Sunday, September 7, 2003

Lewis brings a new style


Intense, driven and ready; From the details to the big picture, the Bengals are his team now

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Marvin Lewis made it his business to know everyone's name at the Bengals' training camp in Georgetown, Ky. The cooks in the kitchen. The maintenance workers. The secretaries.

"He always called me 'the hardest-working man in Georgetown,'" says Bobby Downs, banquet coordinator at the Georgetown Conference Center. "I felt good around him."

The Bengals' new head coach is attentive to detail, he's interested in other people, he's in control but with a touch of humility.

Today, Lewis' style goes on public display at Paul Brown Stadium as the Bengals play host to the Denver Broncos in both teams' regular-season opener.

In his first game as head coach, fans will see calm, they'll see intensity, they'll see some fire when warranted.

By all accounts, Lewis is ready.

The new leader of the Bengals' struggling franchise is a 21st-century NFL head coach who has wooed the business community, helped cure fan apathy and sell tickets, cooperated with the media and made believers of his players.

He's the face and voice of the organization, the Bengals' CEO in everything but title. He's the first coach since the late Paul Brown in the early 1970s to grace the cover of the team's media guide.

"For the first time in quite a while, the locker room realizes the head coach is the guy who has the hammer," says former Bengals player Dave Lapham, now the team's radio color analyst. "And he's using it well."

Lewis has the primary say in player personnel decisions: The club signed free agents Lewis wanted and drafted college players he liked. Roster turnover in Lewis' first year is running at twice the rate of previous seasons.

He oversaw a $250,000 makeover of the team's weight room. At the same time, he made sure a key-card lock was fixed on a remote door in the office building.

He made 40 public appearances in his first six months on the job, privately telling friends that he hoped each visit translated into increased ticket sales. He's spoken at high schools, at a Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce event, and he's met with top executives from local companies.

"He's the real deal," says Cincinnati Bell CEO Jack Cassidy, who has spent time with Lewis socially and professionally. "A CEO would tell you it's all about customers and employees. Marvin has been out selling his product - the team - in the community. He realizes it is his responsibility."

Lewis has met often with local and national media, though he is careful to guard the team's private business and not to reveal too much detail about specific players.

When tailback Corey Dillon was the last player to show up on the July 27 reporting date because of a flight problem in Seattle, Lewis didn't publicly chastise the player. It's still not known whether Lewis fined Dillon the league maximum of $5,000 a day for being late.

Instead, Lewis went public with a challenge for the temperamental superstar: "You're one of our best players. Be a leader."

"He has great people skills and knows what buttons to push," Lapham says.

Lewis relates well with players without getting too close. He says he remembers how one of his former bosses, first Baltimore Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda, grew afraid to go down into the locker room because he didn't know how to talk to players.

Lewis does not have that problem.

On Aug. 26, the day Lewis announced that wide receiver Ron Dugans had been waived with an injury settlement (the team reached a financial agreement with the ailing player), Lewis sought out Dugans' best friend, Peter Warrick.

Warrick, an emotional fourth-year receiver, was upset about Dugans' departure. Walking in from practice, Lewis threw his arm around Warrick and talked quietly to him.

"He told me it was business, nothing personal," Warrick says. "It made me feel better. ... He knows how it is when you have friends. He's a person, as well as a coach."

Mike Sheppard, now quarterbacks coach for the New Orleans Saints, hired Lewis at Long Beach State in 1985 as a defensive coach and recruiting coordinator.

Lewis visited high school players and their families at their homes and spent countless hours making calls.

"Nobody works the phones like Marvin," Sheppard says. "It's rare that you don't get a call back the same day you left him a message. Once you're involved with him, he keeps you involved."

Total preparation

When Bengals officials interviewed Lewis for the vacant head coach's position, Lewis laid out a detailed plan for the organization.

He knew precisely when and what he wanted players to eat on the road. He knew how often and when he wanted to work on special teams in practice.

Team officials tried to stump him with a series of micro-specific questions. Lewis had an answer for everything.

He produced notebooks and a laptop during his interviews. The laptop idea came from Baltimore coach Brian Billick, who retained Lewis to coordinate the Ravens' defense in 1999.

Lewis told Bengals officials how he wanted to structure regular-season practices. He knew exactly what he wanted to do in minicamps and training camp. Account for every minute; that he learned from a training camp internship with former San Francisco coach Bill Walsh in 1988.

Lewis laid out a coaching tree, a series of names in a computer program of assistants he would like to hire. That was something he hadn't done in Lewis' previous interviews in Tampa Bay and Buffalo. He was interviewing potential assistants just hours after Bengals president Mike Brown introduced him as head coach Jan. 14, and he had his staff assembled within a week.

'What it looks like to win'

By his second minicamp in May, Lewis was giving multimedia and Power Point presentations to players during meetings.

