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Bengals Fire Head Coach Dick LeBeau

December 30, 2002

CINCINNATI (AP) _ Dick LeBeau was fired Monday as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, who became a national laughingstock as they stumbled through the worst season in franchise history.

LeBeau, 65, was the first NFL coach fired following a season during which just about every other team in the league was in playoff contention.

There was no immediate word on a successor or the fate of his coaching staff. LeBeau’s contract ended after the season, but several of his assistants are under contract through next year.

LeBeau was informed of his firing during a meeting Monday morning with owner Mike Brown.

The Bengals finished last in the league at 2-14, the worst record for a franchise that has known nothing but futility for 12 years. Their pratfalls made them a punchline and undermined LeBeau’s security with an owner who resists change.

Four head coaches have left since Brown became general manager in 1991. None has been able to win under Brown’s ineffective management style.

Brown tends to hire head coaches from within the organization, who have demonstrated they won’t challenge the front office.

Sam Wyche had a blowup with Brown and left after the 1991 season, which ended with a 3-13 record and started Cincinnati’s run as the NFL’s worst team. Dave Shula, Bruce Coslet and LeBeau also failed to get the Bengals out of their rut after they got promoted as assistants.

Shula lost 50 games faster than any coach in NFL history, going 19-52 in 4 1/2 seasons. Coslet replaced him, but quit three games into the 2000 season, opening the way for LeBeau to get his first head coaching job.

He tried to build around defense and running back Corey Dillon, but couldn’t escape the team’s legacy of losing. The Bengals went 12-33 under LeBeau, the worst winning percentage by any of the eight head coaches in team history.

LeBeau’s firing probably had more to do with attendance figures than the won-loss record. The Bengals finished their home schedule by drawing the three smallest crowds in Paul Brown Stadium history, nudging Brown to make a change.

It’s unlikely that a proven coach would consider the Bengals, who give their head coach limited say over his assistants and his roster. Brown picks some of the assistants based upon loyalty, and often intervenes in roster decisions.

Despite fans’ outcry for Brown to step down as general manager, he has given no indication he’s ready to do so. The Bengals are 55-137 since he took over after his father’s death.

Brown lavished praise on LeBeau after the Bengals opened the 2001 season with victories over eventual Super Bowl champion New England and defending champion Baltimore.

The club’s best start since 1995 was dashed by a string of losses, but a 6-10 record restored an air of respectability and sparked hope that a turnaround was at hand.

Some media prognosticators picked the Bengals to make it to the Super Bowl this season. At the opening of minicamp last May, LeBeau donned a Superman outfit and burst through a banner that read ``Bengals Super Bowl 2002.″

It didn’t take long for the playoff talk to start sounding silly.

The quarterback position turned into LeBeau’s undoing. The front office brought in Gus Frerotte to compete with Jon Kitna and Akili Smith for the starting job, leaving the most important position unsettled once again.

Frerotte won the job, and the Bengals opened with a different quarterback for the fifth straight season. It was a disaster.

Frerotte’s inexperience with the offense and his receivers quickly showed. He also provided the season’s signature moment by throwing a pass with his left hand, resulting in an interception that set up Cleveland’s victory in the second game.

Frerotte was benched during a 30-3 loss in Atlanta, a nationally televised Sunday night game that left them 0-3 and hardened their reputation as the Bungles.

The loss turned the Bengals into grist for comedians’ monologues coast-to-coast and prompted LeBeau to make a panic move. He promoted Smith from third-string to starter for the next game against Tampa Bay.

Smith was understandably rusty, and the Bengals’ offensive line got manhandled in the Bucs’ 35-7 win.

A day later, Kitna blasted the team, saying it had ``created a monster″ by failing to commit to one quarterback. Kitna also said the locker room was divided, with some players favoring one quarterback, others preferring another.

LeBeau acknowledged his mistake and turned back to Kitna, who finally got the offense rolling _ too late to save the season or LeBeau’s job.

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