Paul Guenther, the new Bengals linebackers coach, doesn't get many butterflies. Not even as kickoff approaches on Sunday, never mind his recent promotion.
How could he get any more nervous than he was at this moment in August 1997 in his fourth year of coaching? As the youngest head coach in the country, the 25-year-old Guenther found himself addressing about 100 players and their parents that had dropped off their sons for training camp in the Ursinus College auditorium.
"I went through a lot as a young coach," Guenther says. "Basically, you're learning on the run and if you can come out on the other side then hopefully you can get better year by year."
Only four years before Guenther had set the Division III school's career record for tackles. A year before he'd been an assistant at his alma mater, a full-time role with part-time pay so he kept his job as a computer laptop salesman.
And just weeks before he had been the defensive coordinator for Jacksonville University's first team before returning to the Collegeville, Pa., campus for the head coaching job.
For Bill Akin, the Ursinus athletic director who hired him, his eyes kept going back to Guenther even as he conducted a national search.
"I don't think you can go wrong with youth. You get the enthusiasm and the energy to try different things," says Akin, now retired and living in Collegeville. "We had a basketball coach take a team to the Final Four who was about 27. We had a women's lacrosse coach take a team to the Final Four who was 25. I certainly wouldn't do it if I were a Division I athletic director."
Akin ended up clicking with Guenther. In his third season Guenther led Ursinus to its best record in a century of football at 10-2 and followed it up with a 9-2 record that left him third on the school's all-time winning percentage list before he moved on. In another year Guenther was working in the NFL with Steve Spurrier's Redskins as an offensive assistant.
"Paul was an assistant the year before I hired him in charge of the DBs," Akin said of '96. "We won the conference championship and I talked to him quite a bit. He seemed to know more about football than any one I had talked to at that point. On the field, he always seemed to have a good feel for what the other team was going to run and getting our guys in position.
"You'd have to say Paul worked out. In his last two seasons we won more games than we'd ever won, went to the playoffs twice and won a playoff game for the first time. It was fun."
This is how fun it was. With Guenther piling up the wins, Akin discovered that he had to find halftime entertainment for overflow crowds. He also discovered that the hometown NFL Eagles, 20 minutes east of campus, would bring in their halftime shows on Thursday before the weekend and since they were looking for something to do Saturdays, Akin signed them up.
Not only did Guenther have to worry about practice regimens and the defensive game plan at Ursinus, but he had to set up travel, reserve hotels, and submit budgets. Not only did he have to go into living rooms to recruit, but he'd have to go into the financial aid office to try and secure packages for players that had no athletic scholarships.
"Sometimes it almost seems like it never happened," Guenther says. "I was learning as I went. There was me and another coach as the only full-timers. Two of us. That was it. You had to learn fast. So there are times when just coaching linebackers sounds a lot easier."
Guenther forged a relationship with Spurrier while he recruited Florida and then caught the eye of Spurrier's defensive coordinator in Washington, Marvin Lewis. Lewis brought Guenther to Cincinnati in his second season as Bengals head coach and has had him do everything from advance scout to help coach backers, DBs, and special teams before tapping him to head up the linebackers this season.
"I've learned a lot since that first day as a head coach," Guenther says. "The main thing is it's just football. Not a lot of things make me nervous after that experience."
COMBINE MEET: It has been just 10 days since the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl in Indianapolis and the NFL is already headed back to Lucas Oil Stadium next week for the NFL scouting combine. With that first round 70 days away the Bengals head into meetings Wednesday as the personnel department continues to brief the coaches on the prospects and the scouts will flag which ones to keep an eye on over in Indy.
An early take on Cincinnati's challenge with the 17th pick if the Bengals do indeed want to go cornerback: Morris Claiborne of LSU and Dre Kirkpatrick of Alabama figure to be long gone. If somebody worthy doesn't surface in the next group, can they resist the temptation of reaching for a second-round corner?
(A teachable moment: Reaching for Florida cornerback Keiwan Ratliff in the second round in 2004.)
