A coach’s life: The patient leadership of Marvin Lewis
“My dad worked in the mill, and he would work three shifts,” he told me, recalling the summer he worked in the coke mill. “I spent nine weeks in the mill one summer and it was nine weeks of hell.”
Football was his way out of the grueling job. “When it got closer to football season, the foreman would ask me if I wanted to work more, and I told him, ‘No, I’ve got to work out.’ I begged to get off of work the next summer too. That was hard work.”
Those nine weeks helped define Lewis, who focused on work ethic and preparation and turned a love of sports into becoming one of the longest-tenured coaches in the NFL. He begins his 15th year leading the Bengals, second only to Bill Belichick’s reign in New England. I’ve followed Lewis’ career since watching him in two installments of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” where he came across as a smart, serious, yet compassionate coach and leader. I know the knock against him — an 0-7 playoff record who is known to have undisciplined teams. But I appreciate the full body of his work as a lifelong student of the game and a pioneer when it comes to diversity in the NFL. Through my relationship with his agent, Phil de Picciotto of Octagon, I was able to spend 90 minutes with Lewis in Scottsdale, Ariz., and on a cloudy, chilly Friday afternoon, Lewis met me at his front door, accompanied by his Welsh Corgi named Weslee and his Maltese Yorkie blend, Simba.
He had played golf that morning, (“I played terrible”) and was spending the last days in Scottsdale with his wife, Peggy, before going back to Cincinnati for the NFL draft.
We sit at a round kitchen table that looks out to his backyard. Wearing a black Nike golf vest over a white golf shirt and shorts, Lewis grabs some bottles of water, and wears an easy, shy smile as we settle in to talk about his life, career in coaching and thoughts on leadership. My impression of Lewis matched the man — quiet, kind, unassuming, and focused on leading by example through hard work and respect.
First Look podcast, with Marvin Lewis discussion beginning a the 17:20 mark:
|“You’ve got to bring people through those pitfalls, through tough times, even hold their hands sometimes. There are going to be ups and downs along the way, but you’ve got to stay the course and keep people focused on the ultimate goal.”
“I wanted to be an engineer,” he said with a slight laugh. “But the more I was in football, the more I wanted to be a coach. In high school, I was doodling football plays all the time.”
Sports surrounded Lewis’ youth, as he excelled athletically at Ft. Cherry High School in McDonald, Pa., where he wrestled and played football (quarterback and safety) and baseball.
With his father at the mill and his mother working as a nurse, Lewis grew up with two sisters and learned early the benefits of preparation and hard work.
“I did OK as a student. I had to make sure that I did the work. It certainly wasn’t easy for me. I would have to study and work at it to get a good grade.”
Lewis was going to walk on at Purdue University but was concerned about putting more pressure on his overworked parents.
“I was feeling bad about my parents having to pay for school because I didn’t have a full scholarship. So, when I got the opportunity to be on a full scholarship at Idaho State, that put it over the top and I went there.” He played linebacker and earned All-Big Sky Conference honors for three straight years. He started studying business, but changed majors in his junior year to education when he decided he wanted to be a coach.
“The more and more that I was around the game and the coaches, the more I really thought I could teach and help players. So as soon as I finished college, I began coaching at Idaho State. I’d teach and run the after-school football program for weight lifting. I was 22. I wasn’t getting paid, but I loved it.”
He got his master’s degree and began his career on the defensive side of the ball, coaching linebackers, where he was offered a full-time job in 1982, making $10,000, while able to live in the football dorm for free. In 1983, the day before he married Peggy, he received a promotion. “The day of our wedding, my income doubled to $20,000,” he smiled.
From there, Marvin and Peggy were on the coaching carousel and moved seven times in 22 years, going from Idaho State to Long Beach State to New Mexico to the University of Pittsburgh, all before the NFL. They had two children, daughter Whitney and son Marcus (who now coaches with his dad in the Bengals organization). It was a challenging lifestyle for any family. “When your kids are younger, it’s a lot easier to pick up and move,” he said. “But once they start school and make friends, it’s a lot harder.”
