Brown celebrates in the wings

Posted: 12 a.m.

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Brown: Enjoying success in the shadows

Bengals practice.

Their first one as AFC North champions. Tuesday. Sub-freezing. Dark. Windy.

And it could be 1981, 1988, 1993, or 1999 because Mike Brown is on the sidelines watching wearing a hat that could have been from 1981 and a Bengals warmup top that could have been from 1988 and Bengals sweatpants that could have been from 1993 or 1999.

It is the Bengals president's curse and legacy.

Loyalty. To clothes, cars, coaches and a city, and when it was rewarded Sunday with that first division title after 15 years of derision, Mike Brown stayed true to himself and ducked from the spotlight into the training room to get the injury report.

And then he was gone. While his head coach took every rightful accolade, his assistant coaches puffed cigars, and his players showered in attention, the anti-Jerry Jones and anti-Bob Kraft and, oh yes, the anti-Art Modell, went to a dark bus to wait.

"Mike never shows his emotions. Never has," says Dave Lapham, the old Bengals guard who has negotiated more contracts with Brown than any human being alive or dead, and who tracked him down long enough to shake his hand. "But he's happy. You know how I can tell? His walk. There's a pep in his step. When he's got a lot on his mind and things aren't going well, he's going slow.

"But he was really moving Sunday. He was still quiet and respectful as always. But everything was moving. His arms. His legs. His head. It was all going. He was taking it all in."

Make that loyalty to women, too. He's had the same one for 41 years. Brown's friend, Jack Schiff, one of the guys Brown jokes with and laughs with and generally shows the side of himself the public and his players never see, has a good nickname for Nancy and Mike Brown.

"The Honeymooners." The outgoing, effervescent Nancy as Alice. Her opposite husband Mike is the shy, behind-the-scenes Ralph. When Nancy joined Bengals fan bus trip this past weekend to Detroit, she was with a group that walked by Lions fans moaning about how Matt Millen could have hired Marvin Lewis as head coach.

"Mike Brown did," Nancy Brown told them in no uncertain terms.

"They didn't know who I was," Nancy Brown says a few days after the Bengals beat the Lions to win the AFC North. "I'm happy for my husband. He deserves this. Mike doesn't show much emotion, but no one cares about this team more. I know he's happy. After being with someone for 41 years, you know just by the little things."

By all accounts, Brown has been exhilarated by this run. Stunned by the crowd of Bengals fans at the team's hotel Sunday morning in Detroit, he found himself surrounded by autograph seekers. Brown is embarrassed by such attention, but he cheerfully raised his voice so everyone could hear and thanked them for coming and showing their support.

Nancy Brown has been going on trips with fans and tailgating with then at home games for the past decade. It started out as thank-you-for-staying-with-us, but now it has become a big part of her life because of the people she has met. They would love to have Mike show up one of these days, but she knows that's just not his style.

"We're opposites, I guess," Nancy says. "He likes to plant trees, I like to dig them up. But Mike isn't going to be anything he's not."

Loyalty.

It's why he's been driving a Chevy ever since the club signed a deal with McCluskey Chevrolet all those years ago. A nice, solid, no-frills Impala that Chad Johnson wouldn't hit a deer in.

It's why the Bengals let season ticket holders get first dibs at the playoff tickets.

Loyalty.

He prefers to work like this:

One day last offseason while lunching at Chez Nora in Covington, Ky., Brown heard Lewis was eating upstairs with his coaches. He had them put their bill on his tab.

Loyalty.

Or, sadly, he works like this:

Master Sgt. Michael Hiester was recently featured on the American Hero segment on the CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer. Hiester, killed by a land mine while serving in Afghanistan, had told his wife the only thing he wanted for Christmas was a Bengals jersey. Brown sent a box to his family in Indiana with a Chad Johnson jersey and two other jerseys for his two children.

Loyalty.

So, of course, who wouldn't be happier than Mike Brown, 70, at this very moment? Truth be told, the one person responsible for the Bengals coming to Cincinnati in the middle of the 1960s and staying in the middle of the 1990s is the guy who has preferred to stay in the background since Lewis arrived three years ago.

The memories all dried up in the 14-year playoff drought.

Back in 1967, Paul Brown would have been quite content to stay on the West Coast, not far from La Jolla, and start his new team. But son Mike pushed the city of Cincinnati and convinced him it was a better place than Seattle.

And during the stadium crisis of the '90s, with the NFL wishing he would slide the Bengals right into vacant Cleveland (oh baby, a small market for big market trade straight up) and those closest to him advising him to take that big, fat stadium deal in Baltimore, Brown stayed put in Cincinnati, where his kids and his team were raised.

Loyalty.

Modell turned his back on four decades of history and fled Cleveland to take the big, fat stadium deal in Baltimore and then got hailed as a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Brown embraced 30 years of tradition, took a lesser stadium deal to stay, and got sued by his county.

Just win, baby.

The same loyalty that buried him with Dave Shula and Bruce Coslet kept the team here.

And now that Brown is winning, he's staying true to the deal he struck with Lewis. Lewis does the talking to the media. Maybe Brown will meet the media once a year. Maybe two if they make the playoffs. (Next week?)