If the Bengals sit back and take the best player no matter the position, it's going to be a solid one. (They got Brian Simmons and David Pollack at No. 17.)
Of course, things change and it starts to change next week. It will be recalled that South Carolina cornerback Johnathan Joseph put himself on the first-round map at the 2006 combine with a 4.3 40-yard dash.
If the Bengals do go corner in the first round, it will be the third time in seven years after they never took a corner in the first round before '06. They did take Oklahoma's Rickey Dixon in 1988, but he played safety.
CARRIER TAKE: The combine will be secondary coach Mark Carrier's second week on the job, but all eyes are on him already with the corner buzz. Then the Bengals are on the clock about a half-hour later for No. 21 on April 26.
Carrier was long gone before that in the 1990 draft as the sixth pick. It's one of the things he can offer as a former player that goes beyond Xs and Os.
"Obviously the money is a lot different, but the pressures of being a No. 1 pick and understanding what goes with that," Carrier said. "I like to think (coaching) is not just about the football side, but the life side. What this game's about and understanding where you are and where you're going to be. It's a short-lived situation. If you're fortunate to play 10-plus years, that's great. But you're going to be done in your mid-30s, so you've got the rest of your life to understand how to carry yourself."
Whether a guy has been a former NFL player or not, the Bengals have had a run of secondary coaches that have panned out.
Kevin Coyle, the man Carrier replaces, went as far as playing safety at Massachusetts but he became a highly-regarded NFL position coach in his 11 years with the Bengals before signing with the Dolphins last month as defensive coordinator.
The man Coyle replaced in 2001, Ray Horton, is coming off his first season as the Cardinals defensive coordinator. Horton, the Bengals second-round pick in 1983, played for Cincinnati in the Super Bowl during 10 NFL seasons. Horton's predecessor, Ron Meeks, didn't play in the NFL but he was the Colts defensive coordinator when they won the Super Bowl five years ago.
And before Meeks arrived in 1992, there was Dick LeBeau, a Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback. LeBeau also served as the club's defensive coordinator in his first stint with the Bengals, but when he returned to the same job he ended up being the head coach for 45 games before leading the Steelers defense to two Super Bowl titles in the previous decade.
Carrier is right on about playing 10 years. He played 168 games in 11 seasons. Horton went for 147 in 10 and LeBeau played 185 in 14 seasons.
FREE AGENT FUTURE: The shocking thing about wide receiver Randy Moss's announcement that he wants to play again is that some people actually think the Bengals should/will pursue him. Been there, done that and they don't want any Moss-like things to rub off on A.J. Green and their other young receivers.
The fact they're also silent on the Stanford Routt front indicates a bunch of things. First, they were stunned the Raiders gave him that much to play cornerback in the first place and, second, they aren't going to be in the front of the biggest wave in free-agent history that numbers about 600 players when it kicks off March 13. By the time the second week settles, it's going to be a buyer's market.
Plus, the Bengals are coming off their most active free-agent take in history when they spent more than the $120 million salary cap in cash and they've been indicating they want to keep their young core before they do anything else. That means focusing on some of their 20 potential unrestricted free agents as well as coming up with deals that make sure they have enough room to extend wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton in the future. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, the Bengals can't extend the 2011 rookie class until after the 2013 season.
Several published reports have the Bengals with about $44 million to spend and because they had so many guys with one-year deals, 44 mil doesn't go as far as it used to. With 23 UFAs and restricted free agents, they've got work to do and if it averages out to about $2 million per UFA/RFA, it works out about right.
With 17 of them starters, regulars, or top backups, they could be replaced via the rookie pool for drafted players (which comes out of the $44 million) or other free agents. Obviously, the deals are going to fluctuate more than $2 million and below $2 million, but the trend that began before the season with extensions to cornerback Leon Hall, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, and center Kyle Cook figures to continue.
The Bengals will no doubt try to get some deals done before March 13 with their own guys, but not before the cap number is officially set by the league. it figures to be about the same as it was last year at about $120 million.