It was late spring of 1980, just before the opening session of a Cincinnati Bengal minicamp. The players were waiting to start their first meeting with a new coach, Forrest Gregg.

"I remember he walked into the room and you sort of knew things were going to be different before he even said a word," guard David Lapham said. "I've never seen anything like it. You knew you were going to have to respect this guy.

"I mean, he's imposing physically. But he also had a Super Bowl ring and he played with Vince Lombardi and was on all those championship Green Bay teams. That gave him immediate credentials. We realized he had paid his dues and more, surviving all those Lombardi years. He was what we needed."

The team Gregg greeted that day was coming off consecutive 4-12 seasons, despite a nucleus of high-round draft choices. Paul Brown had retired in 1975, and since that time, two coaches (Bill Johnson and Homer Rice) had failed to keep the Bengals in the playoffs. Brown had found his front office leadership wasn't enough to make up for coaching failures.

"Forrest was the only alternative left for us," Lapham said. "It had gotten to where some guys were 15 or 20 pounds overweight by the end of the season, and the play on the field wasn't very disciplined. After Paul Brown retired, we were struggling. We had 48 guys going in six different directions. Forrest Gregg funneled us in one direction. He taught us how to win instead of worrying about losing."

In two years, Gregg's no-nonsense attitude has transformed the Bengals into one of the National Football League's elite teams. After winning 12 of 16 regular-season games this year, they beat Buffalo, 28-21, Sunday to advance to the AFC conference championship against San Diego, an opponent they demolished, 40-17, two months ago.

He's performed his minimiracle with a modified Lombardi approach. He doesn't try to imitate his old coach, but he does follow some of his most basic tenets regarding the handling of players.

"People hear the word 'discipline,' " Gregg said, "and sometimes they get the wrong impression. You don't have to sit on players to get discipline. But I do believe you need to provide leadership. Someone has to make the decisions and provide direction, and that's what I try to do."

Gregg is a hard-nosed Texan who, as a Hall of Fame offensive tackle, was once described by Lombardi as the best player--in any position--he had coached. Gregg looks like a man you wouldn't want as an enemy, or take on in a barroom brawl.

"He's a tough guy, no question," Lapham said. "But he treats us like men. He's fair. You ask him how you are playing and he'll tell you. Sometimes he is too honest, but at least he tells you straight. And you know he's not going to say something else behind your back. He's in control, because he's so highly disciplined himself."

Gregg got his first head coaching job in 1975 with the Cleveland Browns. The Browns were 3-11 his first season and 9-5 the second, when he was AFC coach of the year. He was fired before the final game of his third season when Cleveland was 6-7. Some players complained he treated them like second-graders. The word about Gregg around the league soon became: "Can't relate with the new generation of athletes."

He spent a year in private business and a season in the Canadian Football League before Cincinnati decided to ignore the alleged generation gap problems and hire him. Gregg probably has mellowed since his Cleveland days, but Bengal players still don't have much room for error. When star nose guard Wilson Whitley reported 10 pounds overweight for training camp, Gregg chewed him out, on the practice field, the opening day of workouts.

"I'm convinced teams take on the personality of their coach," Lapham said. "We certainly are a lot tougher physically than we used to be. Every game, you can see us take on more of what Forrest is all about."