"Mike's very happy to have Marvin take the credit," Nancy Brown says. "That's just his way. To my knowledge, Marvin is the first person to ever publicly thank Mike Brown for giving him a chance. I'm not saying it hasn't happened, but it's the first time I've heard a player or coach thank Mike for the chance he gave them. And for that, Marvin will always be very special to me."

By all accounts, the Lewis-Brown relationship is a good one. It had to be from the get-go because both had to pass each other's heavy scrutiny. Lewis had heard all the knocks against Brown's Bengals ("I don't want to talk about that," he said.) and Brown needed someone badly to stop the bleeding of a 2-14 season that had come at the end of a six-year run of 19 wins.

"It was the most important decision in the history of the franchise coming off that season," says Lapham, the club's radio analyst. "So Mike was going to take his time and do due diligence."

So did Lewis. What he has found then and now is what he calls the misconceptions surrounding Brown.

"Perception hasn't been reality," Lewis says. "The biggest (misconception) is that he doesn't want to win. That he doesn't care about winning. I think that's been dispelled since I've been here. He wants to win, and he's happier with some wins than others. He was really happy Sunday because of what it meant for us."

Lewis is more than a coach and Brown is more than a general manager. The best way to describe the chain of command in the organization in the Lewis era is a partnership. Consensus decision making. Brown might have the final say, but rarely does it fly in the face of Lewis because of the reign he gives him over football operations.

It's not that Brown has given Lewis more sway than he's given any other coach. It's just that this is how Brown always envisioned it. Lewis has offered the passion, vision, and ideas Brown has always sought.

"I think it's about trust," Lapham says. "I think Marvin picks his fights. If you always argue or debate the same thing with Mike, you're not going to get anywhere with him. But if you make a good argument, go out and prove it, he's with you. I think what you're seeing now is two guys, Mike and Marvin, that have a lot of trust in each other.

"I believe he wants to win. You don't play quarterback at that level and not have that desire. You don't want to get beat up all the time."

Jim Anderson, the running backs coach who has worked for Brown for 22 years, sees a solid relationship.

"Mike has a lot of passion for this team and this city," Anderson says. "It's about just doing your job, worrying about what you can control and not worrying about what you can't. I think you've got two guys really focused on winning and are pulling in the same direction. We're all pulling the same train, and that's to win. Mike told the coaches (Monday morning) how he felt and thanked us for what we'd done. But he knows we've got more to do."

Lewis says he has the same vision for the Bengals that Brown does.

"He loves this team. It kills him when he can't watch us practice," Lewis says. "When the name 'Cincinnati Bengals' rolls off people's lips, he wants people to be proud of it."

Lewis smiles when told the Bengals are going through an interesting stretch. Cleveland. Detroit. Buffalo. They have a combined 12 wins and all could have hired Lewis at one point. In fact, two of those teams interviewed him. Mike Brown, with 11 wins, did hire him, with heavy input from daughter and Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn and her husband Troy Blackburn, the club's director of business development.

"It takes two to tango," Lewis said.

There are those inside the organization who think Brown has made certain that Lewis is the best informed coach in the NFL. Lewis has talked during free agency about viewing the daily salary cap figures with capologist Katie Blackburn, as well as coordinating the college scouting trips for his coaches with senior vice president of player personnel Pete Brown.

Like Brown has with all his employees, he's got an open door for Lewis, and they talk about everything. He says Brown talks often about his father.

"He talks about his father's teams, his players, the writers who covered his father," Lewis says. "There are a lot of parallels to today, and it's good to have that perspective. We were just talking the other day about the first time he heard about pro football; 1943. That was 15 years before I was born. He's seen it all."

Everything but a Super Bowl title. And he wants it badly. There are those close to him who say that Brown, the former Dartmouth quarterback, doesn't look at the world post-1990. He's looking at going back to a third Super Bowl and then a fourth and ... to go along with '81 and '88.

"Good teams do this every year," Lewis says, "and we know there are things we still have to do to reach that point."

It should be recalled that there was life before Lewis. Under Brown, the Bengals did draft Pro Bowlers Willie Anderson and Chad Johnson, as well as alternates Rudi Johnson and Levi Jones. But he needed a trigger man for a quarterback and a charismatic, well-credentialed disciplinarian as coach to bring order to a chaotic locker room and a competitive edge to free agency.

Enter Palmer and Lewis, respectively.

Everybody knows Brown would have drafted Palmer No. 1 in 2003 because any coach he hired would have agreed. But the way the club handled it, as if it were almost a recruiting project with Palmer and his family that started in January at the Senior Bowl even before Lewis was named, helped facilitate a pre-draft deal.

Lewis clearly complemented that process, and it couldn't have been that easy. The Chargers and 49ers failed to duplicate a mid-week No. 1 deal the past two years.

But Brown prefers to sit this limelight out. If Lewis is getting Gatorade dumped on him, that means Brown isn't getting dumped on, period.

"He's happy and relieved," Nancy Brown says. "I think like every Bengals fan is right now."

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