Ravens Coach Brian Billick Tackles Super Bowl XLIV During his nine years as the coach of the Baltimore Ravens, Brian Billick led the team to a Super Bowl win in 2001. Now a commentator for Fox Sports and the NFL Network, he joins Fresh Air to discuss the upcoming Super Bowl — and the future of the NFL.
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Ravens Coach Brian Billick Tackles Super Bowl XLIV

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Ravens Coach Brian Billick Tackles Super Bowl XLIV

Ravens Coach Brian Billick Tackles Super Bowl XLIV

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This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. After Sunday's Super Bowl, its a pretty safe bet that one of two men will be vilified in their home cities: Indianapolis Colts' coach Jim Caldwell or New Orleans Saints' coach Sean Payton. When a team loses, fans always find a way to blame the coach. We're used to seeing NFL coaches roaming the sidelines during games, talking into headsets, yelling at referees and encouraging their players.

But it occurred to us that being an NFL coach is actually an interesting management job. He has to supervise a hundred or so assistant coaches and staff, motivate 53 players with big salaries and egos, handle intense media scrutiny and accept the fact that he will be adored or reviled every week, depending on how his team plays on Sunday.

To find out what its like, we turn to Brian Billick, who spent nine seasons as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. He won a Super Bowl in his second year on the job and was eventually fired when the team performed poorly. He's now a television commentator for Fox Sports and the NFL Network and author of the book "More Than a Game." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.


Well, Brian Billick, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, its hard to think of another job where you work seven days a week, you know, 80, 90, 100 hours a week, you know, sleep in your office, live on coffee and caffeine, and work around the clock. But youre really judged by what happens in three and a half hours on Sunday when the game occurs. Does it make you a little crazy, that kind of a job?

Mr. BRIAN BILLICK (Former NFL Head Coach; Author, "More Than A Game"): You know, sometimes you tend to think of it in those terms and you've got to remember, everybody has a tough job, everybody has tough hours. But the hardest thing is that when that first whistle blows in July - late July, when you start training camp, particularly a head coach will not have a day - not a single day off from the very beginning of training camp at the end of July, till hopeful early February if youre making a Super Bowl run. And it's that constant, incessant clock that is always going off. I mean youre used to long hours and everybody works hard, but that clock stops for no one and that's the one that can kind of grind you down if youre not careful.

DAVIES: Well, I wanted to talk about the intensity of game day for an NFL coach and I thought we'd listen to a little montage of some coaches caught on game day.

Mr. MIKE TOMLIN (NFL coach, Pittsburgh Steelers): Come here. Hey, dont wait for him to catch it. Run through his (censored). Dont wait for him to catch it. You're there. That's an NFL play right there. Make it.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes sir.

Mr. TOMLIN: Can anybody give me any idea why they running up and down the field? Can anybody give me that? Any time we call a blitz, we're going one way, they find a hole on the other side. What is that?

Mr. MIKE SINGLETARY (NFL Head Coach, San Francisco 49ers): When that guy takes off, go get him. You've got to make that play. That guy runs like me, man. You can make that play.

Mr. TOMLIN: We're going to throw a damn touchdown because your boy ran right by the damn guy if you block your damn man. Grow up.

Mr. JON GRUDEN (Former NFL Head Coach): We've got to protect him. We can't have that happen, especially not down in the red zone. All right? So now listen, the mark of a pro: you got to go play. Let it go and go play. Jay. Hey, my headset's (censored) up again.

Unidentified Man #2: What's it doing?

Mr. GRUDEN: I dont know. It's like, no one hears me. Jay.

DAVIES: And that's some NFL coaches. Among them: Mike Tomlin, Mike Singletary, and at the end, the volatile Jon Gruden, complaining about his headset not working. And that's one of the first questions I wanted to ask you Brian Billick, every NFL coach has a headset all game. What do you guys hearing and saying in that headset?

Mr. BILLICK: Well, boy, you want to make some money, put that thing on live. You know, tape that and play it. You...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BILLICK: Some of the conversations would be enlightened. Of course, you'd have to edit it. It could only go on the Internet. You couldnt even put it on cable, it's so laden with profanities and tirades and, you know, its an interesting combination of, particularly for the head coach, everybody has a headset on for the communication purposes. You have four or five coaches up in the booth that obviously have that perspective, then youve got all the coaches along the sideline, the position coaches, the coordinators, that basically it's just a communication process of communicating with one another of what's going on. And everybody has a responsibility on a given play to look at a different aspect of what's going on.

