Ya gotta believe
Newcomer Lewis trying to win back Bengals fansPosted: Sunday February 16, 2003 9:46 AM
Updated: Thursday February 20, 2003 2:09 AM
CINCINNATI (AP) -- As the new head coach of the NFL's worst team, Marvin Lewis has to start winning now.
He has to win the respect of Cincinnati Bengals players ground down by years of losing. He has to persuade free agents to spend their prime years on a team that hasn't won in 12 years.
His toughest sell? Getting fans to believe that they should keep spending money on what has amounted to a losing cause.
The Bengals sent letters this month to their dwindling base of ticket holders, asking them to renew. The mailing included a discount coupon for the team's in-stadium store -- fans can get 25 percent off merchandise through March 31 -- and a letter from Lewis.
"As the new head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, I can promise you a new look in a season of change and excitement at Paul Brown Stadium," the letter reads.
"After coaching against the Bengals twice a year for several seasons in the AFC Central as a coach for Pittsburgh and Baltimore, I'm excited to get the opportunity to work with a talented roster that we feel is close to achieving some significant goals.
"Bengals' fans have memories of magical moments, great players and two Super Bowls. Our goal is to restore that tradition, and with your help we can fill 'The Jungle' again with the NFL's best home-field advantage."
The letter is signed, "Sincerely, Marvin Lewis."
It wasn't Lewis' idea to write the letter, but he readily agreed to it. The Bengals had the three smallest crowds in Paul Brown Stadium history last season, when they finished a franchise-worst 2-14.
Owner Mike Brown fired head coach Dick LeBeau and brought Lewis in partly because fans had given up on his team, and they weren't going to consider returning until major changes were made.
Getting the fans back is a top priority.
"There's no question it's important," Lewis said. "The people here have a passion for the team, and we've got to make sure it continues that way."
Passion has given way to anger and then apathy since 1991, when the Bengals started their run as the league's worst team. They sold only 42,092 tickets for a game against Jacksonville on Dec. 15, the smallest gate in stadium history. Perhaps half that many actually showed up.
Since his hiring on Jan. 14, Lewis has been giving interviews and meeting fans. He was honored before a minor league hockey game, performed a ribbon-cutting at a library, and talked to high school students as part of a Black History Month program.
Some fans have told Lewis that they're renewing their tickets because they believe things will be different now that he's the head coach. Others are more like linebacker Takeo Spikes, who wants to leave because he's not convinced things will be that much better.
The Bengals put their transition tag on Spikes last Tuesday, allowing them to keep him for another season by matching any offer from another team. Spikes was unhappy, saying he should be allowed to leave as a free agent.
Lewis knows that plenty is riding on his first season, which will either provide a sense a hope or reinforce the skepticism among fans and players.
"We're not going to take leaps and bounds until we get on the field and win some football games," he said. "Then everything will get better, once we start winning."