Posted: 5 a.m.
After he picked up a tidbit visiting Paul Brown Stadium on Thursday, HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg has a vision for the opening segment of his network's five-hour, five-episode behind-the-scenes series featuring the Bengals Hard Knocks of training camp.
Greenburg learned that Bengals founder Paul Brown addressed his team every first day of training camp and he knows that his son, Bengals president Mike Brown, will do the same when the club gathers at the end of July for the first meeting of the season at Georgetown College in the horse country of Kentucky.
"We're going to show some clips of Paul," Greenburg said. "I think we're going to have footage of both. I think Paul Brown is part of the fabric of this organization. I think we're going to be able to showcase that and I want to tell that story right at the top of the first show. I want people to know this organization."
As an old AFL guy cheering for Joe Willie Namath in section 406 at Shea, Greenburg, 54, actually cut his teeth on Paul Brown's Browns because Jimmy Brown turned mud into miles. He isn't sure people do remember or even know the story. But Greenburg does know that if Mike Brown didn't give the OK,
Hard Knocks, Bengals Version *would be nary a sharp rap on the knuckles.
Greenburg had to admit as he recounted his first meeting with Brown that he wasn't expecting the enthusiastic reaction his crew got from an old guard owner. After all, the 18-wheeler poised to probe the inner workings of the Bengals with 120 separate mikings in six weeks and six robotic cameras that will be perched everywhere from the dining hall to the weight room is only two months away from leaving Mount Laurel, N.J.
"The first thing he did was shock all of us by telling us, 'I am thrilled that you are doing this and why you're here because I think we have a good story to tell,' " Greenburg recalled. "That first comment was probably counter-intuitive to what everybody thought Mike Brown would feel about Hard Knocks. I think it came from his gut."
Some viewed Thursday's announcement as gut wrenching. How could the Bengals bare their two-decade winless soul in front of a nation that already mocks them and is just waiting to pounce on more fodder? Better yet, unscripted fodder?
Steve Sabol, the NFL's poet laureate as the president of NFL Films, doesn't exactly see it like that. He sees what Mike Brown is doing as a continuation of what his father did.
(Poet laureate? Who else hears the name of Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and quotes Mark Twain?)
"Paul Brown and George Halas saw NFL Films as historians and keepers of the flame," Sabol said. "He understood so much of football is passion. After Vince Lombardi, Paul Brown was the next coach to wear a microphone during a game."
They needed to sell and hawk the game in a country in love with baseball, college football, and, if you can believe it, horse racing. Long before the Parcells and Belichicks turned football teams into armed camps, Hall of Famers like Brown, Halas and Lombardi built the game's popularity on media access. They didn't see cameras and mikes as a distraction. They believed it helped make the game an attraction.
Indeed, Mike Brown's first instincts before he made head coach Marvin Lewis the spokesman of the franchise was access. Up until the very last day of regularly talking to the media he followed his father's golden rule and always returned the call of a local scribe.
So maybe Mike Brown being miked isn't so preposterous. Sabol can tell you that. How often? Certainly Brown is active in the discussion of the roster. Thursday's consensus was he'd be on air more than Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, but less than Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and former Chiefs boss Carl Peterson.
Sabol is the 45-year-old thread running through this project. He stretches back to Paul Brown's early days as the Bengals coach in the Ohio hothouse of the Wilmington College training camps. A conversation snatched with Brown is the essence of what the filmmakers are attempting to capture.
At Thursday's news conference, Sabol remembered his words as "In what other business can a man discover in six weeks if he has the guts and intelligence to make it in his business?"
Sabol is a key figure here because he ultimately decides what goes on the cutting room floor. HBO insists that virtually everything is up for grabs. But the truth is he has the trust of a Mike Brown because of his long association with the league and the trust of a Lewis, a veteran of the first Hard Knocks back in 2001 as defensive coordinator of the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens.
Asked if HBO and NFL Films latched on to the Bengals because of the bad boys image knowing that the unseemly sells, Sabol basically said he considers himself a keeper of the flame and wouldn't do that to a team.
"Our job is to celebrate the game," Sabol said. "Why would we despoil that?"
If teams once shied away from having their underbelly exposed in Hard Knocks, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has become an advocate as a Sabol ally in the recruiting process. Injuries and strategy are off-limits. Money is not one reason to do it. The club doesn't get paid for the show, but will share with the rest of the teams any revenue generated.
Sabol told a great story Thursday about how when he was shooting Lombardi's Packers for a couple of days in the 1960s, he put down his camera before one of the practices because he had enough footage. Lombardi insisted Sabol walk around with the camera even if he wasn't filming because he felt it made players work harder if they knew they were performing "before the eyes of the world."
The lure of a charismatic head coach is what has drawn Sabol to Lewis before Thursday's announcement. Lewis always turned him down because he didn't think his players were ready for prime time. But Sabol has never doubted Lewis. He calls him "our leading man."
"Marvin is one of our go-to guys for really good, old school locker-room orations," Sabol said. "He's a great communicator ... a mood changer on the sidelines and that makes for great television. The coach is the axis on which the whole show revolves around. If you've got a coach who is charismatic and a great communicator, which Marvin is, we know the show will be good."
Sabol has also built a trust with guys like Zimmer; a veteran of the 2002 Knocks with the Cowboys. Zimmer bumped into him in a hallway Thursday and Sabol reminded him of one of his quotes "that is still an all-time Hard Knocks classic," but it must stay in the archives during this paragraph.
"I told him I'm sure you'll get plenty more of those," Zimmer said.
Zimmer, known for regularly dropping the F-bomb on the field and in the classroom, is comforted knowing Sabol is the guy calling the shots.
"Steve has been around a long time; he's a great guy," Zimmer said. "He's top notch and a guy I respect."
Zimmer admits he worries about how his language comes across, but he also says he's not going to change the way he coaches "because that's who I am," and he doesn't think that he or his players are going to be influenced by the cameras.
"I think we have a good bunch of guys who don't care about being stars," Zimmer said. "They just want to win and aren't worried about anything else. It's no different than when college coaches come around and observe us. I know they're there, but it doesn't change anything I do."
Language might not be as much of an issue now that his kids are grown, but seven years ago "you didn't want your kids to hear you say some of the stuff that you might say," Zimmer said.
As defensive coordinator of the '02 Cowboys, Zimmer remembers getting miked every day and he thinks he's got an advantage because he knows where the on-off switch is. Zimmer turned it off once when things weren't going well, but he turned it back on that same day when they asked him to. But there were also pleasant diversions. One night the cameras followed him and his son to a restaurant.
"I think it's going to be good for the fans and people are going to see what Marvin is really like," Zimmer said. "He's sterner than people think and they're going to see how well he prepares these guys. And I think they'll see we've got a lot of good guys who are hungry."
If people are hungering for a family-style tradition that used to mark the NFL, Greenburg believes the show is going to get a heavy helping of it in this Knocks edition.
"It's the legacy. This is the heart of the NFL. There is Dan Rooney and there is Mike Brown," Greenburg said. "As kids, they lived it."
In about two months, everyone will live it.