The 5 best head coaches in the history of the Buffalo Bills

Marv Levy
Marv Levy / Rick Stewart/GettyImages

The Buffalo Bills have had their fair share of head coaches throughout their history.

Many of them have been disappointing throughout their tenures. However, some coaches have excelled based on their leadership, football IQ, and overall game management. This list will include coaches who've made an impact with the Bills rather than the entire NFL.  

5. Wade Phillips (1998-2000)

Wade Phillips is one of the longest-tenured coaches in history, as he's still coaching with the San Antonio Brahmas at 77 years old. He had an average stint with the Denver Broncos before being hired as the Bills' defensive coordinator in 1995.

During his three years as a coordinator, Phillips put together above-average defenses, and it ranked in the top 10 for yards allowed in 1996 and 1997. He then took over for the legendary Marv Levy in 1998, becoming head coach and vice president of football operations.

As a Head Coach, he's been pretty successful, but that success didn't last long as he failed to reproduce in the playoffs. Phillips had this mindset that everything had to be done his way, which came off a bit stubborn. This trait caused him to be fired when Phillips refused to fire Buffalo Bills Special Teams Coach Ronnie Jones, whose special teams were ranked near the bottom of the league.

Ralph Wilson Jr didn't want to pull the trigger on Phillips, as he did lead the Bills to the playoffs in two of the three years that he's coached. Wilson thought that if the firing of Jones didn't happen, the team wouldn't go anywhere, "But I felt the dismissal of the special team's coach was imperative for the improvement of our team", said Wilson.

Phillips then became a successful defensive coordinator again, and his greatest achievement was building the Broncos' legendary defense in 2015 and winning his first Super Bowl.

Phillips' tenure with Buffalo was forgettable, but successful as the Bills went 29-19 under him, however, he got stuck in his ways, causing him to be fired.  

4. Chuck Knox (1978-82)

After a few dreadful years, the Bills hired a respected NFL Head coach, Chuck Knox. Knox took over for the then former Head Coach, Jim Ringo, who did a poor job as their head coach, only lasting one season, giving up after leading them to a 3-11 record in 1977.

Knox's signing with the Bills was more of a response to the "continuing conflict between him and Rams' team owner, Carroll Rosenbloom". This conflict was due to Knox being pressured into benching his favored Quarterback James Harris for backup Quarterback Pat Haden

Knox was very successful with the Rams with a regular season record of 54-15. Knox spent the early '60s and '70s as an offensive line coach for the New York Jets and Detroit Lions before his tenure with the Rams.

After slightly improving the Bills' record to 5-11 in his first year, Knox helped the Bills become relevant during 1980 and 1981 when the team combined for a 21-11 record and made the playoffs in those seasons. However, the Divisional Round was the farthest Knox got with the Bills, as they lost in both years.

Even though Knox's record wasn't too impressive (37-36), he made a lasting impact on the Bills as he helped them back to relevance for a few years.

3. Lou Saban (1962, 65, 1972-76)

Lou Saban was only the second head coach in the franchise's history and a successful one with the Bills. He turned the franchise around after the first Bills head coach, Buster Ramsey, failed to do anything with them.

Saban was the first successful coach in Buffalo, as he brought them to relevance after the franchise's 11-16 start under their first two years of existence.

Saban started okay with the Bills, posting a 7-6 record through his first season. However, he was responsible for bringing in Pro Bowler Jack Kemp from the San Diego Chargers, who helped lead the team to another 7-6 season, but was enough for the franchise's first-ever playoff appearance in 1963 and then topped that by winning back-to-back AFL championships in 1964 and 1965.

Saban left the Bills and became a head coach and general manager for the Broncos from 1967 to 1971, but he had one last rodeo with the Bills from 1972 through 1976. That tenure wasn't nearly as successful, though, as they only made the playoffs once.

Some Bills legends were born under Saban's tenure as Bills coach. He helped Kemp become the AP AFL Player of the Year in 1965, coached Cookie Gilchrist into the AP AFL Player of the Year in 1962 and aided Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson in his 1973 MVP effort.

Saban will be remembered as a catalyst for the Bills franchise, helping the team win early in his career, gain publicity, form Bills legends, and bring AFL Championships to Buffalo before the Super Bowl Era. Saban posted a record of 68-45-4 with the Bills.

2. Sean McDermott (2017- Present)

In only three years, McDermott helped the Bills draft their franchise savior in Josh Allen, build a top defense by developing drafted players like Matt Milano and Tre'Davious White, acquire free agents like Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde, and Stefon Diggs, and become one of the most feared teams in the NFL.

McDermott is known as one of the nicest guys in the building, someone who's down-to-earth and selfless. Almost every Bills player that's played for him will say the same thing.

He's helped the Bills become playoff contenders after almost two decades. In his first year as head coach, he helped them break their lengthy playoff drought, giving the franchise hope for the first time since 1999.

However, that doesn't mean McDermott doesn't have flaws. Fans are skeptical about Sean McDermott's strategies. Fans called for McDermott's head after the 2023 season because of his inability to advance in the playoffs, especially after his questionable fake punt to Damar Hamlin on fourth down inside their territory.

His defense also doesn't seem to get it done in the playoffs. Through their last playoff loss, McDermott's defense has allowed 134 total points, 16 touchdowns, and eight field goals with only one turnover in 38 drives. However, in the regular season, they've been a top-10, sometimes a top-five defense.

Even given McDermott's flaws, though, he's still a stout defensive coach and has helped the Bills get to where they are today. As of today, McDermott has the best winning percentage as a Bills Head Coach with a record of 73-41, giving him a 64-win percentage.

1. Marv Levy (1986-97)

Marv Levy takes the No. 1 spot on this list as he helped bring the Bills from the bottom of the barrel to the "team to beat" in the '90s.

He started as an interim head coach alongside Hank Bullough, guiding the team to a 4-12 finish in 1986. Levy took over in 1987, and the Bills improved to 7-8 before starting to make postseason runs almost every year. He coached players like Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, and Bruce Smith into Hall of Fame contributors, helping Buffalo make four Super Bowls in a row from 1990-93.

Levy was a football player at heart, he felt like he was one of the guys, one of his most famous recorded quotes being "Where else would you rather be, than right here, right now." He talked as if he were a player himself, and players adored him for that. The most similar quality about him and Jim Kelly is that they were both determined leaders.

The word "determined" summarizes Levy's career as a whole, he's been unsuccessful as the Chiefs Head Coach for half a decade, posting a 31-42 record with them. Then Levy reinvented his career with the Bills and became the best of their entire franchise.

Levy and his team fought harder every year to try and win the big game. Sadly, Levy was never able to get the job done, but he's given the Bills the most success they've seen since their franchise was born. To this day, Bills fans should see him as the greatest head coach they've had.

Levy deservingly earned his spot in the Hall of Fame alongside the many players he coached during his golden years, posting an astounding 112-70 record with the Bills.

Head Coach


Career Record

Marv Levy


112-70 (.615)

Sean McDermott


73-41 (.640)

Lou Saban

1962-65, 1972-76

68-45-4 (.401)

Chuck Knox


37-36 (.507)

Wade Phillips


29-19 (.604)