2-26-03, 8:25 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Marvin Lewis has yet to hold a team meeting as the Bengals head coach, but he's already become a local drawing card.
Lewis continues his ground-breaking community outreach this week with his first foray into the local corporate world. On Tuesday night, he challenged media mogul Ted Turner's attendance record and outdrew a future vice president of the United States as the keynote speaker at the University of Cincinnati's Cincinnati Business Achievement Awards. On Wednesday, he speaks to a Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce group.
"I've never been in pro football, but I imagine you want to make the connections in your town," said Rick Minter, who has to tinkle glasses with the alumni as UC's head football coach. "It's something you have to want to do. You can say you want to do it, but you have to get out and do it and the fact he's here tonight shows he wants to do it."
Lewis came out on an icy 20-degree night smack in the middle of the offseason heat. The NFL scouting combine ended Monday. Free agency starts Friday. Before the dinner, Fritz Russ, dean of UC's College of Business, was still surprised he had the hottest local name in front of his microphone.
"I knew he was new and he was busy, so I was surprised, he accepted," Russ said. "But I had also read where he wanted to get out into the community and this was a different enough venue that I thought we might have a chance. It's really tremendous what he's done since he's been in town. It's not as low key as we are used to from the Bengals."
In the 18 years of the event, Russ has made sure his speakers have been anything but low key. Last year, CNN pundit Bob Novak came in wheeling from the right on a head
table that has also featured Boomer Esiason and Lou Holtz. Vice President Dick Cheney appeared several years ago when the other Bush was president. But with more than 700 people at the Millennium Hotel Tuesday, Russ thought the only speaker who has drawn more was Turner. And that was probably because then wife Jane Fonda was in tow.
"We've found the most popular speakers are people who are in the news either because they're newsmakers or sit on the other side giving the news," Russ said. "There's no question that Marvin Lewis is the hottest name in town. There's tremendous interest in the Bengals and watching them move upward."
There were other reasons why there was a big crowd. Two of Cincinnati's heaviest hitters were honored when Fifth, Third Bank chief George Schaefer received UC's College of Business Alumni Association Distinguished Service Award and Steve Wilson of VNU Marketing Information took home the Carl H. Lindner Medal for Outstanding Business Achievement. Lindner, the principal owner of the Reds and head of American Financial Group Inc., also watched third-year student Benjamin Erb receive the Carl H. Lindner Scholarship.
"Marvin is the icing on the cake," Russ said.
Lewis brought his trademark enthusiasm. He told the crowd he wants to play games in January so Bengals President Mike Brown can build an indoor facility. He told them he's building his team like they built theirs. With fundamentals and attention to detail.
"Nobody here is going to sell their Steelers or Browns tickets any more," Lewis said. "This is our place. Let's get it back to being 'The Jungle,' and then have some fun over there on the river."
Minter ended the evening by presenting Lewis with a Bearcats' "Welcome," basket, as well as a painting signed by all of the UC coaches for each sport. He also offered the gift of perspective after reading the stories that have bannered Lewis as "a healer," for the Cincinnati community.
"That's an unfair label," Minter said. "I'm telling you what he's going to do. He's going to change attitudes. First, with the Bengals. Then he's going to give everybody in this city something to feel good about. Whenever we start feeling good about ourselves that's how you change attitude. You change and raise self esteem in people. If in the coffee shops, bars, and in the highways and byways people start talking about good things on Monday morning, and feel good about themselves, all these other problems, we'll find, will just take care of themselves."
Schaefer, who is also a member of the Cincinnati Business Committee, thought Lewis reminded him of another area coach. Kentucky basketball's Tubby Smith.
"He's very down to earth. He seems very genuine. A regular guy," Schaefer said. "I just think it's great that he's coming out in the community and that he wants to be so involved. I like him. I like what he has to say."
Smith has won a national title with the Wildcats.
"I think he's going to do well," Schaefer said.