Only one Coach of Year in Bengaldom

12-1-03, 10:15 p.m.

There is going to be no consensus NFL Coach of the Year in 2003.

Even though anyone who used to watch the Bengals torture the fundamentals on a weekly basis knows it can only be Marvin Lewis and no one else. Anyone else, and they ought to bring in the Chief Justice with his Star Trek robes to overrule it.

As he usually does, right tackle Willie Anderson said it best.

"We've gone from 2-14, from nowhere to somewhere, from Bungles to Bengals," Anderson said.

But to quote another Bengals Coach of the Year, Sam Wyche: We live in Cincinnati. Not in Dallas, like Bill Parcells. Or New England, like Bill Belichick. Or Kansas City, like Dick Vermeil.

Still Lewis is getting plenty of national play and, at the very least, looks to be the people's choice.

(Check out NFL.com, where he is leading the fan balloting for Staples Coach of the Year with 25.8 percent of the vote compared to Parcells' 18.3, Carolina's John Fox with 10 percent, and Belichick with 9.4.).

But with the 11-1 Chiefs and the 10-2 Patriots the league's two best teams and the Cowboys a game out of first place in the NFC East after winning 15 games the previous three seasons, a lot of voters are thinking like Lewis.

OK, Coach, you can't vote for yourself, because you would terminate this conversation immediately.

"I'd have to split it between Parcells and Belichick," Lewis said Monday. "Having played Dallas last year, for them to have the record they have in playing with a quarterback that they thought was least likely to be their starting quarterback, I think the Coach has done a great job.

"Obviously, up in New England with all the injuries they've had and managing the salary cap, and making the bold move he made the first week (cutting Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy), and coming out of that, it's flattering I think that anybody would mention me with that."

Mention it? Bengaldom wants to carve it in stone. Lewis has not only tipped the standings upside down with four games left and the Bengals in first place in the AFC North, but he has done what Parcells, Belichick and Vermeil didn't have to do. He changed a culture and energized a community.

Lewis, naturally, wants no part of the talk of who will get what from the Associated Press, The Sporting News, the Pro Football Writers of America, Sports Illustrated, the Maxwell Club, Staples and any other organization devoted to the good game of pro football with a self-addressed stamped envelope.

And he'll have his supporters. For instance, for the AP vote, culled from a 50-member nationwide panel of reporters and TV types. Gary Myers of The New York Daily News compares Lewis' candidacy to Parcells' first year with the Jets in 1997, when the Giants' Jim Fassel got the award. But Fassel got the award for what Lewis very well might do in leading his team from last to first in his first season. Jarrett Bell of USA Today is leaning at the moment to Lewis because he has been so impressive in his first season as a head coach.

He'll also have admirers like Pete Prisco of CBSsportsline.com who are leaning elsewhere.

"I love what Marvin has done, but I think there's more talent there than people think," Prisco said.

Plus, he'll have guys like Sports Illustrated's Peter King, still sampling the fare as he decides between Lewis and Belichick.

"It's like choosing great ice cream. Do you like strawberry or mint? They're both good," King said.

But Lewis didn't get here planning banquet speeches over dessert with four games left in a season. He climbed the coaching ladder the same way he is cajoling, coaxing, bullying, and sweet-talking the Bengals into first place.

Tunnel vision. Ramrod focus. The task at hand. Whether it's sitting down with ESPN or driving 70 miles to some place called Dillon, Mont., to just exchange the Idaho State game tapes with his fellow graduate assistant from the University of Montana, halfway between Pocatello and Missoula.

Tape exchange?

How about driving 10 hours from Pocatello, Idaho to Spokane, Wash., after a Thursday practice to scout high school games on a Friday night, and the drive five more hours to coach a game on a Saturday?

That's what you do breaking into the coaching business. That's what you did as a graduate assistant in 1981.

