ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- His father, a Jewish immigrant from England who ran a wholesale grocery business on the South Side of Chicago, instilled in Marv Levy a firm belief in traditional American values: truth, fair play and equal opportunity.

"Here's a guy who's totally honest," said Levy. "He's fair. I felt he was very highly principled without being stodgy. He taught me values about what this country should represent that I felt very strongly about -- {specifically} opportunity."

Emphasize the opportunity, and the work that must be invested to first get, then make the most of, those chances. He recalled his father's warning if Levy ever said he didn't get a job because of bigotry: "I'll kick your butt down State Street twice, around the Loop and halfway up the water tower. . . . You're going to get what you work for," the elder Levy had said.

And Marv Levy has reaped the benefits of hard work, first as an undersized running back at Coe College, later as a master's degree candidate at Harvard, and finally, as a professional football coach. Sunday his Buffalo Bills will play the Los Angeles Raiders for a spot in the Super Bowl.

But that wasn't what he originally sought. Levy, a 1950 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Coe College, and headed for Harvard Law School whit his parents proud of his decision to become a lawyer. But he said he became bored with studying law after a month.

"You do what's in your heart," he said. "I don't want to put on a three-piece suit, stuff a bunch of papers into a briefcase, go down to court and worry about legalisms instead of justice."

So he made a radical change, opting for a football coaching career.

"I know both of them {his parents} would have preferred my staying in law school, but they supported me," Levy said. "Their attitude was, 'If that's what you want to do, do it, but do it well.' "

Levy stayed at Harvard to finish a master's degree in English history, then landed a job as football coach at Country Day School in St. Louis. Two years later, he was back at Coe as an assistant. From there, Levy began the slow climb up the coaching ladder, including stops at the University of New Mexico, University of California at Berkeley and William and Mary.

His pro coaching career began in 1969 as kicking teams coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. A year later, he worked in the same position under George Allen with the Los Angeles Rams. When Allen left to take over the Washington Redskins in 1971, Levy went with him.

After the Redskins lost to the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VII, Levy headed to the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes, who won the Grey Cup in 1974 and 1977. That success earned Levy a shot at rebuilding the Kansas City Chiefs, who had gone 2-12 the year before he took over in 1978. He doubled that win total in his first season and the Chiefs improved to 7-8, 8-8 and 9-7 in the next three seasons. But the the 1982 season, interrupted by a players' strike, produced a 3-6 record, and Levy was fired.

At that point he was close to landing the Bills coaching job -- vacated by Chuck Knox -- but lost out to Kay Stephenson. After a stint with the USFL's Chicago Blitz in 1984 and time as a radio and television analyst, Levy got a second chance, becoming Bills coach in 1986.

Levy, taking over a team that had lost 28 of 32 games the previous two seasons, went 4-12 his first year. Buffalo improved to 7-8 in 1987, and since has gone 12-4, 9-7 and 13-3, winning the AFC East each year.

Bills General Manager Bill Polian first met Levy when they worked for the Alouettes, and had worked with him in Kansas City and Chicago. Polian was suitably impressed with Levy's professional qualities: "Professionalism. Organization. Leadership. Motivation. Ability to make clear-cut decisions. Ability to see the big picture and to implement what is needed to reach those goals," he said.

Said Bills wide receiver James Lofton: "He's very articulate and very patient. He went through a lot with this team as we went through growing pains and he handled it very well. He took guys aside individually and talked them through."

The growing pains became nationally known last season when players publicly criticized teammates and a confrontation between assistant coaches ended with one of the coaches sporting a black eye. Levy didn't panic, said Lofton. He simply stated any more public sniping would result in heavy fines.

"When you handle things in an abrasive thing, they get worse," Lofton said. "You'd better smooth them over. What happened last year was very mild compared to some situations I saw on other teams, ones that got physical between the players. In Buffalo, it was over before the season ended."

Levy said he "continued to treat everyone as mature adults, even if we weren't acting like it at the time."

If this year's Bills have learned a valuable lesson of adulthood -- taking responsibility for one's conduct -- their coach learned it early.

"My father," said Levy, "was very much a stand-on-your-own-two-feet type of guy."