You want to hear a coach go off - and I am infamous, I should say, among my assistant coaches for if I had a question, because let's say offensively okay, the running back coach is supposed to watch the exchange between the quarterback and the running back and the drop of the quarterback. One line coach is supposed to watch the point of attack and the other line coaches are supposed to watch the backside of the play. The receiver coach is maybe supposed to watch the rotation of the secondary. And it's hard to do because you tend to want to - almost like a fan - watch the play. And so something would happen and I'd get on the phone and say, you know, maybe there was an exchange problem or the quarterback got sacked and I was worried about the depth of the drop and I'd click on and say okay, did he get his full drop?

And if the coach didnt have the right answer, you know, if he was, coach I wasnt watching, boy, I would go off. I mean, you know, nothing would irritate me more and Id call this guy. Basically, you'd get everybody else online going, you dont want to be the next guy that tells me I wasnt doing what I was supposed to be doing. And it's just all about the communication with one another, and it's in an heated environment, you dont have the time. You would love to, whether it'd be player or coach, after a difficulty, a crisis to, as they come off the field, say, you know, put a big warm fuzzy arm around them and say, gee, you know what? I don't know that that was the most efficient or expeditious way to accomplish that. Why dont we sit down and let's talk about it and analyze? You dont have time for that. So it's the two-by-four to the head going, you stupid so-and-so, what, you know, what did you see or what happened or why did you do that?

And - because youve got to cut to the chase of it. But its part of that process that you develop the rapport with the players to understand, look, nobody should take offense to the demeanor or the tone of the way we communicate during the game. Weve got to cut to the chase and if need be, we'll apologize for it afterward.

DAVIES: You know, I've done a little bit of sports reporting and what's really striking about if youve watched football or really any other sport from up above, where there's this majestic sort of ballet-like quality to it, is that when you get down on the field level, you realize how incredibly fast it happens and how quick these highly-conditioned athletes are. And for some of the seasons that you coached, I know that you didnt just monitor what was going on. You actually called every offensive play, which means you have this paper in front of you with all these complex formations. And I wonder if you could just kind of take us through the speed at which this happens. I mean because, you know, when a play is run, your running back runs for two yards, he's tackled, the referee spots the ball, and in 45 seconds they have to snap another play, right?

Mr. BILLICK: Yeah. And...

DAVIES: So take us through what you do as a coach to make that happen to get the next play in.

Mr. BILLICK: Yeah. Excellent question, because I think that's probably the one thing that fans dont have a full appreciation for because it is. You sit up in the stadiums and you have that particular viewpoint and youre wondering well, why did that guy throw the ball there, you know, can't he see? Well, you know, probably not. I think fans would be amazed to see the speed of the game particularly say from the quarterback position. It's - they'd be amazed at how little the quarterback really can see when he throws the ball or what he's doing.

But think about it: In that 40 second time - just by way of example - the ball is placed. You have to take into account, where are we? What's the down, the distance, the field position? What's our intent? Where are we in the game? Where are we on the field? Youve got to get the right personnel. I've got to orchestrate 11 people. First, I've got to get the right 11 people on the field. I then have got to give them the parameters as to what we're doing. Where do they line up? Where are they going? How do they communicate with one another? That has to be communicated to the quarterback. He then in turn has to turn around and communicate it to the team. You then have to get those 11 guys up on the line of scrimmage with all the shifting and motioning and whatever you may do, and get the ball snapped and get everybody on the same page doing the same thing.

And youre making calculations as a coach in terms of what it is you want to call, what it is youre trying to accomplish, where you are in the game. It's a very, very fast paced and it's not something that's done very easily.

DAVIES: So you have - that leaves you with what? Eight seconds to make a decision about what the next play is going to be?

Mr. BILLICK: Yeah, you dont have much time. That's - you really have to be a play ahead. You know, as the play's being run, as a play-caller, you pretty much have to have in mind, okay, if this gets stoned and we get nothing then, I'm going to do A. If we get a first down, I'm going to do B. If we get an explosive play out of this, I'm going to do C. I mean, the parameters of where - what the result of that play may be that will dictate your next call are, you know, can fathom you at some point in terms of the choices that you have. So you better, you know, youve got to be that proverbial two and three steps ahead or youre forever going to be that one step behind.

DAVIES: And so then you yell a play which will sound something like: Shotgun, solo, right, closes E left, two jet rattle, Y drag.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BILLICK: Yeah. And it all is supposed to - and we coaches, I've got to tell you, we coaches can make it a little more complex than we should. And with the advent of the coach-to-quarterback communicator, you know, before you had to be very brief because you had to signal it in and you...

DAVIES: Right. Explain that for the audience. I mean, right.

