Lewis' coaches go grassroots

Kevin Coyle

Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle can tick off the names of his youth football coaches on the South Shore in the heart of the 1960s and Staten Island like some people can rattle off nieces, nephews and favorite movies.

"In second grade Mr. Johannsen and Mr. Wiley. In third grade Mr. Duggan and Mr. Lopes," Coyle began Friday morning at his Paul Brown Stadium desk. "Fourth grade Mr. O'Gara and Mr. Hartie. Fifth grade Mr. McCloud and Mr. Wagonner. Sixth grade Mr. Nolan and Mr. Meyerwitch. Seventh grade Fat Frank Catanio … ."

Coyle's list is one of the reasons why this weekend's coaching clinic put on by the Marvin Lewis Community Fund and manned by his Bengals staff is grassroots football instead of the square root of Xs and Os. Coyle, coordinator of the clinic lectures, is going to speak on mentoring to the class of youth, high school and college coaches. Strength coaches Chip Morton and Jeff Friday are going to cover the fundamentals of simply how to run. Linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald, who has been known to spellbind these audiences, says he's going to treat the coaches as Pop Warner linebackers "and I'm the coach and I'm going to take them through the drill work and explain the progressions."

"You can make a lot of mistakes with something like this by overdoing the Xs and Os and the complexity of the game," Coyle said. "These guys need to know the very basics of developing the fundamentals of the skills to play the game."

Enter one of Coyle's players, Rico Murray, a Cincinnati kid who played at Moeller High School before going on to start 31 games at cornerback for Kent State. Undrafted, he signed with the Bengals and in two seasons and eight games has intrigued them as a versatile safety-corner type that can also play special teams but whose development was curtailed by an ankle injury last season.

But that's not why Coyle wanted Murray to speak again at the clinic. He invited Murray last year to talk about the impact his coaches had on his life and he was so impressed with the depth of Murray's talk that he wanted him back this year.

Problem was, Coyle can have no contact with Murray per the NFL's lockout rules, and Lewis' foundation had to go to the league to get permission for Murray to speak. Coyle was breathing a little easier Friday when Lewis' people told him it was a go.

"He was really good; really heartfelt, really well done," Coyle said. "It's an example of how youth league coaches can provide the things that stay with a kid his entire life. Not only how he learned work ethic, but the example they set, being respectful of other people, giving your best, having fun in athletics. His youth-league coaches had a real first influence on shaping his moral compass."

Murray grew up in tough circumstances, but he had an even tougher mother and she was determined that he get educated in an environment like the one Moeller provided.

"He mentioned that as he got older how much influence his high school coaches had on him and the respect he had for (head coach) Bob Crable and the people that helped shape his career and personality at Moeller," Coyle said.

That's why when Coyle lectures on mentors Saturday morning, he'll show the coaches the list of his own mentors. Just talking about Fat Frank ("a real character") can get Coyle thinking about riding the bus down Highland Boulevard in his pee wee uniform to the park and making sure he had money to get back home.

"I'm 55 and I've been involved in football every fall since I was seven years old; amazing," Coyle said. "I think about it and a lot of my early experience with football developed my love of the game and I've remembered those youth coaches ever since. These guys, they weren't getting paid, they didn't have to do it. All they cared about was the kids and watching them grow and develop. I know myself and a lot of guys I grew up with, in addition to our parents and families, these guys were as big an influence on us as kids as anybody."

That's the point to the Mr. Duggans and Fat Franks of this clinic.

"I think they need to realize as coaches, it's not learning to run a play or run a defense," Coyle said. "They're impacting lives for the long haul."

Don't get Coyle wrong. There'll be plenty of football taught this weekend. You just had to see the glint in FitzGerald's eyes Friday as he planned his presentation. It's an annual event. FitzGerald gets rolling and his coaches are so into it his talk that everyone forgets the Friday night session ended about 10 or 15 minutes before.

"Fitzy's great. I always have to give him the hook," Coyle said. "They love hearing him and he loves teaching it, but we've got to end the night."  

For a coach as passionate and as intense as FitzGerald, the lockout has sapped him. But on Friday he had equipment managers Jeff Brickner and Adam Knollman take out his favorite practice toys. A few bags. A few pop-up screens. The big mattress for tackling.

"We're going to be working it," he said.

But FitzGerald also wants to send a message. He's gone to some Pop Warner games to watch the sons of friends and he's had some eye-rolling moments.

"The one thing that gets me is how they deal with players," he said. "This is the kids' introduction to football and you can't make it miserable. It's going to cut short their careers. I don't like it when I see someone jump down some kid's throat. That's what rubs me the wrong way. Talk to him. Pull him aside. Coach him up. But playing with a short fuse, yelling, screaming and going haywire sometimes gets confused with coaching."

For good measure, Coyle is also going to touch on the evils of bullying, a massive problem he sees in schools and society backed up by some eye-opening numbers.

"Did you know 160,000 kids missed school last year because of some type of bullying?" he asked. "It's something coaches have to be aware of."

That's grassroots football. Everything from bullying to the bull rush.

Fat Frank is smiling down on Highland.

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