Cut Day is a painful day on a pro football team, and Tim Lewis knows that as well as anybody.
The 57-year-old has been on the staffs of football teams – either as an assistant or as a coordinator – for 30 seasons. Twenty-two of those seasons were in the pro ranks, where men’s hopes of living the dream of a professional football player were dashed when they were called into an office and told their days with the team were over.
This year was tougher for Lewis than any before. As the head coach of the Birmingham Iron of the Alliance of American Football, he was the one who delivered the bad news to the men who didn’t make the 52-player roster.
“There were a couple of moments where I got choked up and had a difficult time saying goodbye to certain people,” Lewis said. “It is a difficult time. It’s a difficult thing. I’ve never had to do that.
“Although I will say it is a very necessary part of the game and I understand it and they understand it, there’s still a human element to it,” he said. “None of us like to experience it, but it’s a very real part of the game.”
Lewis is experiencing a new part of the game as he prepares to lead the Birmingham Iron into its first game in the AAF, taking on the Memphis Express at 3 p.m. Sunday at Legion Field. As the new league kicks off without a kickoff – as part of league rules – the former Green Bay Packers cornerback embarks on a new part of his professional career.
“When they say that you’re the head coach and you’re responsible for all of them — I care very much about all the players that we’ve got. I care very much about the staff. I try to keep it in perspective. It’s really not about me. It’s really about the team,” he said.
Against the oddsmakers
Lewis is ranked eighth of the eight coaches in the AAF, according to thelastwordonprofootball.com. His lack of head coaching experience is cited as the main reason. Birmingham’s coach says he understands.
“I figured as much,” he said. “When we had the draft over in Las Vegas, they gave us 15-1 odds on winning. I don’t know anything about gambling or odds or anything like that, but I do know that we were dead last.
“I get it,” he continued. “It’s not because of the players. We’ve got a really good team and we’ve got really good players at all the different positions. It’s just because of the coach. I’ve never done it before, so I get that. That’s natural.”
It’s also natural, Lewis said, for those odds and that website ranking of him to be motivation. But thelastwordonprofootball.com isn’t discounting Lewis, either.
“Although Lewis might not have as much experience as the other coaches listed here, he is what this league should best represent,” the site said. “He is a coach that is looking for an opportunity and he will get that shot coaching in the AAF.”
League of opportunity
Iron running back Trent Richardson said it’s about time for Lewis to step into the top role.
“Really, I don’t see why he wasn’t a head coach in the beginning,” the former Alabama Crimson Tide runner said. “He should have been a head coach a long time ago because of the values that he has, and what he brings to the table is really bringing this team together.”
Lewis teaches his players like he does his three kids, Richardson said, and he cares about all his players.
“He’s a player’s coach and he really listens to the players,” Richardson said. “He actually played the game, so you look at stuff the way he has done stuff, growing up and the great players he has played with and coached … he’s one of the smartest guys out there.”
Lewis relishes the AAF’s nickname as the league of opportunity.
“(That’s) what they’ve been touting and that’s what I believe that they’ve given me, a wonderful opportunity to showcase, to do what I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” he said. “I’m extremely grateful for that opportunity and I plan on making the most of it.”
A life in football
Lewis’ football life took off as a college player at the University of Pittsburgh and continued when he was drafted in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft, taken 11th overall by the Green Bay Packers.
As a player, Lewis led or shared the lead on the team in interceptions in 1983 and 1985, finishing with a career total of 16. His 99-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 18, 1984, remains the Packers team record.
Wearing jersey No. 26, he played four NFL seasons before his playing career was cut short by a severe neck injury suffered during a Monday Night game against the Chicago Bears on Sept. 22, 1986.
The Quakertown, Pennsylvania, native knew from the time he was drafted into the NFL that football would be his life. By spring 1987, the former Pittsburgh Panther was a grad assistant at Texas A&M.
But there were flirtations with other careers. After getting an undergraduate degree in economics, he had stints with Shearson Lehman and EF Hutton. He also fielded a call from Chris Berman and the late Tom Mees about a 24-hour, all-sports cable station, ESPN.
“I didn’t think it would work,” he admitted. “But I did call live from the Packer locker room the year that we drafted Brent Fulwood from Auburn. But I just didn’t follow up on it. And I had interviewed with ABC and NBC but didn’t follow up with it. Of course, I became a coach.”
Lewis’ coaching career began at Texas A&M as a graduate assistant under Jackie Sherrill, who had been his college coach at Pittsburgh. From there, he was:
- Defensive backs coach at Southern Methodist (1989–1992) under head coach Forrest Gregg in the aftermath of the Death Penalty.
- Defensive backs coach for the Pittsburgh Panthers (1993–1994) under Johnny Majors.
- Defensive backs coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers (1995–1999) and defensive coordinator for the Steelers (2000–2003), each under Bill Cowher.
- Defensive coordinator for the New York Giants (2004–2006) under Tom Coughlin.
- Secondary coach for the Carolina Panthers (2007–2008) under John Fox.
- Defensive backs coach for the Seattle Seahawks (2009) under Jim Mora.
- Secondary coach for the Atlanta Falcons (2010–2014) for Mike Smith.
- Defensive backs coach of the San Francisco 49ers (2015) under Jim Tomsula. He was let go once the season ended as part of a complete coaching overhaul.
With so many coaches in his past, which one has influenced him the most?
“Oh, my goodness, that’s a tough question,” Lewis said. “Bill Cowher was the one that I was with the longest, so I probably pattern myself after him the most. I like coach Jackie Sherrill; he was my college coach. He is still a mentor to me today.”
Lewis and his wife, Shawn, have three children – a 12-year-old son, Bryce, and two daughters, 14-year-old Erin and 10-year-old Chelsea. His cousin is ESPN personality Louis Riddick, who followed him at the University of Pittsburgh. Rob Riddick, Louis’ brother, played professional football with the Buffalo Bills.
Lewis has a sister who lives in Atlanta and a brother, Will, who has one son playing with the Buffalo Bills and another at the University of Colorado prepping for the NFL Draft.
“We’ve come from a long line of football players,” the Birmingham coach said. “In fact, Alan Page is a distant cousin. He played for the Minnesota Vikings, of course, and was one of the Purple People Eaters.” Page began a legal career after his playing days and retired as a Minnesota Supreme Court justice.
Lewis will renew his acquaintance with his brother on Sunday, as Will Lewis is the general manager of the Memphis Express.
“He’s very talented at what he does and he’s been very close to the mountaintop, if you will,” the Iron coach said. “He’s done a fantastic job every place he’s been, and I’m very proud of him and happy to say he’s my brother. But I plan on beating him.”
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