Mr. BILLICK: Well, before, about 10 years ago - eight to 10 years ago - we added what only made sense, the ability for the play-caller to, via a microphone in the quarterback's head, give him the play directly. Prior to that, it was a little like baseball managers signaling in, you know, the pitch or the steal sign, you had to go through this intricate orchestrated dance of signaling in the personnel, the formation and the play. And obviously, so you didnt look like you were you were out there having an epileptic fit, you had to be as concise as possible. So everything was about verbiage that the players could be signaled in relatively quickly that met these multiple things. And it put a lot on the players to remember, you know, if I signal in waggle right, that means these five different things.

Well, once we got the communicator in, it meant that you could communicate all these things directly. So what used to be I right 22, you know, because that was easy to get in and you expected the players to know the I meant this, right to the tight end for a motion was built in and 22 is an even number and therefore, its a zone play, and therefore, we do - you expected the players to know it. Now, you can send in tiger personnel, I right, Z short, 22 zone, X crack, backside chip. You know, you could tell virtually everybody what to do. And so, we got, you know, kind of drawn into where now the play calling, as you read there out the book, becomes this multiple, you know, foreign-language sounding, multidimensional call that basically tells all 11 players what to do on every single play, and the verbiage can be overwhelming at times.

DAVIES: Now another thing that people will notice when they watch a game is that the coach will have in his hand, like, a big play sheet, maybe laminated for the weather. But that when they actually call the play into their headset, they hold the sheet up so as to hide their mouth. Are you guys really worried about lip readers or something?

Mr. BILLICK: Yeah. We're not a paranoid group, are we?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BILLICK: Because obviously there's a mass infusion of lip reading in the National Football League, which is kind of silly. I think it bore from the standpoint where - from the point that I dont know that anybody can actually read your lips, but what they might be able to glean is whether its a run or pass based on the length of the call.

DAVIES: Uh-huh.

Mr. BILLICK: So again, we are a - tend to be a paranoid group as coaches. So it's almost out of habit now as much as anything. I remember during a game one time, we had a time out and I'm standing there talking to quarterback, and I figure he's blocking off the view from the opponent. So we're just talking about our options and I was calling a particular play. And the guy up in the booth was yelling, coach, you've got to change the play. You've got to change the play. I'm going, what do you mean I've got to change the play? Whats wrong with the play I called? He said they had you up on the JumboTron and they could see every word you were saying on the other sideline.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BILLICK: So, of which after the game obviously, I had a long conversation with our guy that runs the JumboTron a rather one-sided conversation, I might add. But yeah, so we tend to be a little more paranoid with it and probably take it to extremes.

DAVIES: Our guest is Coach Brian Billick. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If youre joining us, we're speaking with Brian Billick. He coached the Baltimore Ravens in 2000 and won a Super Bowl. He's now a commentator for Fox Sports and for the NFL Network.

You know, youve written - you wrote in the book that players and coaches fundamentally are motivated by different things. I mean the coach will be judged on whether or not his team wins. But the player is motivated by the kind of contract they get that will be governed by their individual statistics. So you must have situations where the team is doing well, but a running back or a wide receiver you have isn't getting enough - getting the ball enough and is going to get unhappy. How do you deal with that?

Mr. BILLICK: And that is the toughest scenario because as we talked about in the book, you know, you follow the money. You know, greed is good because it's quite a motivator and that's probably the biggest disconnect between coaches and players. And that's not to say that players dont want to win. Dont get me wrong. But youve got to find the core motivation. At the end of the day, that next contract's going to be dictated by their individual performance. You could lose every single game, but if this kid leads the league in sacks, he's going to get a pretty good contract. And we can have stats up the yazoo and lead the league in offense and defense, but if I dont win enough games, then I'm not going to be around as a coach. So the wins and losses are what dictates my contract and how much money I'm going to make. So there is a bit of a disconnect.

But the scenario youre talking about is very difficult because - and it's very easy to dismiss it, because if youre doing well as a team but you have an individual that's maybe not getting his touches, as we say, its hard for him to publicly complain, because then he just looks selfish. But that doesnt mean privately he's not being bothered by it and he's not emotionally wearing himself out. Because he goes home and he hears from his wife or his girlfriend or his mother or whatever.

DAVIES: Or his agent.

Mr. BILLICK: Or is agent. Heck, how come youre not - how come coach isn't using you more? How come youre not getting this - more that? And you get beat up with it.

DAVIES: It is a violent game and over the course of a season players that aren't injured enough to be taken out of a game do get, you know, bruises and sores and nicks. And I'm wondering how you deal with that as a head coach because there may be situations where players want to play more than they should or dont want to play and you think they can take on more, and how do you, I mean do you give them less practice? Do you make them practice less with pads? Do you make them rest more when they dont want to?

