Professional football coach
When he was named head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals on January 14, 2003, Marvin Lewis became the seventh African American to hold the position of head coach in the modern National Football League (NFL). The promise shown by his distinguished career as an assistant coach was fulfilled when he reversed the fortunes of a team that had been a perennial basement dweller in league rankings. Part of Lewis's success as a coach rested on his genuinely inspirational qualities; he was a living example of the power of hard work, and his life was an all-American success story.
Marvin Lewis was born in McDonald, Pennsylvania, in the state's steelmaking region outside Pittsburgh, on September 23, 1958. Lewis remembered that his father, who worked in a steel mill and often spent his days swinging a sledgehammer at iron ore, would come home and rest his sore elbows on pillows. Lewis's mother was a registered nurse and later a nurse practitioner. His family instilled in him a strong work ethic. One uncle became a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper photographer. As a high school student, Lewis worked summers on a garbage truck and spent plenty of time at church as the first youth Sunday school superintendent in the history of the First Baptist Church.
Became Senior Class President
Local youths could dream of a way out of the steel industry; McDonald's Fort Cherry High School had an impressive football program that also produced future San Diego Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer and several other NFL players and coaches. A quarterback in midget football, Lewis took to sports immediately, joining the football, baseball, and wrestling teams, and often changing out of his garbage collecting clothes and into his team uniform on his way to practices or games. He excelled as a safety and quarterback on the football field and became president of his senior class.
Lewis planned to attend Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, but he changed his mind when he heard about an open football scholarship at faraway Idaho State University, in Boise, and applied, hoping to save his parents his tuition bills. He was admitted and began studying engineering, his determination to succeed strengthened after spending a summer working at a steel mill's coke ovens back in Pennsylvania and sweating in the blast of their 2,800-degree temperatures. Too small to dream of a professional career himself, he continued to pursue football with a passion and began to dream of becoming an NFL coach.
His father Marvin, Sr., who had hoped for a stable career in the engineering profession for his son, did not take this news well. But Lewis—according to Chick Ludwig of the Dayton Daily News —convinced his father by telling him to think back on his 31 years in the mills: "Daddy, you go into that mill every day and you hate that job. I want to do what I love to do," Lewis said. Fresh out of Idaho State, where he three times won All-Big Sky Conference honors as a linebacker, quarterback, and safety (in 1978, 1979, and 1980), Lewis was hired as a graduate assistant in 1981 by his alma mater at an annual salary of $10,000.
Hired as Assistant Coach
Coaching Idaho State's linebackers in his first year, Lewis got a taste of the satisfaction the profession could bring when the Idaho State Bengals notched a 12-1 record and won the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division 1-AA championship. He stayed on as an assistant coach at Idaho State through 1984 (having earned a master's degree in athletic administration in 1982) and then moved on to assistant coach posts at Long Beach State University in California (1985-86), the University of New Mexico (1987-89), and the University of Pittsburgh (1990-91).
That powerhouse coaching job in his home area put Lewis within reach of a pro coaching slot, and in 1992 he was hired as a linebackers coach by the Pittsburgh Steelers. His Steelers squads from 1992 to 1995 spawned several NFL defensive stars, and in 1996 he was hired by the Baltimore Ravens as defensive coordinator even though head coach Brian Billick originally wanted someone else for the position. Once again Lewis proved himself; the Ravens' defense steadily improved, and the defensive team on the 2000 squad, which won the Super Bowl, set a record for fewest points allowed (165) in a 16-game season and is considered one of the best in NFL history. In 2002 Lewis became defensive coordinator and assistant head coach with the Washington Redskins.
Although NFL teams had interviewed Lewis for head coaching jobs several times, he had been passed over. The biggest heartbreaker came in 2002, when Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Rich McKay offered the team's head coach slot to Lewis but was overruled by the team's owners. Discouraged, Lewis nevertheless turned down a $7.5 million offer to coach football at Michigan State University in order to keep pursuing his goal. Finally he was hired in 2003 for $1.5 million a year to coach the Cincinnati Bengals, which in 2002 had amassed a dismal record of 2 wins and 14 losses, worst in the history of the franchise. The team's last winning record had come in 1990.
