Change in key

1-17-03, 11:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Mayor Charlie Luken came down to Paul Brown Stadium Friday to give Marvin Lewis the key to Cincinnati.

That's nothing.

Bengals President Mike Brown handed Lewis the key to his club's football operations down in Mobile, Ala., on Tuesday. Which is why Lewis took the task of leading the NFL's worst team.

"I have the ability to direct the program," said Lewis Friday from the same podium where Dick LeBeau, Bruce Coslet and Dave Shula never uttered those words. "I don't know if anybody else stood here before and was able to tell you that, and that's why the job was attractive to me. I have the ability to shape and mold everything we do, and from this time forward, I get to do that."

In his first appearance before the Cincinnati media,. Lewis flashed the things Bengals' head coaches have rarely flashed in these dozen years of futility:

Confidence in his power play with club president Mike Brown. A willingness to stand up to players. And a Super Bowl ring.

" Frankly, we might need a little of that addition by subtraction around here," said Lewis of his ability to cut players who don't produce or behave. "We're going to set some things straight right away on how things are going to be and how things are going to be run."

Even as Lewis spoke, his prospective assistant coaches could have used a shuttle bus from the

Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport to PBS. Lewis continued to oversee the biggest coaching overhaul in Bengals' history with a series of interviews deep into Friday night.

Names won't be released by the club until the staff is intact early next week, but four assistants from LeBeau's staff are already gone with the biggest move the retirement of 28-year strength coach Kim Wood Friday. That move seemed to convince a locker room that thought Wood was untouchable because of his close ties to the Brown family that there is real change on the way.

"A new era," said quarterback Jon Kitna. "All that old stuff is gone. All the old is passed away.

"I'm not skeptical. It seems like they are changing the way things are done, " Kitna said. "Allowing him to hire his own staff, allowing him to have that input, that big say in the direction. He's going to be allowed to bring in people around him that he knows are going to help him teach the things he wants around here instead of coming in and teaching the staff. He doesn't have to do that."

Brown's silence has been defeaning as he continues his effort to rehab his team's hemorrhaging image by relying on Lewis to speak on all football matters. It has stopped the bleeding and Lewis' seamless performances may start the healing. Brown has long said his coach has more input than most in the league and that he's not some Third World dictator. Lewis is making believers out of at least some of the players.

"Everything has been done with my approval," Lewis said. "I have the opportunity to hire each and every football staff member here. You have my assurance of that. Any staff decisions being made are because of my direction."

His direction is not that of a warm, fuzzy players' coach. That was pretty clear as he reacted to the news of defensive captain Takeo Spikes saying he wanted out of Cincinnati.

"You're not going to want to hear this, but we're going to learn how to curb that stuff, too," said Lewis of the bimonthly rip jobs by a player in the media. "We can't help ourselves by going out and venting. If they have a problem, they talk to me. If it's bigger than me, they can talk to Mike. But we shouldn't have to go even there. We can't help ourselves by pointing (the finger) 'It ain't my fault.' That's not going to work here. We can take care of our family within our family."

Lewis sounds like he isn't going to let players off the hook. He said they sometimes don't realize they're part of the problem. He said his players shouldn't want to go to the Super Bowl unless they're in it. He said players shouldn't worry about "junior high stuff," because, "this is professional football."

The players who gathered at the news conference Kitna, cornerback Artrell Hawkins, defensive end Justin Smith, linebacker Steve Foley had that figured out:

"He can bring that change of attitude," Kitna said. "If you don't have the right attitude, it sounds like he'll get rid of you."

"He'll have that authority to get in guys' faces," Foley said. "He's not going to have to worry about it coming down from the front office. It's kind of like a coach who is a general manager, but he doesn't have the title."

Which is, of course, the kind of coach the Bengals demanded since they went 0-6 to open the season. Hawkins, a fellow Pittsburgh-area native, has known Lewis for years and played for him for a week in the 1998 Senior Bowl.

"Being a Western Pennsylvania kind of guy, I liked the hard work speech, the sunup to sundown stuff," Hawkins said. "Not afraid of it. Kind of need it."

Yes, Hawkins noticed the Super Bowl ring.

"I don't think he's going to wear it every day to work, but like he said, he wore it by design," Hawkins said. "There was no mistaking it there. It's one of the first things I noticed."

The first thing people will notice about his term is the staff he assembles. It won't have Wood, and it probably won't have quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson (11 years) because published reports have Lewis interviewing candidates. And he may not have offensive line coach Paul Alexander (nine years) with Jaguars coach Mike Maser interviewing Friday. They were all thought to be Brown's untouchables.

Think again.

"The St. Louis Post-Dispatch," reported Friday that Ken Zampese, who held the dual title of wide receivers coach and passing game coach in 2001 and 2002 for the Rams, is expected to interview for the quarterbacks job. Zampese, 35, is scheduled to be tight ends coach while still working with the passing game next season, if he chooses to remain with the Rams. Zampese has been in St. Louis three years and the NFL for five years after serving two years at Miami of Ohio.

It's believed the Bengals interviewed Zampese Friday. Alex Wood of the Vikings, who had his quarterback position eliminated in Minnesota, is probably interviewing for the wide receivers job.

"Hey, he's got the key to the city," Hawkins joked. "You've got to let him make the decisions."

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