But while he gained experience and grew as a coach, Lewis wasn’t focused on the NFL. “No, I never thought about going to the NFL,” he said, shaking his head, while telling Simba to get down from jumping on me.
In 1998, Lewis was chosen to participate in Bill Walsh’s NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship program, and that gave him a taste of the NFL. “It was a really good experience,” he said. “Coach Walsh was very personable, and I learned a lot.”
Then in 1992, while serving as assistant coach at Pitt, he received dual offers to be special teams coach for the 49ers under George Seifert and the Steelers from Bill Cowher. “When Bill heard the 49ers were offering the same position, he changed the offer to linebackers coach and I told him that he had a deal. Going to coach for your hometown team? That was great.”
But even when coaching for Cowher and later Brian Billick and Marty Schottenheimer, he focused on the job at hand and not his next career move, which he thinks is a problem with too many young coaches today.
“I was just trying to be the best defensive coordinator that I could be,” he said. “I literally never thought about being a head coach. I tell young coaches all the time to just be the best coach they can be at what they’re doing. People call you because of the job that you do, as opposed to you saying, ‘There’s a job over there, I’m interested in that.’ Too many times, coaches will get caught up in, one, chasing jobs, and, two, worrying about how much they’re going to make.”
After coaching smothering defenses at both the Ravens (where his defense led to a Super Bowl title in 2001) and the Redskins, he was hired by the Bengals in 2003, replacing Dick LeBeau, who was coming off a 2-14 year, which marked the worst record in the organization’s history. For team President Mike Brown, Lewis instantly brought stability, while reinstating respect to the wobbly team. Over his 14 years, Lewis has gone 118-103-3 and made the playoffs seven times. But he’s entering a pivotal year, as the team is coming off a disappointing 6-9 record and he is going into the final year of his contract. And while on the hot seat, Lewis carries himself with a steady, calm style. During our conversation, he deflects all contract talk and remains focused on work ethic and attitude, much like he did growing up in Pennsylvania.
“The best players want to be coached. If you aspire to be a great NFL player, you’re going to work to be the smartest and best prepared. Many young kids take that for granted. They think it’s just about being a superior athlete. Yes, they all have good-to-great athletic ability, but the ones that play the longest are also the smartest. It’s so much easier to coach a hard worker.”
It’s his emphasis on hard work — balanced by patience — that has shaped his coaching style.
“The talented player may not work very hard. You have to have patience to help him develop and gain the work ethic. You’ve got to take the talented player and get him to understand how his work ethic will help shape his career and make him a better player. Some people are unfortunately naturally lazy and you’ve got to help them see the light. Because in order to be great, you’ve got to work hard. Hard work is essential to being great. The Hall of Fame players that I’ve had the opportunity to coach and be around are extremely hard workers.”
Lewis believes a common mistake in today’s coaching is a lack of patience. “You don’t give a player enough time. The talented player through high school and college may not meet the work ethic standards of the NFL. That player has never been pushed to those limits. Some don’t give that player the opportunity to grow; you aren’t able to pull that out of him quick enough. Then when the player goes to another team and you see him flourish, you wonder why? Well, it’s because you didn’t give him that opportunity.”
He admits the pain in coaching in seeing the player who has done everything asked of him, arrive early, stay late, and work extremely hard, just not be able to make it.
“Sometimes the hardest worker and the guy that is in there first every day, may be the guy that we ask to leave. That’s hard. You want to see that player succeed because of what he’s invested in it. But it doesn’t always happen.”
Over the years, Lewis has faced critics over his lack of playoff success and the attitudes or backgrounds of some of his players. This year, the Bengals drafted controversial running back Joe Mixon from the University of Oklahoma in the second round. But Lewis dismisses critics who says he takes too many risks on players.
“There are players that we don’t touch. So, I don’t accept that we take a ‘risk’ on a player. We research players. If we feel a player can overcome challenges, we don’t view it as a risk. If we judge that he can’t overcome a challenge, we see that as risk and we’re not taking it. I’m not rolling any dice.”
