It was an offer others might have refused.
Finally on Tuesday, Lewis, 44, was offered the head-coaching job of the Cincinnati Bengals. He took it without hesitation.
Lewis has built a solid reputation, highlighted by his work as the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Raven team that won the Super Bowl in 2001 and set a league record for fewest points allowed in a season.
But as an African American, Lewis knew the odds were against him. Of the 32 NFL teams, two had black head coaches until Tuesday.
In recent years, Lewis interviewed for several head-coaching jobs, and was on the verge of getting one, only to be passed over at the end. He kept silent, but others claimed racism.
He's starting at the bottom, taking over a Bengal team that finished 2-14 this season, the worst record in club history, a team that hasn't had a winning record or made the playoffs in a dozen years.
But the important thing is, Lewis, who leaves a job as defensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins, is assuming control of an NFL team, finally giving the orders instead of taking them.
"I'm just so excited," he said at a news conference. "When you say no to something, you don't know what's the next thing coming. This is an opportunity that I think I've worked hard for and hopefully I've done a great job preparing for."
The NFL has been under pressure from a group led by attorneys Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and Cyrus Mehri to accelerate the pace of minority hiring.
The owners agreed last month to interview minority candidates when they have openings for a coach or key spots in the front office.
Lewis becomes Cincinnati's ninth head coach, following Dick LeBeau, who was fired the day after the regular season ended, and the first hired from outside the organization by owner Mike Brown since he took over the team in 1991.
Lewis steps into a situation that has been the downfall of coaches from Sam Wyche to Dave Shula to Bruce Coslet to LeBeau.
The Bengals are 55-137 under Brown, who, nevertheless, hoards authority and refuses to hire a general manager, give his head coach additional influence or add to the league's smallest scouting staff.
Charges of racism were leveled by Dungy, then the Tampa Bay Buccaneer head coach, when six head-coaching jobs opened up the year Lewis helped the Ravens win the Super Bowl, and Lewis got only one interview. That was with the Buffalo Bills, who hired Gregg Williams.
"It's just difficult to imagine," Dungy told Sports Illustrated at the time. "I don't think anyone would have suggested ... that Marvin Lewis wouldn't have a head-coaching job after all of this sorted out.... But, in fact, it has happened and only one team really talked to him. And that's a shame on our part, on the whole league.... You would have thought more than one team out of [six] would say that here's a guy that should be at least talked to.... If he were white, would it have been one out of [six]? I don't think so."
Lewis was considered a candidate for the Carolina Panther head-coaching job after the 2001 season, but that went to John Fox.
Lewis then emerged as Tampa Bay's prime candidate after Bill Parcells decided against coming out of retirement. General Manager Rich McKay recommended Lewis, but the sons of Buccaneer owner Malcolm Glazer decided against hiring him.
Lewis turned down an offer to become Michigan State's head coach last month.
"I have a plan to get the little things down and bring the professionalism of our team up," Lewis said Tuesday about his new position. "Before you win, you have to learn how to win, or more importantly, how not to lose."
Lewis, who has been losing for a while in the job market, is now, finally, a winner.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
*African American head coaches in NFL history, with team, years and record:
* Fritz Pollard, Hammond Pros, 1921, 1925-26 (13-9-6)
* Art Shell, L.A. Raiders, 1989-94 (56-41)
* Dennis Green, Minnesota, 1992-2001 (101-70)
* Ray Rhodes, Philadelphia, 1995-98 (30-36-1)
* Tony Dungy, Tampa Bay, 1996-2001 (56-46); and Indianapolis, 2002-current (10-6)
* Herman Edwards, N.Y. Jets, 2001-current (19-13)
Note: Terry Robiskie was an interim coach for Washington for three games in 2000.