CINCINNATI – Fifteen years ago, the Marvin Lewis Era in Cincinnati began with a splash.
It was Jan. 14, 2003 and the Bengals braintrust – President Mike Brown, his daughter Katie Blackburn and her husband Troy Blackburn - had decided to hire the Redskins defensive coordinator as their new head coach after multiple interviews with several candidates.
But they were having trouble getting in touch with Lewis on his cell phone, according to an Enquirer story at the time. They didn’t know that Lewis had dropped his cell phone in the toilet.
Three days later, Cincinnati welcomed Lewis to town with the fanfare usually reserved for a war hero come to liberate a city - in this case, a city and its football team from its losing ways.
Mayor Charlie Luken came to the podium to greet Lewis and gave him the ceremonial key to the city.
“It opens the vault, but the vault is empty, “ Luken said, alluding to the fact that the Bengals hadn’t been in the playoffs or had a winning record since the 1990 season.
Luken got a laugh, and so did Lewis when he thanked Luken and said: “I hope that key works again a year from now.”
Lewis’s hiring proved to be a one of the biggest moments in Bengals’ history and turned the franchise from a national laughingstock into a regular title contender.
Every Bengals fans knows how bad they were in the “Lost Decade” before Lewis took over. In 2003, the Bengals were coming off their worst season ever - 2-14 - and had fired Dick LeBeau, who was 12-33 in three dreadful years as head coach.
For the previous 12 years, they were 55-137 - worst record in the NFL during that span.
Brown was so desperate for a winner that he broke family tradition and looked outside the organization for a new coach. He narrowed his list to three finalists:
Lewis, one of the hottest coaching candidates after six seasons (1996-2001) as defensive coordinator with the Ravens;
Mike Mularkey, offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers;
Tom Coughlin, who had just been fired after eight seasons as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He won two division titles and lost twice in the AFC Championship Game.
Brown held multiple interviews with all three coaches, ending with Mularkey in Mobile, Alabama, on Monday night, Jan. 13. The next day, Brown and Lewis met in a Mobile hotel and quickly agreed on a five-year contract at $1.5 million per.
Why not meet in Cincinnati?
Lewis, Mularkey and other NFL coaches were in Mobile to scout college players practicing for the Senior Bowl the following weekend. Brown wanted to keep the hiring a secret until the Bengals could announce it in Cincinnati, but the word got out.
“We’re turning over a new leaf,” Brown said at a hastily arranged news conference in Mobile that night.
That was an understatement.
It was an historic hire for the Bengals – the first African-American head coach in the team’s history, and only the eighth in the NFL. Coming two year after the riots, Lewis's hiring was praised by Rev. Damon Lynch II, former federal court judge Nathaniel Jones and other black leaders.
Bengals players – black and white – also celebrated.
“It’s a good hiring, and the Bengals should be commended because he’s a quality head coach and not just because he’s African-American,” said tackle Willie Anderson.
“Of the three (coaches the Bengals) were talking about, I really thought he was the best choice all along because I think Marvin is going to command respect right away,” QB Jon Kitna said.
After hiring Lewis, Brown changed the way he ran the team - to a degree. Brown stepped into the shadows and allowed his coach to be the face and voice of the franchise. Brown also ceded some control over coaching and personnel decisions to Lewis, but not as much as Lewis would like, apparently, since Lewis almost quit in 2010 and again this month.
Standing at the Paul Brown Stadium podium in 2003, Lewis flashed the Super Bowl ring he won as Ravens defensive coordinator in 2000 and immediately started to chip away at the angst of the long-suffering players and fans.
“What I’m going to hammer home to our guys is, we’re not that far away,” Lewis said.
He said he was going to build a professional attitude and organization.
“We’re going to hammer home competition, preparation and diligence in everything we do. We’re going to become better professionals," Lewis said. "We’re going to learn how to study. We’re going to learn how to meet. We’re going to learn how to do everything we do and look like professionals. And on Sunday that’s going to come out in how we play.”
Kitna said that’s just what the Bengals needed.
“That’s what we need around here. Guys have to learn to be professional,” Kitna said.
Lewis even dared to suggest that the Bengals could get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1980s.
“Why we do this is to win championships,” Lewis said.
Over the past 15 years, Lewis has coached the Bengals to some of the franchise’s biggest successes and most disappointing failures.
The good: Lewis’ Bengals won four division titles in 15 years and made the playoffs seven times – including five straight years (2011-2015). Seven is the same number of playoff appearances the Bengals made in 35 years before Lewis took over. He's the winningest coach in Bengals' history (125-117-3 including playoffs).
The bad: The Bengals have gone 0-7 in playoff games under Lewis, the worst postseason record in NFL history, and never advanced past their first game much less reach the Super Bowl.
Lewis got a new two-year contract this week, giving him a 16th and 17th chance to win a playoff game and get the Bengals to the Super Bowl.
As for the coaches the Bengals passed up:
Mularkey has coached the Titans to the playoffs this year in his third season after short stints with the Bills and Jaguars. His six-year record is 36-53.
Coughlin went on to coach the Giants to two Super Bowl titles and five playoff appearances in 12 seasons (2004-2015).