He also pushes back on the criticism of some of his players, including Adam “Pacman” Jones and Vontaze Burfict, for their troubles on and off the field.
“Too many times, everyone just waits for one negative thing to happen and pile on,” he said, shaking his head. “People truly don’t appreciate all the positive things that these guys do.”
Lewis offers up a weary tone when I ask him what life is like as an NFL coach today. “It’s challenging, day-to-day. As the leader, you’re the one that’s charged with setting the direction and, as I say all the time, you’re expected to see ‘first,’ ‘most’ and ‘furthest.’ That’s your responsibility. You’ve got to set the plan, then develop the plan and then continually massage the plan all the way through.”
What’s the most difficult part of that leadership triangle?
“Seeing ‘most,’ because you have to see the pitfalls along the way, and understand that. You’ve got to bring people through those pitfalls, through tough times, even hold their hands sometimes. There are going to be ups and downs along the way, but you’ve got to stay the course and keep people focused on the ultimate goal. I really believe in staying on track. Sure, you’re allowed to change, but you’ve got to decide and articulate why you’re changing and when. If you lay the proper groundwork, you’ve got to feel comfortable about the course you’re taking.”
All year, coaches are on a constant, spinning wheel of leadership, preparation and hard work. All magnified during the season over three hours on game day.
“If you’ve prepared all week and you’re confident in your plan, then the games are all about execution. All your preparation and buildup is for when that game kicks off. So for me, it’s exciting to see how the guys are going to perform and play. The important part is we’ve got to execute and play the play, all the time. So, that’s our challenge as coaches, to get our guys, put them into position to execute and give us an opportunity to win.”
|“Losing is a hard feeling. … it’s my responsibility to get their heads cleared and refocused on the next opponent.”
The losses wear on any coach, far more than the joy of the wins. Lewis truly hates the losses. “Losing is a hard feeling,” he said, rubbing his forehead as if to erase a tough loss.
“With a win, as coaches, we put it behind us very quickly and we move on to the next week. A loss hangs with you longer.”
But Lewis picks himself up to lead the organization past the loss and on to the next opponent.
“My job is to get everybody rebounded from the loss by the next day — 24 hours later. When I walk out of the office the next day, I’ve got to have everybody focused and moving forward to the next opponent. I can’t let it linger. We can make corrections, we can learn something from losing, but it’s my responsibility to get their heads cleared and refocused on the next opponent by Monday afternoon.”
Much of that success in moving on is determined by how Lewis carries himself in front of players, coaches and staff, and how they feed off his body language and attitude.
“That literally starts in the locker room after the game, which is my first opportunity to put my thoughts in their head. How well I do is reflected in their comments. So when I read their comments after the game, that indicates to me how well I did. Then I get a chance to reevaluate again after my comments to them on Monday, and I can see what they say after that. Those are the indicators where you can tell how effective you are.”
Lewis has been an effective teacher and leader of men for more than three decades. He’s been a role model to his players, who universally praise the way he treats them, and established a notable coaching tree, with former assistants — Jay Gruden, Mike Zimmer and Hue Jackson — now head coaches. He has done all this while being a pioneer when it comes to diversity on the sidelines. Lewis hasn’t been the perfect coach, or a game-day strategic chess master; he’s experienced plenty of failures and is routinely criticized, including by the local fan base. But over his 36 years coaching young men, Marvin Lewis has done it with dignified respect, pulling greatness out of a player who has never experienced it, continually coaching and teaching a player to reach the pinnacle of his potential.
“The most satisfying thing for me is when one of your players accomplishes something that many people doubted he could do. You see him bask in the glory of being successful. Ultimately, when every player gets to hoist up and hold that Super Bowl trophy, that’s the ultimate accomplishment. But even week-to-week, day-to-day, seeing the accomplishment of doing things that he doubted and others doubted. Seeing a player ascend, and continue to ascend, as they gain more and more confidence, and that player carves out more opportunity for him to do good things. That’s really satisfying.”
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at email@example.com