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From an idea to an industry

Posted: 5:35 a.m.



If you don't think Marvin Lewis still has a hold on this city, then you didn't see him auctioneer $12,000 out of two folks Saturday night in the quickest two-minute drill this side of Carson Palmer and the No Huddle.

Holding a mike, a gift of four sideline passes and plane tickets to the Bengals season finale in Miami, and a fierce will to make a difference, Lewis rocketed from $1,500 with promises of South Beach and what his team would do on the scoreboard and a few choruses of "It's for the kids."

When the "Who Deys" cleared, not one but two people had gone to $6,000 and the first tee shot of the centerpiece weekend of the Marvin Lewis Community Fund, which has gone from an idea to an industry in less than four years, was in the fairway.

"He's hands on; he's out there with the kids," said Mike Price, the CEO of National City Bank in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, on why his company is a sponsor. "There's no pretense to it. It's real."

Saturday night at McFadden's, a downtown Cincinnati restaurant, is real all right. It's real chic where the celebrities and sponsors are gearing up for Sunday's Fourth Annual Marvin Lewis Golf Classic at Shaker Run with an A-list reception ranging from Hall of Famers like Ozzie Newsome and Steve Largent and heavy hitters like Price and Cincinnati Bell CEO Jack Cassidy.

The fund, which went public in Lewis' first bye week as Bengals head coach when the club struggled to a 1-4 start, reached 52,456 people in 2006 compared to 2,000 in 2003. With 86 percent of the fundraising ticketed for charities and between $2-3 million raised for seven major local groups last year, Lewis cuts as big a swath in corporate giving as he does on the sidelines, where his team has turned into a playoff contender.

His biggest kick? Could be the $20,000 annual college scholarships that he awards after the tournament.

"The fact we were able to give eight this year instead of four, that's huge," Lewis said. "Now we've got 16 young people in college."

All from a guy that didn't come into town until that whirlwind third week of 2003.

As the beautiful people milled about Saturday night, Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, a Cincinnati fixture of more than 30 years, concluded that the organizations of Lewis and his Hall of Fame teammate Anthony Muñoz are the community's most influential.

But Muñoz has been here for a generation and Lewis hasn't even hit half a decade.

"Everyone wants to be around Marvin," says Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton, whose wife dropped $10,000 at last year's auction before he could get to her in time. "He's that kind of guy and he gives back."

Lewis is careful to say that the boomtown success of MLCF is tied to his 35-30 record ("I think it helps, but we're trying to keep it separate here," he says) but Lapham isn't.

"The (fund's) growth has grown with the Bengals," Lapham said. "Let's face it. The team was struggling when he got here. They turned it around. He put a face on it. He's a great spokesman for anything. It's a synergy thing. When the team started winning, I think it was easier to get on board."

It's a weekend where Lewis is making the beautiful people, the rich and famous in and outside Cincinnati, grind like his team in the second practice of a two-a-day for people, particularly kids, who can't be so beautiful.

The beneficiaries are the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Cincinnati. Boys Hope Girls Hope. Minorities in Mathematics, Science & Engineering. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Success By 6. Youth Inc. The Women's Health Center.

"We like to be associated with people that have a sense of stewardship in the community and make a difference," Price said. "We feel like it all comes back. We want to impact kids in the inner city who start 50 yards behind the starting line versus other kids. Giving kids a chance and all the things that Marvin is associated with fits into our marketing values."

The heavy hitters are attracted to Lewis' fund because they wouldn't mind if Sharon Thomas, the fund's executive director, worked for them. They see her shoestring payroll and the well-heeled results and they know the money is going to the right place.

"What is it, 86 percent goes to charity?" Cassidy asked. "If you didn't know where it was going, well, we could do that ourselves. Sharon knows how to make it work, that's for sure."

Price calls it "very efficient and effective," and says that Thomas is "an excellent administrator for the community fund," but it's more than the bottom line. Price got to town about the same time Lewis did and had to admit to him, "I'm from Pittsburgh and I'm a Steelers fan."

Lewis laughed and said, "I'm from Pittsburgh, too, and I know Bill Cowher."

Now Price laughs.

