Wyche, Steelers say Mularkey is ready

1-1-03, 7:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

From the guy who brought him to the NFL in Sam Wyche to the guys who gave him a name in the NFL in Kordell Stewart and Hines Ward, they think Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is ready to become a NFL head coach.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Redskins defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis told "The Washington Times," that he does plan to interview with the Bengals, indicating he believes the club is serious about hiring him. But he wouldn't give a date.

Also Wednesday, Mularkey declined comment, citing back-to-back 20-hour work days installing the game plan for Sunday's playoff game with the Browns and his pledge to head coach Bill Cowher that his focus is only on Cleveland.

"I thought he was (ready) last year when he had a shot in Tampa," said Wyche, the former Bengals coach, on Wednesday. "If they get him, they'll be getting a good coach. He will give them a good interview because he's an intelligent, thoughtful guy."

It's believed the Bengals are working off a short list of candidates that includes Mularkey, Lewis, and former Jacksonville head coach Tom Coughlin. The Bengals have been given permission to talk to Mularkey

and Lewis, but there is no word yet if the club has talked to Coughlin.

"It's New Year's Day and I think everyone has been kind of under wraps," said Gary O'Hagan, Coughlin's agent. "I really don't know what is going to happen in the next few days."

Wyche, two years younger than the 41-year-old Mularkey when he took the job in 1984 a year removed

out of another successful NFL offense, thinks an offensive guy has an edge for the Bengals' current head-coaching opening.

"I think so only because if you get an offense that entertains, then you can hire one those super aggressive defensive guys," Wyche said.

Mularkey's current offense went back to work Wednesday in preparation for Sunday's playoff game with the Browns and one of the topics in the Steelers' locker room was Mularkey's interview with the Brown family in Pittsburgh Saturday.

"It's well deserving of him if he gets it, but at the same time he's still a Steeler," said quarterback Kordell Stewart, whose career was revived by Mularkey last season. "We don't know what's going to happen, but if he does get the opportunity that would be awesome because he's one person who deserves it."

All indications from Bengals President Mike Brown is that first and foremost he is seeking a coach who has a tougher hand on players that have openly admitted they took advantage of Dick LeBeau. Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward thinks Mularkey can do it in a way that doesn't turn off players.

"He raises his voice, but he knows how to do it. It's not disrespectful," Ward said. " He lets you know, if he's angry with you, he'll let you know. At the same time, he's a cool coach. Hopefully, he'll get a coaching job one day.

"I'd like to play for him, if I'm not here or whatever," Ward said. "He listens to the players. When a guy can listen to or relate to his players, that means a lot to the players. If you have a guy where it's not a democracy, where it's his way or no way, it's kind of hard to go out there."

Wyche hired Mularkey out of NAIA Concordia in 1994 as a quality control coach with Tampa Bay and then promoted him to tight ends coach a year later. He watched him get guys ready to play, and he thinks it helps that Mularkey also played nine years as a NFL tight end with the Steelers and Vikings.

"He's got the look that gives you, the impression you know what he's talking about," Wyche said. "He could get on guys, but he didn't dwell on it. He wouldn't hammer away at it. but if guys lost their attention, he got on them right away."

Besides their ages (Wyche 39 and Mularkey 41) and their ability to pile up points for other teams (Wyche San Francisco and Mularkey Pittsburgh), they also have a similar flair for innovative trick plays.

"He's a pretty creative guy," Wyche said. "He's the kind of guy who always had good ideas."

Ward and Plaxico Burress led NFL receiving duos with a combined 2,654 yards this past season as the Steelers finished fifth in the NFL in total offense and seventh in scoring despite the lack of a 1,000-yard rusher.

"As players, we see things on the field. As a coordinator, you may see things but you don't see everything because you're looking over the whole thing," Ward said. "Individually, you see how that guys across from you is playing you, you can tell the coverage. I get on the phone and I probably talk to Mike more than any of the receivers. It's great. He listens, he knows."

Stewart said, "He'll be a good coach anywhere in my opinion. I mean, he's been doing a good job ever since he's been here. To get that opportunity would be great. He's still here, he still has a few games to go."

The Bengals' ability to court Mularkey during the playoffs is putting the league's rule to the test that allows teams to no longer have to wait until after the playoffs to talk to a candidate in the post-season. They can't hire a candidate until after the playoffs, but can have one visit with him.

"It's not a distraction to coaches," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher. "Having been there myself, if anything it's motivating. If anyone knows they're being looked upon to be a potential head coach. The last thing you want to do is go out there and have a poor performance. I always thought it was motivating. It's not a distraction."

But asked if he thought Mularkey is ready for his own team, Cowher clearly reflected his concern for a distraction: "Well, we'll see. We're getting ready for Cleveland. That's the most important thing."

"The Times," reported Thursday that Lewis has been telling friends he wouldn't interview for a job if he is one of several candidates, or if he felt he was just a name on a list to satisfy the NFL's guidelines that require considering a minority. But apparently the Bengals have given Lewis enough assurances they are serious about making him their ninth head coach.

"I'd like to visit with them," Lewis tod the paper. "They've got an opportunity to be successful."

"Hopefully as a head coach, you can affect some of those things," Lewis said of possible changes in the future. "No place is as bad or as good as it seems."

Lewis and Coughlin are clearly the highest-paid coaches the Bengals have ever considered and it will take the club's biggest coaching contract to lure them. Lewis reportedly turned down a five-year, $7.5 million deal to become Michigan State's coach last month.

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