Weighty move

1-17-03, 8:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

If the Bengals' locker room didn't think the hiring of Marvin Lewis would spark an upheaval of the status quo, they know now after the retirement of long-time strength coach Kim Wood.

"I think it shows people on the inside and outside that Mike Brown is giving Coach Lewis a free hand," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "I'm not saying anything bad about Kim Wood. But when a guy like that who has been around the organization for so long is no longer around and a new guy brings in somebody else, to me that tells you it is a big impact."

According to Washington media reports, Lewis is considering bringing in strength and conditioning coach Chip Morton, 40, an 11-year NFL veteran who was in Baltimore and Washington with Lewis. All indications are Lewis is trying to bring to Cincinnati what many other NFL teams have, which is a highly-attended off-season program that begins in March.

"I think it would change the mentality and focus of this team," said defensive end Justin Smith.

Wood, 57, the dean of the NFL's strength and conditioning coaches hired in 1975, was one of the first in the NFL and is a highly-respected national figure in the fight against steroids and substance abuse in weight training. But in the past several years, he has fallen out of favor with various players and coaches. The program came under fire

this season when head coach Dick LeBeau conceded conditioning was a factor in the club's poor start and the problem festered to revolt proportions late in the year.

Wood's backers say he is a seasoned, proven coach and a big contributor to the Super Bowl teams who didn't get the support he needed from the recent coaching staffs to drive the players. His critics say he fell out of touch with the players and his inflexible program drove many away. In any event, the weight room became a source of tension and the only players who showed up in March were pretty much just the handful that have workout clauses in their contracts.

"If he (can) gets guys participating in an off-season program starting in the first or second week in March," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins of Lewis. "In college, you came back after Christmas break and got it going. Football 11 months a year. You're in the best shape. Tight knit as a team. You believe in each other. You play for the guys that you care about. We need to get back to that. They have to be here (in March) if we have a minicamp in April. They would be remiss if they didn't come here and get the first impression going."

Smith, going into his third season after a legendary career in the Missouri weight room, hasn't said much about the Bengals' program. But on Friday he said it's a piece that's been missing for whatever reason. He thinks it's odd that only a handful of players were at Paul Brown Stadium to see Lewis' first news conference.

"During the season, everyone was crying so much, but where was everybody (in March?)" Smith asked. "You build your team in the offseason. That's what I always believed in the weight room. Just being around each other and caring about each other. Look at how many people are here right now and we've got a new head coach. I never said much, but I always thought it was funny."

Yet, there is a sense things are changing even though Wood's successor hasn't even been named yet.

"I'm all for getting in the best shape we can possibly get," Smith said. "It's going to make a lot of guys mad, but I know the really good teams, like Oakland, kind of require you to be here and work out. With us, it's like in May you say, 'How was your five months off?' But it's really a year-long deal."

With a new head coach coming in, Hawkins expects to see some March Madness in the weight room.

"No excuses," he said.

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