"You know, it's funny," he said. "Since then, I've become a Bengals fan. Marvin is such a good guy, I just couldn't help it."

It does come down to personality. How else do you get Cassidy bumping into Largent Saturday night and greeting each other like long lost friends? Cassidy is one of Lewis' best friends. Largent, the former Oklahoma congressman who became one of the NFL's top receivers during 14 seasons in Seattle, is currently president of a national trade association for cell phones and wireless.

"I met (Lewis) when he was in Washington," said Largent of Lewis' stint with the Redskins in 2002. "This is the third time I've been back. I'm here because of the coach. I think he's very committed to what is going on in the community."

Lewis' main strength has always been bringing people together, whether it's for a record-setting defense or a playoff run. That's why the Bengals chemistry problem last December is such a mystery.

But Saturday night was the kind of night where Lem Barney, with his 56 Hall of Fame interceptions, could finally get in front of Bengals great Isaac Curtis and what should be his Hall of Fame 17.1 yards per catch and say, "Whenever I saw No. 85 on my side, I'd stay 20 yards off him."

But the current 85 is there in spirit, too, because Chad Johnson donated an autographed football and jersey.

"Old friends making new friends," is the way Lewis put it Saturday night and Thornton knew he would have to think quickly on Sunday at the bigger post-tournament auction.



"She outbid somebody from Cincinnati Bell," said Thornton of last year's $10,000 drop by wife Allison. "It was for six people to fly in a private plane to see us play in Baltimore. I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, but she's looking forward to it."

But then, Lewis will be there next month when Thornton has his bowling charity for autism, where he buys a lane, and he bought a table for Thornton's Vegas Night last fall that was a charity deal spun off Thornton's 30th birthday.

"One reason for (the fund growth) is that there are so many current and former people from here and around the league that respect him," said sports talk radio host Wayne "Box" Miller of "The Buzz," as he watched the Ravens' Ozzie Newsome, the Bucs' Doug Williams, and the Jaguars' Jack Del Rio walk by at some point.

"And the second thing is he does so many things for other people that when his time comes, people are going to be there for him," Miller said. "I feel indebted to Marvin at times because I've called him on the spur of the moment for a quote or an interview and he's done what he can to the point that he called me one time driving to Georgetown (the Bengals training camp in Kentucky). I just don't know how many coaches or managers would do that. I realize we're not 24-hour sports talk, or the Bengals station, but he does what he can."

Cassidy, who is most likely going to get to play several holes Sunday with Lewis, considers him a friend first and he's amazed.

"He's got to be out about three times a week," Cassidy said. "You've got to figure that's 150 times a year. He keeps it real."

So real that he really gave Cassidy a zinger the other night. Cassidy was being roasted for the benefit of Big Brother, Big Sister, and, as the main attraction Lewis wasted no time carving him up.

"He's always out there. He's not just in it to be in it," Cassidy said.

Lewis may fear that his players' bizarre off-field behavior reflects on his own character, but it is nights like this that show how ludicrous that all is.

Indeed, this whole week because his players have taken Lewis' cue.

While he raises about half a million, this same weekend Madieu Williams hosts a free football clinic for children in Avondale and it's the weekend after Rudi Johnson hosted a Mother's Day gala for charity, and the week Chad Johnson announced he'll foot the bill for 50 children at his inaugural football camp in July.

"I see him as a throwback when it comes to values," Price said. "I think Marvin will have a remarkable impact on over half a generation of the young people that were lucky enough (to play for him). It's not any more complicated than that."

It's not complicated, but it's always busy.

Thomas believes that lately Lewis has become quite passionate about education, and particularly the inner-city youth football program that honors children 5-12 for academic achievement.

"Get them young is what he's thinking," Thomas said.

Last week, Lewis was already thinking about a relatively new program, "Play It Smart," that is being retooled and would bring academic coaches into schools.

"We want to do all we can to help it through this transition," he said. "We feel it's a very beneficial program for schools to help young student athletes know the importance of getting an education and understanding the importance of a core curriculum. I think that's something that's needed."

That's why a few nights later at McFadden's he had the mike and another piece of paper.

"Golf with The Coach at Terrace Park," he said. "I'll even let you eat inside. ... C'mon ... it's for the kids."

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