CFL coaches with parallel pasts

Of the approximately two dozen football coaches I met, the two smartest are Bud Grant and Marv Levy. That doesn’t mean they’re the two best coaches in Canadian history, of course, nor does it mean they aren’t.

They were cerebral, in an era when being cerebral had nothing to do with analytics, a term then pretty much associated with science labs. If Grant or Levy was ever out-coached, which I doubt, both had enough humility to admit it, and I never heard of that happening. What they did figure out in the CFL was how to win.

Grant was a youthful genius who always looked older than his years. At 29 the youngest CFL coach ever, his Winnipeg Blue Bombers won a Grey Cup they weren’t supposed to win in his second season. They added three more in four years — missing a chance at five straight when a team Grant called his best lost the Western Final 10-5 and 4-2, to Edmonton in 1960.

He spent a decade coaching the Bombers, with six trips to Grey Cup, and when he migrated to Minnesota in 1967, what he left behind was a winning Winnipeg team.

Levy, whose passions included military history and special teams, rescued the Montreal Alouettes from a rush to oblivion…or possibly extinction. Like Grant, his team also won a Grey Cup it wasn’t supposed to win in his second season. I was the Montreal Star’s football writer for that game, by a quirk of fate (and a beat writer who celebrated too much too early). Three years later, I covered Levy’s last Grey Cup win, and last game before he left for greener pastures in Kansas City.

Levy coached half as many seasons as Grant. They never went head to head — six years separated Grant’s departure and Levy’s arrival. But they had identical Grey Cup success percentages: Both their teams played in the game 60 per cent of the time, and were champions 40 per cent of the time. The winningest CFL coach ever is Wally Buono, yet 20 per cent of his teams won it all, and 36 per cent reached the final. The second-winningest, Don Matthews, coached nine teams to the Grey Cup (40 per cent) and they won 22 per cent of the time.

Admittedly, there were coaches with better stats. Buono, Matthews, Hugh Campbell and Lew Hayman won the most Cups, five. Campbell’s Edmonton Eskimos played in the championship game in all six seasons as coach, so his winning percentage of 83 tops everybody. Marc Trestman (42) and Ralph Sazio (60) had better win percentages.

But none of them had the cerebral pedigree of Grant and Levy, which grew after they crossed the border. They are the only coaches to take teams to both the Grey Cup and Super Bowl (both went to four consecutive Super Bowls; both lost all four). They are the only coaches in both the CFL and Pro Football halls of fame.

Levy celebrated his 97th birthday this month. Grant’s next birthday will be his 96th.

Maybe they both figured out how to do that, too.