BY GEOFF HOBSON
If you think the Bengals' players have embraced Dick LeBeau as their new head coach, you should hear what the former Steeler braintrust is saying in Pittsburgh and Miami.
Chan Gailey, the Dolphins offensive coordinator who plays LeBeau's team this week, was the Steelers' coordinator when LeBeau led the Pittsburgh defense. Asked why the Steelers loved to play for him and "go to war with him," Gailey didn't bat an eye.
"For the same reason men went to war with General Eisenhower, General Patton and Big John Wayne," Gailey said. "Because he's honest, he's tough and he's a competitor."
Tom Donahoe, the Steelers' former director of football operations who lured LeBeau to Pittsburgh in 1992 because of his zone-blitz scheme, couldn't have been happier to hear his friend was finally getting a shot.
"It was the best news I've heard in a long time," Donahoe said. "He's very quietly paid his dues with tremendous loyalty and great integrity. He's taught me so much about players and so much about the game. I don't have any doubt that the Cincinnati Bengals will win some games. He makes average players play good and good players play great and that's what coaching is all about."
Even current Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who clashed with LeBeau at times, had high praise for him at his weekly news conference.
"He's a laid-back guy and everyone talks about that," Cowher said. "But I'll say this about Dick: Dick's got a little fire in him, too. We've had our moments together, and I've seen him work with the defense as well, so he'll do a good job."
Donahoe lumps LeBeau with new Jets coach Al Groh as two of the best-kept secrets in the NFL.
"He probably didn't get a head coaching job until now because he's not a self-promoter. There are guys out there you wonder what they're doing with the jobs they've got, but Dick doesn't seek attention. Football is all about discipline and preparation and that's what Dick does during the week, but I think he's even a better coach on Sunday, He can adjust."
Usually the biggest hump a coach has to get over is earning the players' respect. Both Cowher and Donahoe believe that's a given.
"Players will enjoy playing for Dick LeBeau. They're in good hands," Cowher said. "The situation is not how he wanted this opportunity to unfold because he's a man of integrity, and I'm sure that he was probably the first one to try and talk Bruce (Coslet) out of walking away, and that's because that's the way Dick is. At the same time, if he's handed this responsibility, he's going to put his heart and soul into it because that's how Dick LeBeau coaches. I've got tremendous respect for him.''
Donahoe said, "Players know that Dick played the game at a very high level and he's an innovator. I have no doubt he'll have respect on both sides of the ball."
AKILI UPDATE: Akili Smith, off the first concussion of his life, is cleared to start against the Dolphins. His mind was clear enough Wednesday to hear LeBeau preach about what Smith was trying to say last week: Crisper practices.
"He talked about things that I thought were true and he had me going a little bit, so I'm ready to fight for this guy all the way," Smith said. "Stuff I talked about last week. Up tempo in practice, accountability, work ethic in the weight room, carry it over to the game. . .Everything about being a pro in the NFL."
Smith knows what other pros think.
"We're just a win," Smith said. "Anytime someone sees us on their schedule, they automatically put the 'W.' We have to erase that somehow, some way. People don't respect us and they shouldn't respect us. We've been the worst team in the '90s and we have to find a way to get out of that."
Smith figures it's time for the Bengals to let it all hang out.
"We have nothing to lose now," Smith said. "We've had a coaching change. Let it go out there and fly. (LeBeau said) you won't play if you're not getting the job done. If that doesn't wake you up, I don't know what needs to happen."
The club is concerned about Smith getting his confidence shattered. He's been sacked 14 times this season and has three touchdown passes to 10 interceptions for his career. But he says, "I'm still confident, bold and semi-cocky and that's the way that I am. . .I'm going to keep my head up at all times. Keep this thing together until we win."
Smith said LeBeau emphasized that the club must get running back Corey Dillon into the game in a season he's struggling with a two-yard-per-average on 41 carries.
"If there's any way I could play guard and put on 200 pounds, I'd love to block for that dude," Smith said. "That takes a lot of pressure off the offensive line and the quarterback and the young receivers."
The coaching change means Smith gets a new playcaller in offensive coordinator Ken Anderson. But since former coach Bruce Coslet called the plays, Smith isn't sure what to expect Sunday: "Your guess is as good as mine. We'll find out Sunday."
THIS AND THAT: Dillon's pre-trial hearing for fourth-degree assault on his wife in Federal Way, Wash., was moved from Wednesday to Nov. 1. Dillon has denied the charge. . .Maybe rookie receiver Peter Warrick makes his debut as a punt returner when LeBeau makes his coaching debut. LeBeau said Warrick would be, "a great punt returner." . . .
Dolphins LB Zach Thomas had the cast taken off his ankle and still might play Sunday. . .Bengals LT Rod Jones sat out Wednesday with a bruised shin, but is probable. . Bengals OLB Takeo Spikes, bothered by a season-long hip strain, also took the day off and is probablle . . .
Bengals C Rich Braham is out another four weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to irrigate the joint near where his bursa sack was removed seven weeks ago. Trainer Paul Sparling said the prognosis is good for avoiding season-ending surgery. . .DE Vaughn Booker is scheduled to visit the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Monday. If the hospital signs off on the battery of tests Booker took following his passing out on the field two weeks ago during the 13-0 loss to Jacksonville, he could play in the Oct. 8 game against Tennessee at Paul Brown Stadium. . .
The Bengals don't expect a sellout, so the game won't be televised locally.