BY GEOFF HOBSON
Charles Richard LeBeau played for Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry and Woody Hayes. So why wouldn't he finally want to prove he can be a head football coach? Even at the age of 63, making him the NFL's oldest rookie head coach since the 1970 merger.
"I've been around some good ones," said Dick LeBeau Monday in his Paul Brown Stadium office, his first day as the eighth head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. "I'll tell you what the motivation is. To play better football. I know we can play better football. That's enough motivation."
It would figure LeBeau's arduous and largely anonymous 28-year journey to a head coaching job wouldn't end easily. Reports surfaced Monday that Bengals President Mike Brown first offered the job to linebackers coach Mark Duffner, a former head man at Holy Cross and Maryland, but that Duffner deferred to LeBeau's seniority as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
Duffner and LeBeau wouldn't respond to the report with LeBeau saying only, "It would seem to me the logical progression is with the assistant head coach."
And on Monday, Brown made it clear LeBeau has a shot to stay after this season: "If we do well, he would stay the head coach well into the future." He's the club's first head coach with a defensive background and Brown said, "Maybe that's the way to go."
Former coach Bruce Coslet, his good friend, gave LeBeau those titles before the 1997 season, when LeBeau returned from perfecting the zone blitz with the Super Bowl Steelers. It's a scheme he first wrote on an airplane napkin in the mid-80s in an effort to pressure the quarterback with an undersized Bengals' line.
Coslet's resignation early Monday morning shocked his golfing partner.
"I never saw it coming," LeBeau said Monday evening as he flicked through tape of his first foe, the Miami Dolphins. Asked how his first day was going, LeBeau smiled and said, "I feel like I've been here three days."
The two major things going against LeBeau in the public's mind are how his Bengal defenses have struggled since his return and his understated demeanor. But Coslet has always insisted that give him those Steeler-like weapons of the mid-1990s and no one can outcoach LeBeau.
And after his introductory press conference, Bengals players and coaches warned not to be fooled by the laconic, laid-back LeBeau. His 62 career interceptions carved out in the 14 years that the NFL came of age in the run-dominated '50, '60s, '70s is still sixth on the all-time list. Playing 171 straight games at cornerback in the frontier before arthroscopic surgery is still an NFL record.
But he's suddenly a rookie again, 42 years after Cleveland coach Paul Brown cut the Ohio State All-American in training camp.
"To me, he's a gunslinger," said Bengals strength coach Kim Wood, who watched him play for the Lions and has known him for 25 years. "He's a gentleman. He's soft spoken. But underneath beats the heart of a killer. He was as rough and as tough as anyone who played when the league was at its roughest."
Wood remembers one tackle LeBeau made, but not while wearing No. 44 in Detroit. This was just a few years ago in Houston, when Wood swears LeBeau tackled Oilers running back Alonzo Highsmith when Highsmith ran out of bounds on the Bengals' bench and the two went down in a heap.
"Usually you just move back when a guy is coming to the sidelines," Wood said. "Well, I moved, but Dick didn't and I saw on the replay they went down. I told him I was sorry, that I would have caught him and that it looked like on the replay that he tackled him."
LeBeau glared at Wood and spit out, "Kim, I did."
"He's one of these guys who played back when," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "He's quiet. A quiet guy like him, you don't know what to expect. You never really know what to expect with him. You never mess with quiet people. What do they say? A slow river runs deep? If he has to, he'll go off, but it won't be for show."
Nose tackle Oliver Gibson came to Cincinnati before last season as a free-agent largely because LeBeau drafted him in Pittsburgh. Yes, Gibson said, he can be stoic.
"But I've been around some other stoic guys, too," Gibson said. "Bill Cowher, Lou Holtz. And they're very good at what they do." Asked if LeBeau can be as animated as those two, Gibson said, "Don't let the smoothness of Coach LeBeau fool you. . .I'm a coach LeBeau soldier. He's definitely got what it takes (to be a head coach)."
LeBeau couldn't be specific about changes, but he said all phases of the game, including conditioning, have to be studied.
"We think we can win and win on a regular basis with these people," LeBeau said. "We think we have a good, talented young football team. We have to look at all the reasons we're not getting it done right now."
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The offensive players don't know much about LeBeau, but he has made himself known lately. After the Opening Day loss to the Browns, he spoke to the team briefly and reminded them it was a long season. Hawkins said after Sunday's debacle he spoke to some individual players.
"He brings a certain level of respect because he's been in the league and he's coached so many different guys around the league," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "He has a different style of coaching. As offensive guys, we haven't really heard him coach that much because we're always in the offensive meeting rooms. But now, we get a chance to see him more on a personal level. He's a real personal guy. All the offensive guys really respect him because he'll sit down and talk to you about things and try to stay positive through the hard times we've been going through . Our job is to give the guy a chance."
Bengals quarterback Akili Smith is still looking for quicker speed in practices. He said he'd like to be able to, "to turn it up a notch instead of two notches," on Game Day. But he's waiting along with everyone else to see what LeBeau offers.
Smith didn't know LeBeau played. But running back Corey Dillon does.
"He was a player," Dillon said. "ESPN was showing some old Detroit games and he was something else. Skinny little guy. How many interceptions? 62? Unbelievable."
Hawkins thinks that reputation will help him in the locker room.
"He played for 14 years and he's coached another 20 or so," Hawkins said. "That's a lot of knowledge about this league. He's been around the NFL and he played a long time. And he was a good player. I think that will be one of his strong points. He knows what players have to go through each week. He talked to some guys yesterday and was real positive. He'll be an asset."
LeBeau gets kidded for being the NFL version of Dick Clark because he still looks like he did when he was picking off Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr and going to the Pro Bowl three times while playing for guys like Lombardi and Landry.
"That adds up to 42 years," LeBeau told the news conference of his NFL experience. "Which is older than some of you are. I think I have some ideas. We're in the process of formulating those ideas specifically. . .We think our task as a coaching staff collectively is to get this football team back on the right course, which is the course on the rise."
But players like Anderson know he'll need help.
"I think never in a million years were guys thinking this would happen this early," Anderson said. "In the back of our minds, we all knew something was going to happen if we couldn't get going. But we didn't think it would be this early. It was shocking to us. Every guy has to be held accountable for it. As (Kim Wood) said, 'Every man has to step up now and be accountable and be a pro. Come to work and do your job and come to work on Sunday, too.' "