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Second impressions

Lewis emerging as top candidate after Thursday interviews

Posted: Thursday January 09, 2003 4:17 PM
  Marvin Lewis Marvin Lewis' defense ranked fifth in the NFL in yards per game in his first season in Washington. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated

Though there remain significant issues for the two sides to work out, Washington defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis interviewed Thursday night with Bengals officials for a second time and emerged as an even stronger leading candidate to become Cincinnati's next head coach.

Lewis arrived in Cincinnati on Thursday evening and met with Bengals president Mike Brown and other team officials, touring the team's facilities and Paul Brown Stadium. Lewis and the team are scheduled to meet again Friday, and Lewis plans to spend a good bit of time touring the city that may become his new home.

The job does not yet belong to Lewis, and indications are he may not get a formal offer before he leaves Cincinnati late Friday. But with former Jacksonville head coach Tom Coughlin not strengthening his candidacy in an earlier interview on Thursday -- which represented his second trip to town in six days -- Lewis appears to be in prime position to land his first NFL head coaching job.

"I think things have progressed well," said Lewis, from Cincinnati late Thursday night. "There are still things we have to talk about, but I like what I'm hearing and seeing."

While the Bengals have the goal of hiring a head coach before team officials leave Sunday for the task of scouting the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., Brown would like to wait to see if Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey will be available for a second interview on Sunday. The Steelers play at Tennessee in the AFC Divisional playoffs Saturday, and Mularkey can't interview again with the Bengals until Pittsburgh has been eliminated.

In an effort to give due diligence to his team's coaching search, and make sure of his choice, Brown is hopeful of giving Mularkey more of an opportunity to present his views than he received in his two-hour interview last Saturday in Pittsburgh. But there appears to be a chance that if things go well enough for both the Bengals and Lewis in their talks Friday, Cincinnati could hire him even before Pittsburgh plays its game at Tennessee.

"The Bengals have said from the start that I'm going to have to be patient," Lewis said. "They've got to be sure about this."

Reached Thursday night, Mularkey declined comment on the Bengals' search. But sources close to the situation say Mularkey believes he remains in the picture in Cincinnati for now, and is hopeful that the Bengals are waiting to see how the Steelers fare Saturday.

Earlier Thursday, Coughlin flew to Cincinnati and met for several hours with Brown and team officials. Coughlin, too, toured the stadium and team facilities. But sources say his interview did not improve his chances of becoming the Bengals' top choice, and his candidacy has effectively fallen into the No. 3 position behind Lewis and Mularkey.

One of the key issues, sources close to the situation said, was Coughlin's inability to convince the team it must commit to making significant structural changes -- such as in the size of the head coach's support staff.

In terms of coaching and scouting, the Bengals are notorious for having smaller staffs than any NFL team. Coughlin is said to have targeted those support staff issues as a fundamental concern that must be worked through before he would consider accepting an offer to lead the team.

Coughlin's intent in Thursday's interview was to make the case that the Bengals need to increase the size of the coach's support staff to somewhere near the NFL average of 17 assistants, supplementing roles such as strength and conditioning and quality control. Cincinnati's previous coaching staffs have been much leaner than that, by as many as a half-dozen bodies.

Coughlin presented a detailed plan that laid out his staffing requests, right down to the salary levels that would put those hires within the NFL average at those positions. Coughlin proposed contractually including those staffing minimums into any deal he and the Bengals would strike.

"Tom's going to say 'I think we can do this. I'd like to try. But we need to be on at least a par with the rest of the league as far as basic staffing,'" a source close to the situation said before the interview. "He wants to get things at least up to code."

But those staffing requests amount to a huge sticking point between the Bengals and Coughlin, and sources say there was little agreement between the two sides on that issue on Thursday. Brown is on record as saying he believes the size of the Bengals coaching and scouting staffs are satisfactory and do not put the club at any competitive disadvantage. Brown is very firm in that opinion and the issue represents a potential dealbreaker with Coughlin.

"I think the important thing was that each party got a chance to express their views," said a source familiar with Coughlin's interview. "They didn't leave anything in the bag."

Lewis also has some similar concerns, but sounded a conciliatory tone Thursday night when asked about how he'll approach the issue of making changes to the scouting and support staff.

"There are certain things that Mike [Brown] believes very strongly in," Lewis said. "And you've got be able to adapt to those. But there are other ways to approach things. He wants to win, and so do I. It's a good opportunity to get things done."

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