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Former Montreal Alouettes head coach Marv Levy fondly remembers his five CFL seasons

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Marv Levy says that, at his age, he's starting to have some issues with his hearing. But the 95-year-old has no trouble recollecting his first head-coaching stint in pro football almost a half-century ago.

Levy left his job as a special-teams coach with Washington following the NFL team's 14-7 Super Bowl loss to the unbeaten Miami Dolphins in 1972 to become head coach of the CFL's Montreal Alouettes. 

During that five-year span, Levy's teams always made the playoffs and three times reached the Grey Cup, winning twice, before returning to  the NFL in 1978 as the Kansas City Chiefs head coach.

This week, the CFL made its 1970s championship games available on its Grey Cup On Demand Portal. Included are Montreal's victories in 1974 and '77 and its heart-breaking '75 loss, all against Edmonton.

"It's only five of 47 years in my coaching career," Levy told reporters during a video conference. "They are so wonderfully memorable in my career, it was such a joy to be there."

Levy recalled being recruited by the late J.I. Albrecht, then Montreal's GM. The two had routinely crossed paths and Levy accepted Albrecht's invitation to interview for the Alouettes' post.

"I was a bit intrigued about Montreal and Canada and I really admired and liked the owner (Sam Berger)," Levy said. "They offered me the head job, I don't know if it was with a raise or not, that didn't make any difference.

"I also knew there'd been coaches who'd coached in the CFL and if they did well sometimes moved on to big boosts in pay with an NFL head job. Bud Grant (who went from Winnipeg to the NFL's Minnesota Vikings) was one of them. It was a variety of things: Head coach; great ownership; wonderful city; intrigued with the league and enthusiasm for something new. That inspired me."

Levy posted a 43-31-4 CFL record and was its top coach in 74. That's the same year he captured his first Grey Cup victory, a 20-7 win over Edmonton at Empire Stadium.

Montreal made a second straight championship appearance in '75, dropping a 9-8 decision to Edmonton. The Alouettes were poised to go ahead with 45 seconds left but Don Sweet's 19-yard field goal sailed wide for a single after Jimmy Jones bobbled the snap in the bitterly cold conditions.

Levy almost didn't make it to the field for the second half because of the weather.

"At halftime I was suffering badly from frosted fingers and hands," Levy said. "The doctor told me I should not go out for the second half (but) I couldn't listen to that, of course, I had to go back out there."

Two years later, Levy capped his CFL career in yet another frigid Grey Cup, this time at Olympic Stadium before a record crowd of 68,205. The weather had turned the field into more of an ice rink, prompting Alouettes defensive back Tony Proudfoot to punch staples into his cleats for better traction.

The move worked and many of Proudfoot's teammates followed suit, resulting in a convincing 41-6 Montreal win over Edmonton.

"The weather was awful," Levy said. "One of our players got someone to put staples in the shoes of our players unknown to me.

"That was unfair but it gave us better traction than our opponent."

A member of Levy-coached teams in Montreal was linebacker/punter Wally Buono. He'd go on to amass the most head-coaching wins (282) in CFL history with Calgary and B.C.

"He was bright," Levy said of Buono. "He wasn't a real big linebacker (and) 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.

"But I didn't know if he was going to be a coach, a lawyer or what he might be after he finished with football."

Levy also remembers Berger luring Heisman Trophy winner Johnny (The Ordinary Superstar) Rodgers from Nebraska to the CFL. Rodgers was the league's top rookie and a three-time CFL all-star over his four seasons in Canada (1973-76) but also enjoyed himself off the field.

"That's quite a story," Levy said. "I got a call from the athletic director at Nebraska who I knew well and he said, 'You're going to get a great player . . . and you're going to have some headaches.'

"Johnny was a remarkable talent . . . but he was a big party guy back then. But as I say that was in the past, certainly he's coming around and is living a good life."

Levy cites exercise, diet and family as reasons for his longevity.

"Somebody once said he owes it to drinking only fine wine, I can't say that," Levy said. "I can't say I was perfect, there was a period of time when I did smoke cigars but I did give them up long ago.

"Exercise, diet, good family, honest living, a wonderful professional life, great parents and family. I've been unbelievably blessed with all the people I've got to know during my time."

Levy was an NFL head coach with Kansas  City (1978-82) and Buffalo (1986-97). He led the Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances (1990-93) and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001 before returning to the franchise as GM (2006-07) at age 80.

Regardless of the level of football, Levy said the key to success remains the same.

"The thing that's most important is if you run, throw, block, tackle, catch, kick better than your opponent you're going to win," he said. "Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals, that's what counts.

"I remember after one very hot pre-season practice when I was in Buffalo, probably the greatest defensive player in the history of the league, Bruce Smith, came up to me and said, 'Hey coach, tell me something. Who put the fun in fundamentals?' I chuckle a little bit but it's just a lot of hard work."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press