TAMPA — Perhaps Bucs fans haven't seen the last of their team's plan to hire a first-time head coach.
Having spent the early phase of their search primarily meeting candidates with previous NFL head coaching experience, the Bucs on Friday received permission to interview Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.
The Bucs did not announce when the interviews will happen.
Zimmer, 55, interviewed for the Dolphins' coaching position earlier this week while Chudzinski, 43, interviewed with the Rams and Jaguars before those jobs went to Jeff Fisher and Mike Mularkey, respectively.
Since firing Raheem Morris on Jan. 2, the Bucs had focused on Mike Sherman (former Packers coach), Brad Childress (Vikings) and Marty Schottenheimer (Browns, Chiefs, Redskins and Chargers). Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips (Broncos, Bills and Cowboys) had been scheduled to talk to the Bucs on Friday but withdrew his name from consideration Thursday.
Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, 47, was the first candidate to interview with the Bucs and also has no previous head coaching experience.
While Zimmer still is looking for his first head coaching job, he won't be a pushover. Known as a disciplinarian, Zimmer has been confrontational with players, who wind up loving him for it.
"Beyond this game, we consider each other friends," Bengals safety Chris Crocker told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "It's just one of those things where you know that he's very, very brute and brash and can be harsh. But at the end of the day, he really does care about his players. I think that's the reason why guys will run through a wall for him. Hopefully one day, he will become a head coach in this league."
Since Zimmer's arrival in 2008, the Bengals defense has finished among the top 10 in the league twice, including seventh this season. In 2003, the Cowboys had the league's No. 1 defense under Zimmer. Only once in his stops in Dallas, Atlanta and Cincinnati since 2000 has Zimmer's defense ranked below 20th.
This season, the Bucs, with Morris also serving as defensive coordinator, were last in the NFL in points allowed at 30.9 per game. And their 494 allowed set a franchise record.
Crocker doesn't expect Zimmer's approach to change when he becomes a head coach.
"He's going to be in your face, and he's going to be a realist," Crocker said. "He's going to tell you the facts, and he's going to have a system, a format, of how he wants things to be done and how they should be done. He's always been about doing things the right way. Any coach like that, they aren't going to be showing favoritism. Things won't slide with him. I think that will be the good thing."
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said he's supportive of Zimmer becoming a head coach.
"If Mike gets an opportunity, that would be fantastic, and we'll do nothing but be very supportive of him and any opportunity he gets a chance at," Lewis said.
The Bucs are already admirers of Chudzinski's work. In his first season with the Panthers, he helped develop quarterback Cam Newton into the favorite for offensive rookie of the year. Newton beat the Bucs twice, passing for four touchdowns and rushing for four more.
Under Chudzinski, the Panthers were seventh in the league on offense and set a franchise record for yards. Regardless of their choice of head coaches, the Bucs are looking for someone to get quarterback Josh Freeman on track after he threw 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions this season.
While hiring Chudzinski would potentially weaken a division rival, the Panthers can't stand in his way of interviewing for a head coaching job.
"If you have any one of your soldiers leave, the battalion is going to be down a little bit," Panthers receiver Steve Smith told the Charlotte Observer. "They're going to look for that specialty that he brings to the group. Everybody kind of goes, 'Well, who's going to fill his spot?' And that's natural.
"There is a tendency to worry a little bit, to be concerned because, 'Hey, he just got here and he's pretty darned good, and now we have to break in someone new.' "
Staff writer Stephen F. Holder contributed to this report. For the latest on the Bucs' coaching search, go to tampabay.com/blogs/bucs or via Twitter at @BucsBeat.