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His Players Salute Lewis

Marvin Lewis had a way with his players.
Marvin Lewis had a way with his players.

Preston Brown, the Bengals' 26-year-old middle linebacker who grew up on the west side, is like a lot of kids about his age who grew up in Cincinnati. Marvin Lewis is the only Bengals head coach they've ever known.

"I was 10 when he got here. It's a surreal moment he's not here anymore," Brown said after exiting Monday's team meeting where Lewis confirmed their phone alerts and he was no longer their head coach after 16 seasons.

"Just growing up here and seeing him coach here every day, he's a huge part of Cincinnati and to have him gone is just a big shock … That's when I started to watch Bengals football when Coach Lewis came."

Not only that, Lewis is the only head coach Andy Dalton has ever had while quarterbacking eight NFL seasons.

"I just want to say one more thing," Dalton said after conducting an interview. "I'm so appreciative of him drafting me and bringing me to Cincinnati. He's exactly what you want in a coach, in a man with character. Family was important and he made it fun to play here. Steady and loyal, that was Marvin."

It shows you how long he's been coaching the Bengals. How long? He was named at an evening news conference at the 2003 Senior Bowl, which didn't appear on Facebook Live or Twitter or Instagram because none of that existed. When his tenure ended Monday, his players knew he was leaving before they went into the meeting he told them he was leaving because they saw it on their phones.

"Unfortunately Twitter knows before everybody else," said wide receiver Alex Erickson. "I don't know how. No one even talks about it. It's a weird situation. The uncertainty. Coach Lewis has meant so much to us you're not thinking about the future. You're just trying to be in the moment. Make sure you don't miss a chance to say good-bye … It's hard. I've been through it in college, the NFL. (The coaches) invest so much in you, your career. This is our livelihoods."

After his last time walking out of the team meeting room Monday morning, Lewis paused before heading upstairs to his office one final time and staged an impromptu receiving line of hugs and whispers as his suddenly former players filed out. The decision had been made last week, but that's when Lewis showed his first and only public emotion.

Erickson hugged him and told him how much he respected him. Lewis pulled cornerback William Jackson close for one final, animated pep talk.

A.J. Green, his surgically-repaired foot on a scooter, paid respects as best he could.

"Anytime a guy has been a head coach for that long," Erickson said, "you know he knows football in and out and how to win at a high level and sustain it. There's nothing but respect. He's a great leader and we'll miss him."

In those 16 seasons from flip phones to emoji's, Lewis morphed from 44-year-old-hell-raiser-program-builder-face-of-the-franchise energy source to 60-year-old-wise-seasoned-father-figure-type-with-open-door-quarter-century-NFL-knowledge. He got ripped for a 0-7 record in the postseason, but his ability to relate to players has never been questioned and difficult to replace,

"You can't put it into words. People have no idea how he changed the Bengals," said former wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who was here B.C.M. (Before Coach Marv) and during. "He left it a better place. Just from a professional aspect. Dude, way back in 2005, 2006 he was standing up in front of us talking about how you never put your hands on a woman. He'd say things like, 'Nothing good happens after midnight,' and that stuff I still remember. And it was from Marvin Lewis."

Lewis built a solid reputation around the league for looking beyond the two-deep depth chart. His ability to recruit free agents to a franchise once labeled NFL Siberia is well known. He also had a knack for winning division titles with players looking for a new lease on life. It's a list of recycled guys like Adam Jones, Cedric Benson, Chris Crocker, Dhani Jones and included this year's starting right tackle.

"He did a great job getting something out of guys that hadn't been as successful elsewhere," Dalton said.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh as a coaching intern for Marvin Lewis a few years ago.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh as a coaching intern for Marvin Lewis a few years ago.

Bobby Hart had 21 NFL starts by the age of 23 but he was unceremoniously cut by the Giants at the end of last season and labeled toxic after an ugly New York Twitter war.

"There weren't a lot of teams giving me an opportunity after all the lies that were spread about me," Hart said Monday as he packed up after a one-year deal turned into 16 starts. "I came up here and talked with him for a long time. We talked about the things that were said about me. Being a cancer and leading guys in the locker room the wrong way. I could have done things differently, but at the end of the day I knew I wasn't a cancer or a bad person.

"I just needed to mature and grow," Hart said. "I feel like he understands what it feels like to be in the position of an African-American man in today's society. We met and talked and at the end of the day he gave me a chance and that's all I can ask."

Running back Giovani Bernard, an unquestioned locker room leader when drafted, is at the opposite end of the spectrum but had a similar relationship.

"He's like a father-mentor to me. He's been a person that's always been there for me," Bernard said. "No matter the situation, he's there. He's an open-door guy. You can always go in there and ask him a question whatever it is. If you feel a certain way you can go talk to him and have that relationship."

Houshmandzadeh, who spent the day on Fox Sports talking about the move and others on the NFL's Black Monday, will also tell you Lewis did a great job relating to him because he was such a volatile youth.

"Marvin wasn't a player's coach, but he was a player's coach," said Houshmandzadeh, which may be the ultimate compliment. "Marv and I went at it many times. One time (players) asked me and Carson (Palmer) to meet with him. We were sore on Sundays. We couldn't move because we were leaving it all on the field during the week. He told me, "let's see other teams' practice scripts.'

A look back at the coaching career of Marvin Lewis with the Cincinnati Bengals.

"So I called DeMarcus Ware (in Dallas) and he sent me one," said Houshmandzadeh, trying to get Lewis off those two-hour practices that were some times longer. "They were on the field for only an hour and a half or an hour and 40 minutes. He got mad. He was trying to build a culture through the building that it was going to take hard work. I didn't see it then. But now I understand the method to his madness."

No question, Houshmandzadeh says. Lewis can still coach.

"What you need are great assistants that can explain the game plan to players," Houshmandzadeh said, "and be able to relate to players. And he can do that."

Whether you're T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a 2001 draft pick, or Preston Brown, an eight-year-old kid on the west side in 2001.

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