"The G.A.s never could fly with the team," Lewis said. "But the head coach let us drive his car. We'd spend more time cleaning it out than driving it after. The best one was driving to Spokane with three other coaches from California and going through the Continental Divide. I was asleep in the backseat until I hear them talking about snow. I wake up and you can't see the hood ornament. They wanted to stop, but I told them no because the trucks weren't stopping and we had to get out of the mountains where it slowed down long enough so we could stop and I could drive."

It's called paying your dues and he kept his head down then driving through the snow, and he's keeping his head down, now, wading through the buzz.

He met his offensive coordinator, Bob Bratkowski, in Garland, Utah at Bear River High School when Bratkowski was coaching at Weber State and they were recruiting against each other. Bratkowski had his baby boy with him and Lewis had yet to have the daughter who is now a college freshman.

"We were probably trying to figure out how to split up the scholarship because we only got partials," Bratkowski said.

Bear River or Three Rivers or the Ravens on Pearl Harbor Day, Lewis is taking it one day at a time. Most Coach of the Year voters go to the polls near the end of the season or right after. The AP panel has to submit its ballots by noon, Dec. 29, the day after the last regular-season Sunday.

That means much depends on how the teams play the last month. That's how the coaches themselves will no doubt vote when they pick The Sporting News Coach of the Year. Staples cuts the fans off Dec. 31.

"It's going to come down to who has the best December between Marvin, Parcells, and Belichick," said Dan Pompei, senior NFL writer for The Sporting News.

Of course, there are those who think the campaign should already be over.

"Doesn't matter," said Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton. "If we don't win another game, Marvin deserves it. Parcells gets talked about because he's Parcells. But he already had the tradition of the Cowboys there. They've won three Super Bowls since the last time the Bengals were in the playoffs. And he had a real good defense coming back. I think Parcells has done a lot, but Marvin has done more."

He'll get an argument in some pockets nationally. Len Pasquarelli, ESPN.com's senior NFL writer, can see Lewis winning some of the awards, but not all of them. When he polled 15 general managers and player personnel guys last week, eight names surfaced.

"This is a year you could get three or four different guys," Pasquarelli said. "And I think that shows you how much more this is becoming a coaches' league. Marvin has done a terrific job. When I was there for the Kansas City game, the town was buzzing. But you can't overlook Bill Parcells with what he he's done with a pretty modest roster."

Pompei and Prisco prefer to see how it plays out a little longer, but both are Belichick guys at the moment. As is SI's King.

"Marvin's turned it around and it's been a great job," Prisco said. "But they're not 10-2."

"They all point to the Pats' injuries, 42 different starters, and the club weathering the Milloy move as reasons for backing Belichick.

"Marvin has done a great job turning it around," King said. "That game Sunday in Pittsburgh, with Hines Ward dancing in the end zone with a minute left, the old Bengals would have been just looking forward to going inside and talking about how good it was to come close. But Marvin won't let them do that.

"You've got to take a look at what Belichick has done with all those injuries," King said. "I'll wait a little longer. I wouldn't be embarrassed voting for any of them."

Myers of The Daily News sounds like a Lewis guy without telegraphing his vote. He sees it as a Parcellian type of job.

"In the two years before Parcells got the Jets' job, they were 3-13 and then 1-15," Myers said. "Then Parcells came, they went 9-7, and would have gone to the playoffs if they beat the Lions in the last game. Marvin is doing a lot of those things. He doesn't have the experience of being a head coach like Parcells, and Belichick's team just won the Super Bowl two years ago.

"And they would have gone to the playoffs last year if it wasn't for a tiebreaker," Myers said. "Marvin is probably taking a team that is farther away the longest."

USA Today's Bell, expected to vote for the AP award with Myers, also has high regard for Lewis. He compares him with Parcells in the sense that their best move was a non-move.

Parcells opted not to change the defensive scheme in favor of his big linebackers and stuck with incumbent defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's fast guys. Much like Lewis arrived and retained Bratkowski in the hopes that at least one side of the ball would be stable with an offense heading into its third year.

"I really don't think you can go wrong," King said. "It just depends what kind of ice cream you like."

But in Bengaldom, the people think Lewis already deserves the icing on the cake.

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