey Cup-winning squads and of course went on to become the winningest head coach in CFL history, with a 282-165-3 record.

“He was bright,” Levy said of Buono.

“You don’t think of it in terms of a player is going to be a head coach someday with the tremendous success that Wally has enjoyed. I’ve stayed in touch with Wally. We’re back and forth communicating over many, many years.

“You can never predict what’s going to happen, except he was smart. He worked hard. He was likable. He was team-oriented. He had all the good qualities that would lead on to (a coaching career). But I didn’t know whether he was going to be a coach, a lawyer or what he might be after he finished football.”

Levy left a Washington team in the NFL in 1972 that had played in the Super Bowl to join the Alouettes. He said there were a number of reasons for that somewhat unprecedented move.

“The Alouettes had a general manager at that time, J.I. Albrecht, who I’d known for countless years.

“J.I. approached me about offering the job and coming up for an interview. It was a head coaching job and I was a bit intrigued by Montreal and Canada. I went up for the interview. I really, really admired and liked the owner of the team, Sam Berger. They offered me the head jo — I don’t know if it was with a raise or not, that didn’t make any difference. I can’t recall that one. So I embarked on a head coaching position.”

Levy also knew that Bud Grant had gone a similar route with his coaching career, spending time with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers before taking a job coaching the Minnesota Vikings. Of course, Levy ended up doing the same. He was the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs from 1978 to 1982, then coached the Buffalo Bills for 11 years, from 1986 to 1997.

“(It was) variety of things: Head coach, great ownership, wonderful city, intrigued with the league, and enthusiasm for something new that inspired me,” Levy said of the decision to head north all those years ago.

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