Thursday, October 11, 2007

Marvin Lewis is Oliver Purnell

Being a Cincinnati Bengals fan, people often ask me my opinion of the team's head coach, Marvin Lewis. More specifically, they ask if the team has another mediocre year – finishing 8-8 or 7-9 – should Lewis be fired or, at the very least, on the proverbial hot seat? And it's very difficult for me, the guy with all the answers, to tell them I don't know. I simply do not know how to answer that question.

Here's some breaking news for you: The Bengals were not a very good football team during the decade of the 1990s. (Hard to find in depth insight like that anywhere else.) 3-13, 4-12, 4-12, 6-10, 2-14. Those are Cincinnati's records in the five seasons prior to the hiring of Marvin Lewis. Add it up and you get 19-61 in a five-year span, for a paltry .238 winning percentage. Did I say paltry? Perhaps wretched, abysmal and embarrassing might be adjectives more apt to describe the situation.

Lewis' tenure was seen as a beacon of hope (insert awful, clich├ęd simile here) from the very start. He led the team to a pair of 8-8 seasons in 2003 and '04 before breaking through with a slightly shocking 11-5 record and AFC North title in 2005. All told, Lewis went 35-29 in his first four seasons, just a tiny improvement over his predecessors.

Yet the Bengals seem to have regressed in the past 20 games. The team came into the '06 campaign with the highest of expectations only to go 8-8, a record that once indicated a miraculous turnaround but was now seen as mere mediocrity. Couple that with a 1-3 start this year and people are questioning Marvin's leadership and ability. Some have even lost faith altogether and have begun calling for the coach’s head to be placed squarely on the chopping block.

In a four-year span from 1990-'94, the Dayton Flyers men's basketball team compiled a record of 39-77, including seasons of 4-26 and 6-21. That's a winning percent of .336, far better than the '90s era Bengals but positively miserable nonetheless.

Oliver Purnell took the program's reins in 1994 and did exactly what Lewis would do ten years later. Admittedly, Purnell's turnaround took longer; two of his first three seasons were losing ones as his teams went just 35-48. But the '96-'97 campaign, Purnell's fourth as Flyers coach, was the catalyst. Dayton went 21-12 – just the team's second 20-win season since 1984 and its first since Jim O'Brien's first year as head coach. Purnell proceeded to reel off twenty wins or more in five of six seasons, making the postseason all five times including two trips to the NCAA Tournament.

Purnell's career at UD, and quite possibly his career as a whole, peaked in 2003-'04 when he led the Flyers to a 24-6 record and a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

You could argue that I'm making far too much of the parallels between Lewis and Purnell. You could say they are merely two coaches who turned around the respective franchise/program for which they coached. It happens every year to professional and college teams, to men's and women's teams, to football and basketball teams alike.

And perhaps you'd be right. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I find the comparisons striking. The Bengals lost decade has been well-documented, yet the Flyers had a similar stretch from 1986 through 1995 in which they had but one winning season.

Purnell righted the sinking ship for Dayton just as Lewis seems to have done for the Bengals. However, Purnell pulled his program completely out of the water before moving on to the "greener" pastures of Clemson. The Bengals, it seems, are still a franchise treading water, and it’s sink or swim time for Marvin Lewis' squad.

Both men are regarded as successful "rebuilders" – coaches capable of turning a program's fortunes around but unable to take their team to the coveted next level. That's why when Purnell announced his decision to leave, I was not sad or mad or angry or upset. Was it the best news? No. But was it life-altering? Definitely not.

There are two reasons I cannot answer the question posed by the hypothetical person in the first paragraph of this entry: Should Marvin Lewis be fired or, at the very least, on the hot seat?
I don't know because I don't yet know if Lewis is more than just a rebuilder. Is he that and then some? Is he the coach capable of both lifting a team up out of the NFL sewer and of bringing it to that next level? Is he the one to take the Bengals to a place they have never gone before? He may be, or he may be nothing more than the bridge. Purnell was supposed to be said bridge between the woeful O'Brien years and Brian Gregory, the one appointed to take the Flyers to the next level. (Why Gregory is not that is a different story for a different day.) Whether Marvin can do more than bridge the gap between Shula, Coslet and Lebeau and his successor is yet to be seen.

The second reason is fear of the unknown. This may sound extremely elementary, but when you fire/lose a head coach, you have to bring in a new one. When I look around the NFL, I see a group of retreads, has-beens and never-weres with head coaching positions. I see the Norv Turners and the Wade Phillipses of the world with jobs, and I think of guys like Dennis Green and Marty Schottenheimer, both of whom will probably be head coaches again by this time next year. I see teams resorting to re-hiring Art Shell (however briefly), and I shiver because it brings back memories of the 1990s in Cincinnati. It calls to mind the Bruce Coslets and the Dick Lebeaus of the world. It reminds me of Dave Shula, who was named head coach for no reason other than his last name.

Simply put, if Marvin Lewis is fired, someone has to be hired. Who would it be? For every Eric Mangini and Sean Payton (though both are struggling this season), there are a dozen Dennis Greens. For every Mike Tomlin, there are scores of life-long coordinators unfit to be an NFL head coach. If you replace a Marvin Lewis with a Marty Schottenheimer, what do you gain?

The University of Dayton found itself in that very same predicament four years ago and misfired. When you lose your Oliver Purnell, you might score big with an Anthony Grant (VCU) or you might fall flat on your face with a Brian Gregory.

Now, imagine that decision in the hands of Mike Brown. Yikes, I'd rather not. In that case, I guess Marvin Lewis needs some more time…