The nephew of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Matthew Lewis of The Washington Post, Marvin Lewis knows the value of the visual medium. Impressed by a series of pictures in the Enquirer's Sports section, Lewis acquired copies of photos of Barry Larkin hitting a game-winning pinch-hit home run to beat the St. Louis Cardinals, and the subsequent joyful reception for Larkin at home plate.

"See, this is what it looks like to win," Lewis told players. "This is what happens when you do your job. Larkin was ready. He did his job. And look at the faces of his teammates."

Lewis made several visits to the team's training camp facility at Georgetown College near Lexington in advance of camp. He had changes made to the physical plant, adding practice space and a second large meeting room.

At Georgetown, classroom work was as vital to Lewis as on-field practices. He organized a series of seminars for players - bringing to camp a Cincinnati Police officer to discuss the proper way to interact with law enforcement, and a nutritionist to discuss an athlete's diet and lifestyle choices.

After practice one morning, Lewis stayed for 20 minutes - at the request of Katie and Troy Blackburn, the wife-husband front-office team - to schmooze a group of stadium suite holders.

Then Lewis made sure to sign autographs for the two dozen fans who waited for him. He made sure his players were fan-friendly, building autograph time into post-practice periods. When rookie wide receiver Kelley Washington didn't walk over to the rope line to sign for fans, Lewis said, "Kelley, you're new here. We're going to teach you to be a pro. Go sign."

Hotel for home games

Katie Blackburn, daughter of Bengals president Mike Brown, is the club's executive vice president and heir apparent to her father's position. She and her husband, the team's director of business development, are believed to be Lewis' greatest advocates for change inside the organization.

And change is what they are getting.

The detail-oriented Lewis has forged behind-the-scenes adjustments in the way the notoriously penny-pinching Bengals organization has done business. It's all designed to improve game performance.

Lewis keeps players and coaches isolated in a hotel on the nights before home games.

For the three West Coast road games this season, the team will fly out of Cincinnati on Fridays to give players an additional day to get used to the surroundings.

Many Bengals played college ball at Pac-10 schools and want to see family and friends out west. Lewis is giving them Friday nights for socializing. Saturday nights are all business. Meetings will be followed by a strict curfew, and security guards will be posted at the elevators on floors where Bengals players are staying.

Previous Bengals teams flew west on Saturdays. Parties and late-night visitors were not uncommon in some players' rooms.

'That's a selfish play'

Toward the end of camp, sensing his team needed a break, Lewis took them to a local theater to see the inspirational film Seabiscuit.

But there is still some Forrest Gregg in him. The hard-nosed Gregg, known for his disciplinary style, led the Bengals to their first Super Bowl appearance in 1982.

Lewis' biggest public outburst came during a practice near the end of camp. When underachieving defensive end Reinard Wilson pushed an offensive lineman into a quarterback, a practice no-no, Lewis went off: "Reinard, you're selfish. You don't care about the team. That's a selfish play. You only care about yourself."

Lewis cut Wilson on Aug. 31.

In the past two weeks, when the Bengals had to cut 13 players, at least half the roster was wondering if they were going to be next. Tension spiked.

Mess up a few times, and you're out of the game. A series of mistakes, especially mental ones, and you're probably off the team.

For Lewis, though, "It's not personal. You don't agonize," he says. "It's the business."

Lewis has shown himself to be more emotional on the sidelines than, say, Indianapolis' stoic coach Tony Dungy - a Lewis mentor.

"It doesn't need to be an embarrassing situation for the players," Lewis said. "It's not personal to the player, and you don't ever want it to get that way."

His relationships with his coaches are probably more new-school managing.

While he's assembled an impressive group - 9 of 15 assistants are new - Lewis knows it's temporary. He doesn't want assistants who are content to be position coaches. He wants assistants who want to be head coaches.

"They're hungry," he says. "They will do all the things necessary to win."

The drive to win

Marvin Lewis, at his core, is a football coach.

He has the big-picture view, but he possesses a singular drive to win.

He has released underachieving former top draft choices and gimpy players who can't get out of the trainer's room. He has no patience for players who don't play.

Lewis was unhappy with his players after their first preseason game, a 28-13 loss to the Jets at the New Jersey Meadowlands.

As players walked off the field, Lewis called them out by name, criticizing specific mistakes they had made that day.

In the locker room, Lewis gathered his team and said: "I don't have to keep 53 of you. I'll keep 40 of you if that's all who deserve it. What you did today was unacceptable."

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Lewis is so focused on winning. He has worked closely with successful coaches such as Bill Walsh, who led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s; Brian Billick, who coached the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl championship; and Bill Cowher, whose Pittsburgh teams have been to one Super Bowl and three other AFC Championship games.

They have encountered adversity, as Lewis will. Lewis could lose as many games as at any point in his NFL career. After all, this is a team that has gone 55-137 in the past 12, non-winning, non-playoff seasons.

"You don't come up with your plan 10 minutes before," he says. "It's something you've calculated and researched. When you do that, it's sound."

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E-mail mcurnutte@enquirer.com




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