John Levra Born: October 2, 1937 (Arma, KS)
Graduated: Arma High School, 1955; Pittsburg State University, 1963
Few coaches have the opportunity to coach at every level in their particular sport, from high school all the way to the highest level of professional sports. Even fewer have the longevity of Arma native John Levra. From his playing days through his retirement from coaching, Levra’s impact on the game of football spans parts of six decades and today, lands him a spot in the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Hailing from Arma, Levra chose to play football collegiately down the road at Pittsburg State University for head coach, and Kansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee, Carnie Smith. An offensive lineman, Levra helped the Gorillas to an undefeated season and the school’s first national championship in 1957. As a team captain the following year in 1958, Levra was named the team’s most valuable offensive player and earned second team all-conference honors.
Following his playing time at Pittsburg State, Levra began his legendary coaching career at the high school level, first at McCune High School for two years then to Kansas City Washington High School for five years before breaking into the college coaching ranks in 1966 at New Mexico Highlands as the school’s offensive coordinator. Following one season in that role, Levra was promoted to head coach for the 1967 season.
In four seasons, Levra led the Cowboys to a sterling 35-4-1 record and helped four players earn All-American honors. In fact, two of his players at little Highlands University went on to be named Offensive Rookie of the Year at the professional ranks with Carl Garrett taking the AFL award in 1969 and Don Woods winning the award in 1974.
Levra left for Stephen F. Austin University in 1971. Wins were tough to come by the first two seasons, but by year three, Levra and the Lumberjacks had won nine games and were in the Poultry Bowl in Georgia. Year four saw more success with another nine win season but when the University of Kansas called with a job offer, Levra departed Texas to return to his home state as offensive coordinator of the Jayhawks in 1975.
Levra spent three years at KU, coaching legendary Jayhawk Nolan Cromwell in the process, before spending one year each at the University of North Texas and the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League. In 1981, Levra’s big break came when newly appointed head coach of the New Orleans Saints and larger than life coach, Bum Phillips, offered him a job on his staff. For the next twenty-three seasons, Levra roamed the sidelines of the National Football League with the Saints, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Denver Broncos, and Buffalo Bills.
Although his job responsibilities changed at nearly every step in his career, the success Levra helped bring to the teams he coached didn’t. With the Bears, Levra’s defensive line led the NFL in sacks twice and set a record for the fewest points scored allowed in a season. His teams made eight playoff appearances and Levra helped no fewer than six players reach the pinnacle of football – the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Levra also coached under some of the game’s greats, including Bum Phillips, Mike Ditka, Dennis Green, and Wade Phillips.
His success didn’t go unnoticed, even while it was happening. Levra was selected to coach at the Pro Bowl, served as an assistant on various collegiate all-star games, and is often one of the most well attended coaching seminar presentations across the country. He was inducted to the Pittsburg State Athletic Hall of Fame as part of the 1957 national championship team in 1988, as an individual in 2000, and was inducted to the New Mexico Highlands University Athletic Hall of Fame in 2009.
How does a kid from Arma, who began his career as a coach at McCune, make it all the way to the NFL? It would be easy to call the story of John Levra fiction, if it wasn’t all true.