BY GEOFF HOBSON
TAMPA, Fla. _ For four years, Marvin Lewis sat back to back with Dick LeBeau.
Their offices were side by side in the Steelers' defensive wing. So they watched tape. They ate dinner. They mused about family and fire zones.
"He was helpful," Lewis said. "With everything."
Lewis, two decades younger, always delighted in the fact he had a Dick LeBeau trading card when he was a kid back in Pennsylvania and here he was doing football with him in Pittsburgh.
"Marvin is smart and back then he was a young coach," said a man who knew both back then. "And he was a sponge for learning. And Dick LeBeau was a guy that he sponged up a lot from."
Now Lewis, the scholarly teaching assistant who grew up to become defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens in Sunday's Super Bowl XXXV, is 60 minutes from finishing one of the great works in NFL history.
Not to mention becoming head coach of the Cleveland Browns or Buffalo Bills. His choice, they say. Not bad after just nine short seasons in the NFL.
But well deserved after drawing the most feared defense of a generation that has allowed less than 10 points per game this season, hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in two years, and has bodily driven three quarterbacks from the field in three playoff games.
And since Lewis is still a bright guy at age 42, it's not lost on him that his old mentor from Pittsburgh, Charles Richard LeBeau, ended a 28-year wait last month to get a head coaching job in his own right at age 63 with the Bengals. In fact, Lewis was born the September before LeBeau came into the NFL as a cornerback.
"That just shows you how this league works," said the man who knows both. "It's all about being in the right place at the right time. Timing."
Lewis is smart enough to know at least that.
"He calls some plays and we know just by the plays that he calls what offensive play it's going to be," said Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary. "(Lewis) is a student of the game. Not even a student. He is a professor of the game."
Dr. Lewis held court one day this week, holding office hours for media taking a crash course in how he got this defense to the Super Bowl.
It's no coincidence LeBeau sees himself more as a teacher than a crusty old coach.
"It's a shame it took that long," said Lewis of LeBeau's climb to head coach.
"But hopefully people like that laid the groundwork for guys like myself," Lewis said. "The fact they did such a good thing, and what he did in Cincinnati this year kind of shows what defensive coaches (can do). That was maybe another thing that was going against him because defensive coaches (weren't getting top jobs). It kind of goes back to when you're working, you're not a promoter."
But LeBeau gets his revenge on an offensive league by helping to sire Lewis.
"He was instantly recognizable as a talented man with a keen intellect," LeBeau said. "He has the ability to make sound, good decisions and he can contribute a lot immediately to game plans."
Lewis took notes. A lot of them from LeBeau.
"For four years, every day, he taught me how to deal with the players, talking to the players," Lewis said. "It was priceless for me and
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our relationship continues to go forward.
"I really think he did an outstanding job in Cincinnati," Lewis said. "When he took over, he put his kind of trademark on it. They're going to be tough and very sound."
Lewis is louder with his players than LeBeau. But listen to the Ravens talk about Lewis and it's an echo of the Bengals' locker room in the first month LeBeau took over for Bruce Coslet.
"He sticks with his players through thick and thin," said linebacker Peter Boulware, "and guys really respect that about somebody."
Safety Rod Woodson actually played for both Lewis and LeBeau in Pittsburgh, and he can hear LeBeau (and Bill Cowher and Dom Capers) in everything Lewis says.
"He can relate to young guys," Woodson said. "He can get them to perform at their peak level week in and week out, practice after practice, meeting after meeting."
Lewis learned his defense from LeBeau, but this isn't LeBeau's defense. The Ravens have a zone blitz package, but why put ketchup on filet mignon?
Lewis has at his disposal two 350-pound Pro Bowl-type tackles and two first-round cornerbacks. In Cincinnati, you have to zone blitz. Not in Baltimore.
"When you have a defense that Marvin Lewis goes to design, you turn the running back to the unblocked person," said Tony Siragusa, one of those big tackles. "Usually it's the strong safety. My job, and the things we do up front, is to get two unblocked players: (middle linebacker) Ray Lewis and our strong safety. I think that attributes to how well we've been doing against the run this year."
So who needs a zone blitz?
"Marvin has the two horses in the middle and two corners that can cover," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president for player personnel. "A good coach puts the players into the scheme they can play, not the other way around."
Has anyone mentioned Lewis is an African-American? He knows he's black and he made a heck of an observation Thursday when he wondered openly why African-Americans generally don't aspire to be playcallers.
He answered his own question. As black coaches move up the ladder in the college ranks, a large part of the advancement is tied to their ability to recruit.
"Race isn't a factor. Association remains a factor," Lewis said. "It's a comfort level. People want to know how you'll react in a stressful situation.
"I think it's still an issue and it's still brought up because there's a lack of," Lewis said. "I hope the numbers increase at least by one this year and we'll go from there."
And then another barrier will come down. Defensive coaches who don't promote themselves who get a head coaching job because they earned it.
Maybe it shows how far we've come that the controversy surrounding Lewis isn't his color. But the NFL's policy that prohibits teams from approaching coordinators about head coaching jobs while their teams are still playing.
"Obviously the rules are in place to protect the guys so they aren't swamped, which they already are," Lewis said. "I don't know how the adjustment needs to be made. It's an unbelievable undertaking that the guy has to go through and that's when you're winning. You kind of get punished a little bit more, and obviously our goal here is to win."
LeBeau, who spent some time back to back with Lewis, thinks he'll win the next job, too.
"I think he would have the same amount of success as a head coach as he has had as a coordinator," LeBeau said. "He's very organized. I think there are reasons people are successful at every level."