- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2003

PHOENIX Even though he was the only black head coach hired during an offseason when workplace diversity has been a hot topic in the NFL, Marvin Lewis doesn't see himself as a symbol.

The 44-year-old Lewis, Washington's defensive coordinator last year, is more concerned with turning the long-downtrodden Cincinnati Bengals into winners.

"I hope I'm a symbol for this is how you go about it, about working your tail off and doing the best job you can … whether you're black, white or green," Lewis said yesterday at the NFL spring meetings. "I don't feel any more pressure than that."

Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio, linebackers coach under the defensive coordinator in Baltimore from 1999 to 2001, had it nailed when he said, "Marvin won't worry about what was and will start working on what will be."

What was in Cincinnati has been 12 consecutive years missing the playoffs and six straight losing seasons that culminated in a 2-14 debacle in 2002.

"If we spend time worrying about what they did in the past, we're taking time away from the future," Lewis said. "We've just made it a professional organization like any other. There are things that nobody had thought of: how a [free agent] is picked up at the airport, how we show them the city, where we go out to eat, how do you involve his wife."

Since being hired 10 weeks ago, Lewis has allowed top linebacker Takeo Spikes and Pro Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal to depart as free agents while signing five projected starters linebacker Kevin Hardy, cornerback Tory James, tight end Reggie Kelly, defensive end Carl Powell and defensive tackle Kevin Thornton.

Lewis also has affirmed his support for holdover Jon Kitna as the No. 1 quarterback while not ruling out using the top pick in next month's draft on a passer such as Southern Cal's Carson Palmer or Marshall's Byron Leftwich.

"The only advice I gave Marvin before he took the job is that a lot of people will tell you not to go there, that you can't win look at their history but that's the same things they said about Tampa [Bay] before I got there," said Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, who needed just two years to turn an even more moribund Buccaneers franchise into a winner.

"You have to look at the organization and what you feel you can bring to it. From my dealings with Mike Brown on the competition committee, he cares about football and understands football. And the Bengals have a lot of good players. We played them tight games the last two years, once in Tampa and once in Indianapolis. You just have to convince guys that you're going to win. Marvin will do a great job at that sales job."

The most surprising element in all of this is that Bengals owner Mike Brown has ceded so much control to Lewis after so many years of hands-on stewardship. Lewis said "Mike wanted someone to run the football program for him." And that he is doing.

"As a coach, it's so important to be the leader of your team," Lewis said. "From the time the players get into the parking lot at the facility until after they leave at night, you have to make sure their day is very structured the way you want it to be. We've tried to turn up the dial to do the things the way I know that they need to be done: how we handle ourselves as professionals, what's expected of you as a professional athlete, the approach to meetings, learning, practice. What was done before here really doesn't matter."

Although Lewis' insistence on making the team play his way grated on such Redskins as linebacker LaVar Arrington and defensive end Bruce Smith early last season, by the end of the year his defense which allowed the fewest points in a 16-game season in 2000 in leading the Ravens to the Super Bowl title was in the top five as usual.

So it's no wonder that those who have worked with Lewis believe he'll make believers and eventually winners out of the Bengals.

"Marvin is very detailed and has a great mind for the game," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, who retained Lewis from the staff he inherited in Baltimore in 1999. "He has great empathy and understanding for what the players are going through. He sees the big picture."

Houston coach Dom Capers, Lewis' boss as Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator from 1992 to 1994, called Lewis a "people person" and the "right guy at the right time" for the Bengals, who dealt the Texans their worst beating of 2002.

"Marvin has always had a passion for the game," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who played high school football against Lewis during the 1970s in Western Pennsylvania. Cowher hired Lewis to help in Kansas City's training camp one summer and as linebackers coach in Pittsburgh in 1992.

"He wanted to absorb anything. He would ask, 'Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that?' You could tell that he had a great future ahead of him. Marvin has been prepared. This is an opportunity that's well-deserved and very much earned."

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