Coughlin likes Bengals, mulls issues

1-3-02, 5:35 p.m. Updated:
1-3-02, 11:20 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Tom Coughlin, dressed as crisply as his reputation complete with an American flag in his lapel, threw his hat into the ring for the Bengals' head coaching job with characteristic intensity Friday night.

"I've always had great respect for Mike Brown and the family," said Coughlin, freshly fired as Jaguars coach, before he caught a plane back to Jacksonville. "I'm a little bit of a historian, so it certainly is very meaningful for me to visit with Mike and talk about his father and the history of the Bengal organization."

The Bengals were also apparently very impressed with Coughlin's smooth presentation of his competence and experience, which plays well for a franchise trying to right itself quickly. That comes three days after Redskins defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis impressed them with his fresh views combined with the broad experiences of three different organizations.

But the central question of Coughlin's candidacy remained very much a current affair after he became the second man to interview for the job in an eight-hour session with the Brown family. The talks probably won't go much farther until the question can be resolved in the mind of each side.

Can he surrender the general manager power he had in Jacksonville for eight years into a shared partnership with Brown, the Bengals president and owner?

"That's something I have to think about for awhile," admitted Coughlin, who said the GM job was barely mentioned. "That issue is really not a part of the plan here. It received some discussion, but not all."

The coaching job wasn't offered to Coughlin and the Browns now

head to Pittsburgh for Saturday's interview of Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. That one appears to be the last of the three outside candidate interviews.

"It was a preliminary discussion and it went very well," Coughlin said.

"That's what it sounded like," said Gary O'Hagan, Coughlin's agent. "He enjoyed meeting Mike and the family and he learned a lot about the Bengals and hopefully they learned a lot about Tom Coughlin."

While the pundits have asked "Who would want that job?" Coughlin and Lewis have made no bones about their interest in taking over the NFL's worst team. A source close to Lewis said Friday night that he's excited about the possibility because he feels he can win here and he was impressed with the say he would have in personnel.

Coughlin, who reportedly spent the morning he was fired studying the Bengals' media guide, likes what he sees.

"This is certainly a job that is very attractive to me without a doubt," Coughlin said. "It's an opportune situation. It's a team that is talented and a team that can win."

Both Brown and Coughlin no doubt went into the meeting attempting to break through their public perceptions that they feel are unfair:

Brown as the iron-fisted Wizard of Oz behind a curtain directing his powerless coaches. Coughlin as the red-faced tyrant; a hard-driving control freak who wore out his welcome in Jacksonville despite two runs to the AFC title game in the first five years of the franchise.

It could be a match because those close to both insist neither are as depicted.

For Brown, considering Coughlin for the top job sends a message to those that don't believe him when he says he gives his head coach as much say as any in the league. It appears he is at least willing to consider sharing power with a coach used to having the title of general manager and getting his own way.

And, after eight years of salary-cap headaches compounded with coaching duties, Coughlin may welcome the break of not being as immersed in the business side of the game.

But it is clear if the discussions are to escalate, Coughlin and the Bengals have to get comfortable with the balance of power. The Bengals think the power Coughlin will have over personnel in Cincinnati isn't all that different than what he had in Jacksonville and that it might be merely a matter of form.

Asked if he could work with Brown, Coughlin said, "I certainly wouldn't see why not. . .(but) at this point it's not appropriate (to comment).

"It's a process of thought that I will have to go through, and I'm sure they will as well."

Since Coughlin didn't arrive until late morning, the sides figured to stay through dinner, so he probably ended up having about as much face time as the Lewis interview, which has been described as wide-ranging.

Brown has high regard for Coughlin's track record as builder, organizer and winner. and he knows his Type A personality would give the languid Bengals a shot during an offseason in which Brown has already admitted his team needs "a shakeup."

The past three Bengals' head coaching regimes (Dave Shula, Bruce Coslet, Dick LeBeau) have subscribed to the "let-pros-be-pros," theory that many players feel has been taken advantage of. Coughlin would be a drastic change from the Paul Brown Stadium Spa days.

He is well known for his list of accomplishments (averaging nine wins per year, four playoff runs, high-ranking offenses) as well as the criticism that he has too many rules and not enough bend.

But Brown likes the idea of a harder hand and he has always been partial to offense. Before injuries decimated the team in 2000 and the salary cap did the rest in 2001 and 2002, Coughlin's offenses led the NFL in passing in 1996 and rushing in 1999.

Several Jaguars took their shots at Coughlin when they were released last spring because of salary-cap duress, but the most well-known is a guy who blasted him even before he became a free agent.

"I'm speaking for myself and maybe a few other people, but coming to work at this organization and things that Tom has done as far as rules and fines, it's very hard to come to work happy," said kicker Mike Hollis before the last game of 2001. "It's hard to come here and enjoy your job when you're getting fined for wearing your overcoat too long or foolish things. That's just me. That's the way I look at it.

"We have a strict dress code in hotels, which is fine," Hollis said. "But you need to be more specific when you're talking about an overcoat being too long, that kind of foolishness. He lays down rules, but he's not specific enough with the rules and then guys are getting fined for silly, petty things. I feel like I can say this now that I'm probably not going to be around."

Hollis said he had never been fined. But that changed when Coughlin saw the interview and fined him $5,000.

Brown indicated earlier this week that he is ready for that kind of thinking when he responded to a question with, "I'm not so interested in pleasing the players as I am having the players please me and the fans. And the coach we get, I hope subscribes to that philosophy. They better please him."

Coughlin took heat in Jacksonville with the perception that he alienated the fans with strong-arm ways. But Jags linebackers coach Steve Szabo, who first worked with Coughlin in the late '70s when they were assistants at Syracuse, doesn't see it that way.

He told "The Jacksonville Times-Union," the day Coughlin was fired that it's unfortunate that his public image isn't accurate.

"He's just a hard-working man. I respect him for what he was," Szabo said. "If he didn't go out in the community and make everybody happy, don't judge him that way. Judge him that he chose to coach as hard as he could all the time."

Coughlin and Brown had plenty to talk about. Back in 1987, Paul Brown ordered Bengals head coach Sam Wyche not to sleep in his office any more, and in the early '90s, Mike Brown made an assistant coach take a bed out of his office. Coughlin has been known to spend game-planning days overnight.

Several Bengals said last Monday that in order for players be disciplined, they have to fear the head coach and know that he, and not Brown, is making the ultimate call on their jobs. Brown says the coach already does, but with the arrival of a former head coach with Coughlin's past, there would be no doubt.

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