1-11-03, 11:25 p.m.
Updated: 1-12-03, 6:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
MOBILE, Ala. _ If Mike Mularkey is the underdog in the Bengals' coaching derby that the majority thinks is going to Marvin Lewis, why not? Here is a guy who started his coaching career at an NAIA college when he was better known as an IBM salesman ten short years ago.
"If that's the way it's being looked at, that's fine," said Mularkey Sunday night from Pittsburgh. "That's the way my entire career path has gone. So I'm pretty comfortable with it."
Even though he'll have barely 24 hours to prep for his second interview with the Bengals, which is to be some time Monday here at the Senior Bowl, the 41-year-old Steelers offensive coordinator is excited.
"I think I've got a pretty good grasp of the team because we've played against them so often," Mularkey said.
Lewis, the Redskins defensive coordinator, has expressed concern about the timetable extending much beyond early next week, but he apparently has been told to be patient because he has put himself in good position to become Cincinnati's next head coach. That's how impressive his two interviews have been and conventional wisdom is that Mularkey has to dazzle to pull ahead of Lewis.
After the Steelers lost Saturday in Nashville, Mularkey, who interviewed for the Tampa Bay job last year after the Steelers lost the AFC title game, admitted he's not expecting to be as well prepared as Lewis and Tom Coughlin in his second interview. But like the Steelers' 31-point outburst Saturday on the road in the playoffs, he's going to try.
"I like challenges and I think they know that," said Mularkey as he leaned his shoulder against a locker room wall, his body sagging with the bizarre season-ending 34-31 loss to the Titans in overtime.
"I've been overwhelmed with the last three weeks," Mularkey said. "I'm emotionally, physically exhausted. I'm looking for a little rest to be honest with you."
But he won't get much. Oddly, Pittsburgh's sudden-death elimination gave life to Mularkey's candidacy because the Bengals may very well have not waited another week to talk to him if the Steelers beat the Titans and moved to the AFC title game.
Now what looks to be the club's last interview could mean the ninth Bengals head coach is possibly named as soon as Tuesday.
Coughlin, the former Jacksonville coach, also remains a serious candidate even though everybody but the Bengals have ruled him out.
But the tape of Mularkey's offense could be dazzling enough. And if he's anything like his offense the last three weeks, he'll have his best for last.
"The thing about Mike Mularkey that makes it so difficult is that he's unpredictable," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher after the Steelers put up 324 yards on his NFL's 10th best defense.
"That's what separates him from most coaches. If you read any of the stuff that comes out of there and what's said, the players have a lot of respect for him."
Mularkey found himself in that gray area of purgatory Saturday night that only the NFL can offer. It's because of his players that he felt so badly about the loss. Even as he spoke to reporters about the possibility of leaving, he told one of his players as he left the locker room, "Thanks for everything. You did a great job all year. We'll be back. We'll be back."
Mularkey thought he might talk to the Bengals Sunday, but he was grateful to hear that the Bengals might give him at least 24 hours to regroup. Bengals President Mike Brown leads his contingent to Mobile Sunday morning, but Mularkey was hoping to talk to Steelers coach Bill Cowher about getting a few days off for his offensive coaches before hitting the scouting trail. Of course, if the Bengals want to meet him there, he's there.
"That's a good question," said Mularkey, when asked of his chances given that he has barely had time to throw anything together. "As many times as Marvin has been on interviews, and Tom Coughlin with his experience, I may not be as impressive as far as presentation because of time. (The first interview), we couldn't get into details. I like challenges and I think they know it. (The first interview), we couldn't get into details."
Asked if he felt he wasn't prepared for his first interview, a 3.5-hour meeting 24 hours before the Steelers'' Wild Card game against the Browns last Sunday, the always candid Mularkey said, "I'd say that's extremely accurate, and I probably won't be ready for another one. There's just not enough hours in the day to prepare like you need to prepare for something like that. But the Brown family was very understanding and I'm sure they will be this time."
But he clearly wasn't in a frame of mind to list his qualifications.
"I'd prefer to wait to get into that after they make contact," Mularkey said politely.
In the other locker room, Fisher could list 31 points that qualify him. Which is the number of points the Steelers scored against the 11th best scoring defense in the NFL.
"I couldn't imagine it," said Fisher of walking into a job interview Monday. "But that's what happens in this league. When you have success like he has, good things happen to you. He's going to do well."
The driving force behind the Bengals' desire to name a coach this week is so he can round up a staff and so the Bengals can end the tension for their own assistants who don't know if the new man will keep them or not. The key date there is Jan. 15, when the Bengals lose exclusive rights to their coaches who don't have a contract for '03.
After apparently feeling out the three leading candidates, the shoes are already dropping with two assistants moving on. Defensive line coach Tim Krumrie signed with the Bills Friday and special teams coach Al Roberts was told last week he wouldn't return. The Bengals haven't given offensive line coach Paul Alexander permission to talk to the Bills, but that could change after he interviews with the Bengals new head coach.
Wide receivers coach Steve Mooshagian may be next on the list. He interviewed for the Sacramento State head job this past week and there are reports the St. Louis Rams are interested in adding him to their staff as a second receivers coach. Mooshagian, a former Fresno State player and assistant coach, has connections there. He played at Fresno with Rams receivers coach Henry Ellard in the early '80s. Head coach Mike Martz played at Fresno in the early '70s.