And then there were three

1-2-03, 5 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Former Jacksonville head coach Tom Coughlin is officially in the mix for the Bengals' head coaching job.

But a league source said Thursday that there has only been contact between the two sides and that if and when an interview takes place is still up in the air.

What is clear is the Bengals' search looks to be coming down to a three-man field from which their ninth head coach could likely be named. But the Bengals are not commenting on the search or confirming reports.

Coughlin, 55, who led the Jaguars to two AFC championship games in eight seasons, joins Redskins defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis and Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey as those who have been contacted. Lewis has already met with the club once and Mularkey huddles with team officials Saturday.

Lewis emerged from his day-long interview with the Brown family Tuesday very interested in the job and confident the Bengals want to win.

"I don't think there is any question about that," Lewis said Thursday. "I think you're talking

about two people that want to win a championship. I know I do and from what I heard, they want to as well."

The rapid-fire calls indicate that Bengals President Mike Brown hopes to get his man in place in time for the week of the Jan. 18 Senior Bowl so the new coach has a chance to assemble his coaching staff in Mobile, Ala. But there is no set timetable. Plus, one of the candidates, Mularkey, is involved in the playoffs and couldn't be hired until his team is eliminated.

Lewis, 44, reportedly had a good and lengthy interview with the club just 24 hours after Dick LeBeau was dismissed and he said he heard nothing that would make him shy away from becoming the next Bengals coach.

"I'm excited about it and I look forward to hearing from them again," said Lewis, the NFL's highest-paid assistant.

Lewis, who went to the Redskins this past season after six seasons in Baltimore, said he went in with an open mind and didn't heed the perception that Brown rules head coaches with an iron fist.

"Everybody has their take on everybody with everybody getting their two cents in, but how much of it is true?" Lewis asked. "People have views of Art Modell and Dan Snyder, but that isn't 100 percent of the picture. It usually always ends up somewhere in the middle."

It's believed that all the candidates are going to want to bring in their own coaches to make up most of the staff and expand the NFL's smallest scouting staff in some form. Brown has said the new head coach gets the call on his coaches and Lewis said Thursday he felt like he could find common ground on scouting if the talks continue. He agrees with Brown that coaches have to be involved in the draft process.

"I've been fortunate enough to be in places where that has happened," Lewis said. "I think it helps everyone. It helps the scouts get a feel for what the coaches want and it helps the coaches get to know the guys that are going to play for them by not only watching them on the field, but how they interact with people on campus."

But it is probably going to take more than one meeting to hammer out a deal for any of the three as the scope of those issues get worked out. Lewis was apparently impressed with how quickly the Bengals contacted the Redskins about him, which was less than three hours after LeBeau's dismissal, and the fact the Bengals are looking at the staffs of AFC North rivals Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh and Brian Billick in Baltimore for answers.

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