Levy left lasting mark on College’s football program

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April 8, 2008

3:17 AM

Nearly 40 years before Appalachian State University’s shocking win over the University of Michigan, the College made its own contribution to the list of greatest upsets in NCAA football history.

The setting was Annapolis, Md., where the United States Naval Academy was hosting the William and Mary Indians during Navy’s homecoming weekend, as they had done for the past 25 years. After the powerful Midshipmen, ranked no. 1 in the East at the time, jumped out to a 16-0 lead, it looked as though, once again, Navy would cruise past the Indians en route to an easy victory.

The College had other ideas, however, and roared back for a 27-16 win that silenced the crowd in Annapolis and caused a jubilant uproar just a few hours south, in Williamsburg, as thousands made it out to greet the team bus as it returned home that night in front of Blow Gymnasium.

At the helm of this victorious underdog squad was former College Head Coach and NFL Hall of Fame Coach Marv Levy.

“If you asked me to mention the two most memorable games of my lifetime, [the Navy game] would certainly be right there,” Levy said.

The upset was the crowning achievement of Levy’s tenure with the Tribe, a tenure that effectively turned the program around and laid the foundation for what football at the College would become.

Levy came to the College after coaching for three years at the University of California—Berkeley, where he had future NFL coaching legends Dick Vermeil and Bill Walsh on his staff. His stint there, however, was less than successful.

“We got fired,” Levy said. “We couldn’t win because the entrance requirements were just unbelievable. We couldn’t get anybody from out of state.”

The College was looking for a new head coach in January of 1964, and after a mutual contact introduced Levy to Davis Y. Paschal, then the College president, Levy was brought on board.

“[Levy’s] coming here was big,” Wilford Kale, author of “Goal to Goal: 100 Seasons of Football at William and Mary,” said.

Levy achieved instant notoriety, turning around a program that had suffered several losing seasons in a row and winning Southern Conference Coach of the Year honors in each of his first two seasons. He followed that up with back-to-back winning seasons in 1966 and 1967 before going 3-7 in his final year with the team. After the 1968 season, he took an assistant coaching position in the NFL.

“I got a call all of a sudden from the Philadelphia Eagles,” Levy said. “They were going to be one of the first two teams in the league to hire a kicking game coach, and I really believed strongly in the kicking game.”

Levy went on to coach for a number of professional teams, finally landing an NFL head coaching gig with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1978. Later, he served as head coach of the Buffalo Bills from 1986-1997. During this period, he coached the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls, all of which ended in losses. In 2001, he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, and in 2006 he returned to the Bills for two seasons to serve as general manager.

Despite his many accomplishments, Levy still ranks his time at the College among the best of his career.

“[Coaching the Tribe] was a magnificent experience,” Levy said. “My coaching career spanned 47 years. But I’d say if I had to mention the two most memorable experiences for me, certainly the Buffalo Bills would be one, and I’ve always said that the other was William and Mary.”

Levy had to contend with the College’s strict academic entrance standards when recruiting players. He made sure that the school was attracting student-athletes that could not only handle themselves on the field, but also in the classroom. It was in this area, Kale believes, in which Levy made a lasting mark.

“Levy was the one who started that,” Kale said. “He may not give himself credit for it; he may not take credit for it. But if you look back at the history of William and Mary football, that’s where the turn came. The approach became different with Levy.”

Despite coming from a smaller talent pool, the Indians did the best with what they had.

“They were the ultimate team group,” Levy said. “[They were] tremendous overachievers.”

Current Tribe Head Coach Jimmye Laycock, who played for two years under Levy in 1967 and 1968, said that he learned a tremendous amount about football from Levy. His coach’s intelligence (Levy was a Phi Beta Kappa and received his master’s in English history from Harvard University) was one of the first things Laycock noticed about Levy.

“We would joke sometimes in the meetings that he would be using words that we didn’t understand,” Laycock said.

Now 82 years old, Levy lives in the Chicago area with his wife Frannie. He said that he will likely do some television announcing during football season this fall. After having written his autobiography “Where Else Would You Rather Be?” in 2004, Levy said he may want to try his hand again as an author.

“I enjoy writing,” Levy said. “I may even have fun trying to write a novel. Whether anybody will read it or not, I don’t know.”

If Levy’s impact on the College’s football program was not already apparent enough in his record or in his recruiting philosophy, the amount of respect Laycock — the standard-bearer of Tribe football for the past quarter century — has for his coach makes Levy’s impact clear.

“I really like him as a person,” Laycock said. “He’s just a remarkable person to be able to take that intellect and organization and all he had and put it into football.

“I think you would be hard-pressed to find anybody who, in describing Marv, didn’t mention what a class person he is. That would probably be one thing that everybody would say.”

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