Took Visible Role in Cincinnati
In Cincinnati, Lewis became a popular and charismatic figure; some even credited him as a calming force in a city torn by deep-rooted racial unrest. Appearing at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new downtown public library shortly after his arrival, he became a fixture at civic functions and was an energetic speechmaker who drew on his small-town roots and experiences. He often spoke out against the crudeness that was endemic to the game of football, on one occasion urging league officials to take action against players who intimidated others by spitting on them. Married and the father of one daughter and one son, Lewis was the voice and face of the Bengals to an unusual degree. Bengals president Mike Brown, previously notorious for his detailed management style, turned not only football decisions but also day-to-day management chores such as staff hires and even the choice of training-camp location over to Lewis.
Shaking up the Bengals squad and recruiting a mixture of veteran free agents and talented young players, Lewis delivered impressive results in his first year as Bengals coach. Although the team lost its first three games, the Bengals bounced back to finish with an 8-8 record. They had a chance to make the NFL playoffs for the first time since 1990, but lost their final game. In the words of the Washington Post, "Marvin Lewis restored the dignity of the Cincinnati Bengals" in his debut campaign.
At a Glance...
Born on September 23, 1958, in McDonald, PA; son of Marvin Lewis, Sr. (a steelworker and foreman), and Vanetta Lewis (a nurse); married Peggy; children: Whitney, Marcus. Education: Idaho State University, BS, physical education, 1981; Idaho State University, MS, athletic administration, 1982.
Career: Idaho State University, linebackers coach, 1981-84; Long Beach State University, assistant coach, 1985-86; University of New Mexico, assistant coach, 1987-89; University of Pittsburgh, assistant coach, 1990-91; Pittsburgh Steelers, linebackers coach, 1992-95; Baltimore Ravens, defensive coordinator, 1996-2001; Washington Redskins, assistant head coach and defensive coordinator, 2002; Cincinnati Bengals, head coach, 2003–.
Awards: Inductee, Idaho State Hall of Fame, 2001.
Addresses: Office– Cincinnati Bengals, One Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, OH 45202.
The Bengals went 8-8 once again in 2004 as Lewis took a chance on rookie quarterback Carson Palmer. The offense jelled toward the end of the year, but, ironically in view of Lewis's wealth of defensive experience, it was the Bengals defense that struggled. Still, Lewis had clearly built the nucleus of a potential playoff contender, and his position as Bengals coach seemed secure. "You can't worry about the bad days getting in the way of the good days that are coming," Lewis told the Columbus Dispatch. "You keep your eyes focused on what you're trying to get done. You work at it and work at it, and if things aren't to your liking, you work at changing them."
Buffalo News, December 17, 2004, p. B1.
Columbus Dispatch, January 15, 2003, p. E1; February 4, 2003, p. E1; September 12, 2004, p. F5; November 10, 2004, p. D4; November 14, 2004, p. E13; December 12, 2004, p. E1; January 9, 2005, p. E11.
Dayton (OH) Daily News, April 20, 2003, p. C1.
Denver Post, August 31, 2003, p. CC7.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 12, 2002; November 21, 2004, p. D4.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 21, 2003, p. E1.
USA Today, December 29, 2003, p. C7.
Washington Post, November 10, 2004, p. D4.
"Coaching Staff: Head Coach Marvin Lewis," NFL. com, www.nfl.com/teams/coaching/CIN (March 3, 2005).
"Marvin Lewis," Cincinnati Bengals, www.bengals.com (March 3, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
"Lewis, Marvin." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lewis-marvin
"Lewis, Marvin." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved March 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lewis-marvin
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