Bengals-Bucs Close To Home

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter go way back.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter go way back.

This one is a Thanksgiving dinner gathering and Christmas morning under the tree.

Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19, click for tickets) pitting Marvin Lewis' Bengals versus Dirk Koetter's Buccaneers is a Paul Brown Stadium Club wedding reception and a beer-in-the-bathtub coaching clinic. AFC vs. NFC is college roommates and cross-country in-laws.

"Our whole family will be here watching this one," says "Big Jim," Koetter the other day from Pocatello, Idaho, still as right as rain that day they hung him with the old school nickname "The American." "I just hope both teams do well. We'd like to see a good game."

That's the old school coach talking. There's no question that Koetter is rooting for Dirk, a father-son coaching tandem that has consumed six decades. But he's also in a bit of awe of what's about to happen here.

Dirk and Marvin, college roommates head coaching against each other in an NFL game. From "Animal House," to a luxury suite. Because "Big Jim," also left an imprint on Lewis, an Idaho graduate assistant that spent his first Friday nights in the profession rattling around backroads with "The American," soaking up the delicate nuances of recruiting along with the invisible subtleties of evaluation.

"We spent a lot of time on the road together," Jim Koetter says, 80 years strong streaming in in from Pocatello, Idaho. "Marvin had his head on straight. He was serious about his work from a G.A. coming in to start … No doubt about it. He was far advanced than most guys just finishing up their playing career. He understood the game.

"He knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to do things right. He wanted to get ahead. He had a good upbringing. I give his parents a lot of credit. It is special. Both guys earned their positions and their success."

Lewis has the phone number handy enough that he can jot it down for you on a piece of notebook paper - Jim and Barb. When Lewis roomed with Dirk and his brother Brent during playing days for their Idaho State Bengals, he was often a holiday guest at the home of the parents. Jim, then a local high school coach, soon to move to Idaho State as an offensive assistant and then the head man, thought it was natural his oldest son and Lewis were friends.

Even though Lewis was a threat, another quarterback, and a rarity as an East Coaster coming west to take a scholarship. The outsider ended up introducing Dirk to his wife.

"They had similar interests and they were both smart guys," Jim says. "(Lewis) was a long way from home and they spent some years being on teams that weren't very good and they weren't well-coached. I think (they commiserated together)."

Maybe his son had more in common with Lewis than he knew. Big Jim didn't want Dirk to go into coaching.

"We encouraged him to go into law," Jim Koetter says. "He was a really good debater in high school and everything he did was on time. He was an organizer when he was a young guy."

Back in McDonald, Pa., Marvin Lewis Sr. didn't want his only son going into coaching. There seemed to be a glass ceiling for African-American guys in the profession. He thought maybe a career in engineering would be a better fit. Big Jim is glad it wasn't.

"A really good evaluator," Jim Koetter says. "I came to rely on him when we were working together."

Dirk and Marvin ended up being in each other's weddings and toddler Whitney Lewis was a flower girl for Dirk and Kim. All those years later and they both need a win desperately Sunday.

Another coaching connection underscores the difficulty of Dirk Koetter's third season. After firing his defensive coordinator earlier this month, he turned to Bucs linebackers coach Mark Duffner, a highly-regarded figure around the league that broke in with the Cincinnati Bengals of the late 1990s.

In the two decades of desert after Hank Bullough and before Mike Zimmer, Duffner was the only defensive coordinator to lead the Bengals to a top 10 finish. When Lewis arrived as coach two years later there was some internal sentiment to retain Duffner in some capacity, but Lewis' rebuilding project was in full mode and Duffner has spent the last 16 seasons surfacing as a worthy opponent. He's drawing solid reviews in Tampa for getting an injury-riddled defense back on its feet for an offense that leads the NFL in passing despite the opening-month suspension of quarterback Jameis Winston.

That pretty eventful 3-3 has the Bengals' 4-3 looking pretty staid. But two losses in the span of seven days reinforcing the Achilles' heels of the Lewis Era, a late home loss to the Steelers followed by a prime-time blowout, have the Bengals rallying around their own decimated defense.

"Like Marvin says, its one game," says "Big Jim." "Win the next one."

He's kept an eye on Lewis since he saw him make the move from high school Pittsburgh quarterback to Division I-AA all-league defender: "Student of the game. Linebacker and a defensive end. And a good player."

Photos from practice in preparation for the Buccaneers in Week 8.

Who knows? Maybe it was the mischievous Marvin who gave Jim the nickname "The American." Lewis certainly appreciates those qualities he watched him bring from high school to college.

"Very demanding, very tough, no bull bleep," Lewis says. "His way or the highway."

"Yeah, somehow I acquired it," Jim Koetter says of the nickname. "I don't really know why … I know we were trying to do it the right way."

Which is what the lawyer and the engineer are trying to get done Sunday.