1-14-03, 6:45 p.m.
Updated: 1-14-03, 7:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
MOBILE, Ala. _ Marvin Lewis and the Bengals finally found each other Tuesday when they agreed to terms that make him the ninth head coach in club history, filling the spot vacated by the firing of Dick LeBeau 15 days ago.
Lewis, the highly decorated defensive coordinator who has just missed two head-coaching shots in the NFL, and the Bengals, the team that has brought up the rear of two divisions the past 12 seasons, consummated the deal before Tuesday afternoon's practice at the Senior Bowl. Bengals President Mike Brown introduced Lewis in the almost surreal setting of a night news conference at the hotel serving as the Bengals' Senior Bowl headquarters in Point Clear, Ala.
But the move was felt sharpest in the Bengals' locker room 737 miles away in Paul Brown Stadium.
"They say Mike Brown should step down," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "Well, Mike Brown should step up and wear the crown. This was a very innovative move. He stepped up to the plate on this one. Here's a guy who has nothing to do with the negativity of the past. That is so important to the players. They'll be just looking at him and not all the negative stuff that used to surround us. I feel like I've got a new lease on life."
Quarterback Jon Kitna, who has never hid his disagreements with management, saluted upstairs.
"He's the one guy who can come into our locker room and all 53 guys are going to respect right away," Kitna said. "He's obviously a tremendous defensive coach and you hear about his integrity all the time. I think it's great for our organization and the community."
During the week here at the Senior Bowl, Lewis' associates hoped he would get the head job that has eluded him twice in the past two years, and the one he turned down at Michigan State last month.
"He knows what the player can do and where to put the player," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, his boss for six years in Baltimore. "He's very personable. He can deal with the stars as well as the undrafted free agents. He coaches them all the same. Marvin is all about getting a player better if that player wants to get better."
Even before the news conference, Lewis reportedly began making moves to solidify his coaching staff. Early indications are offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is going to stay. He also plans to meet with offensive line coach Paul Alexander after the news conference.
Lewis, 44, began his NFL coaching career in 1992 as a linebackers coach for a Steelers team that ruled the Bengals' AFC Central in the mid-1990s. He then moved on to coordinate the division's next dominant defense in the Ravens, a unit that broke several NFL records and engineered Baltimore's Super Bowl championship of two years ago. He comes to Cincinnati after one year as Steve Spurrier's defensive coordinator and assistant head coach in Washington.
Brian Billick, his head coach in Baltimore, feels his knowledge of the AFC North puts him ahead of the game.
"After coaching against Cincinnati for so long in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, he's got a real feel for what the Bengals are about and what they have to deal with," Billick said. "He comes in with a great reference point and he's very intuitive with players.
On Monday, Lewis reiterated that he thinks he can instill the Bengals with the discipline that their own players have said they need.
"It's all about winning," Lewis said. "Whatever it takes to
win. I've been fortunate enough to have been around winning teams and it's about being organized and knowing what has to get done. It's a good opportunity. I remember when that stadium rocked and they called it "The Jungle," and I think it can get back to that."
Lewis becomes the Bengals' first African-American head coach as well as their highest-paid with an annual salary that sources say exceeds $1 million per year. He joins the Colts' Tony Dungy and the Jets' Herman Edwards as the league's African-American coaches.
Lewis is in a good spot to begin filling out his coaching staff, since most NFL coaches _ employed and unemployed – are here this week. Bratkowski and running backs coach Jim Anderson look to stay, but everyone else is in flux. The strength and conditioning staff figures to be overhauled, as well as a good part of the defensive side of the ball, which Lewis figures to pretty much run even though he's the head coach.
It's believed that Lewis has hammered out some issues that includes adding some scouts to the league's smallest personnel department. Two or three coaches off LeBeau's staff not retained figure to be asked to become scouts. Tight ends coach John Garrett, who broke into the league as a scout in Tampa Bay, looks to be a top candidate.
Ray Anderson, the executive vice president and CEO of the Falcons , used to make a living out of representing the best and brightest of the nation's head football coaches. Billick. Dennis Green. Edwards. Dungy. Tyrone Willingham. He thinks Lewis has all the potential to make that list.
"His pedigree is excellent," Anderson said. "He's got exceptional people skills as far as handling players, for sure, and he's got a very strong relationship with the other coaches on the staff. They really respect him. Combine his enthusiasm and football knowledge and any club, certainly Cincinnati, would be lucky to get him."
Newsome thinks his year under Spurrier is valuable because Lewis did a lot of the big-picture things of a head coach while rookie got immersed in NFL offense.
"They get the right person in there to get those players to start to believe that they can instead of that they can't, then it could make a problem for all of us in the AFC North," Newsome said. "Make problems for everybody. You can get to a point you think you're doing enough, but you're not doing enough. I think Marvin will be able to get those guys to realize what they've been doing hasn't been good enough."
Billick thinks he has the personality to turn it around.
"They've got a lot of talent," Billick said. Clearly, there needs to be a mind-set change. It needs to be definitive and decisive, and clearly Marvin can do those things."