Marv Levy coached in Montreal for five seasons, winning the Grey Cup twice, in 1974 and 1977. Wayne Scarberry / AFP
One of the most successful head coaches in Alouettes history believes the team’s character in 1977 led it to a Grey Cup championship. And it’s hard to argue with Marv Levy, considering the club had a losing record the previous year.
“I remember the great guys on that team … the great character on that team. My mantra always was, if you try to build a team without character, it will lose. Our guys had that,” Levy, now 92, told the Montreal Gazette by telephone from his Chicago home.
“It’s resilience, work ethic. You’ve heard the statement: ‘Do you have the will to win?’ What I said to our players, and they responded to it so well, don’t tell me you have the will to win. Do you have the will to prepare? If you don’t have that, you don’t have the will to win, no matter what you’re saying,” Levy continued.
“These were guys who worked very hard. When something went wrong, they fought back. They didn’t blame each other. They were very team oriented. The type of player we determined we would bring to our team, only guys with character.”
Levy is preparing for a return trip to Montreal this weekend. The Als and the team’s foundation will be presenting a 40th Grey Cup anniversary, culminating in a lavish dinner Saturday night at the Omni Hotel.
The Als, already eliminated from the playoffs and on an eight-game losing streak, entertain the Hamilton Tiger-Cats Sunday afternoon (1 p.m.) at Molson Stadium. Montreal will honour a pair of retired offensive linemen, Josh Bourke and Jeff Perrett, during the game.
Levy coached the Als for five seasons, starting in 1973, winning a pair of Canadian Football League titles, the first coming the following season, when they defeated Edmonton at old Empire Stadium in Vancouver.
The Als lost a rematch, by a point, to the Eskimos in 1975 and had a losing record (7-8-1) a year later. That’s what made their run in ’77 all the more impressive.
Montreal jumped out to a 7-0 start, lost three straight at one point, but capped the regular-season with a two-game winning streak to finish 11-5. The Als edged Ottawa in the East Division final before trouncing the Eskimos, 41-6, at Olympic Stadium — a game that now has become famous after the late Tony Proudfoot told the team’s equipment managers to attach staples on the bottom of his teammates’ cleats to combat the icy conditions.
Levy to this day swears he had no prior knowledge of Proudfoot’s move.
That season marked the Als’ first full year at Olympic Stadium — they played their final four regular-season games there in 1976 — the team drawing an incredible average of 59,525 spectators per game, including a record 69,093 for a Sept. 6 match against Toronto.
More than 68,000 attended the Cup finale despite a transit strike and snowstorm.
Levy said the success that year was the result of a commitment from everyone in the organization to succeed — from owner Sam Berger to general manager Bob Geary. One of the team’s scouts that season, Bill Polian, would go on to eventually become the GM of the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts.
“For me to remember exactly what play turned the tide and all that, I really can’t,” Levy said. “We won in a rout. I remember what an uplifting feeling it was. The man I worked for I just revered. Sam Berger, he was a wonderful man. I remember the tremendous support from our fans despite the terrible weather. Bob Geary … what a character he was. We got the right late cuts from the NFL. It wasn’t just one star player.”
Of the team’s 11 victories that season, none was by a greater margin than 17 points. Seven were by single digits. In other words, this was a team that obviously knew how to win.
“During the season you get so immersed. Win or lose, celebrate or mourn for just a short while, then go back to work. Make that your style,” Levy said.
Levy had a 43-31-4 record with the Als, parlaying that into an extended stint as an NFL head coach. He started with five seasons in Kansas City, beginning in 1978, but enjoyed little success with the Chiefs. He joined the Buffalo Bills in 1986 and would coach the team 12 seasons.
He coached them to four consecutive American Football Conference championships — and four straight Super Bowl defeats between 1990-93. Levy, elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001, went 112-70 with Buffalo and 143-112 overall for a .561 winning percentage.
Levy is scheduled to address this year’s team before their Saturday morning walk-through but isn’t certain what words of wisdom he’ll impart.
“I may rely on my greatest historical figure, Winston Churchill,” he said. “Never give in. I may steal a few of his lines. I’m going to try and do most of it extemporaneously. Play hard, play clean, play to win. Win or lose, dig right back in.”
Much like former Als head coach Marc Trestman, Levy said his five-year run in Montreal was one of his favourite times in a career that spanned 47 years.
“Only five in Montreal but it sure does remain extremely prominent in my thinking,” he said. “They were five wonderful years. Besides the football, I loved living there. And I enjoyed the educational experience I had there.”
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