Mr. BILLICK: Well, there's been a renaissance in the league over the last 10, 15 years to where coaches have finally recognized the cumulative hits, the physically demand that these players are under. It used to be old school. I mean I'm old enough, God forbid, we used to - well, dont give them water. That'll prove how tough they are. You know, how stupid is that? I mean there's physiological needs. But that was the mentality before. Or we're going to practice in pads every single day and we're just going to be tougher than our opponent. Well, all youre going to do is beat yourself up.

You know, Bill Walsh, who I was with in San Francisco and was probably the originator to a large degree of the concepts that, you know, the body can only take so many hits, an our job, and I remember him constantly telling the coaches, your job, even in training camp, is to get the players to the opening game healthy and fresh. That's job one.

Now, we have a lot of other things weve got to get done. We got to get ready for the games. We got to integrate the offense, the defense. Weve got to get them in physical shape. Weve got to get them in hitting shape. But we need our players to be there healthy and fresh. What good is it if we beat them up in practice to where the less than 100 percent player shows up to play? And that has changed the mentality of coaches to where almost universally in the NFL, by the time you get to midseason, most teams have pulled the pads off, you...

DAVIES: During practice you mean. Not during the game.

Mr. BILLICK: Yeah. You cut down the practice time. I remember when I first got to Minnesota, the legendary Bud Grant, who was known for, you know, no shirt, you know, no long sleeves out in that winter and, you know, the players playing in the elements, and we had, when I just got there they had built a new indoor facility, and I remember Bud Grant telling me, he says, that's the worse thing you could ever do is to practice on that indoor facility. And I'm thinking, well, okay, this is the typical, yeah, you need to be out in the elements and whatever, as you would expect from a Bud Grant up in the Northland. And it was no, no, that's not the reason for it. He says, cold's cold. I dont care if youre used to it or not. Cold is cold. He says, the mistake is that because you can go indoors and in more protected warm environment, youre now going to practice longer than you should in November and December. He says, the best thing for us is it was so cold here, we'd get out there in November and December in Minnesota and you couldnt last more than 45 minutes to an hour so we had to shorten practice, which was better for the players.

DAVIES: I remember you as an emotional coach. I mean you had a lot to say and I think you write in the book that you were fined $75,000 over the years for comments that you made to the media. Are you a calmer man now?

Mr. BILLICK: I'm a little - I'm poorer. That's for sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BILLICK: By about 75,000 - that'll get your attention now. You know, part of it is, and I truly believe that your fans and your players need to know that this is important to you. It's one thing to have a cool demeanor, which you need to have and it always need to be calculated to a certain degree. But as coaches, football coaches, we dont have home plate to kick dirt on, like baseball managers. At some point the fans need to see you upset, defending their honor, defending your team. The players need to see you defending them, so to speak. And that emotion, you know, you expect them to be emotional; always under control, but emotional. But you do learn that you need to temper it a little bit. Certainly I've said my fair share of stupid things that have shown up in a way that you dont fully appreciate until you do become a head coach. You dont realize how many people are looking at you and how that organization, that city, your players react to you as the head coach. It's something you have to learn as a head coach.

DAVIES: Well, can you recall one of those things that got you fined that...

Mr. BILLICK: Oh, well, typically it had to do with criticisms of official. I'm not a big fan of replay and I remember I - after one particular replay that I did not think was appropriate...

DAVIES: That's where the officials will look at video and sometimes overturn a call on the field...

Mr. BILLICK: Correct. Theyll review it on the film and they do this dog and pony show and go and look at this peep show booth and come out and tell you they were right or wrong. And after the game and it was a game we won. And I said, you know, again, I dont know what and I think Johnny Grier was the official that did the particular review and it did not go the way that - then you look at the film and in your opinion its wrong. I said after the game, I said I dont know what Johnny's doing when he's looking in that little peep hole booth. For all I know, he's looking at pictures of his grandkids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BILLICK: Because he couldnt have been looking at the play because it was wrong. Well, the league didnt want to hear that and fined me for it, so you know, and rightfully so. Theyve got to make sure that the officials can operate within a safe environment, so to speak. You dont have the right to be demeaning or to belittle someone. And the official's pretty usually good at it. They're going to let you kind of go off to a certain degree, but then they realize when you reach that point and theyll give you that look that okay, if you want to go beyond this then there's going to be repercussions. But if you'll stop now everything's cool. And you'll learn to play that game a little bit better as a head coach the longer youre the head coach and the more fines youve paid.

DAVIES: Our guest is Coach Brian Billick.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If youre joining us, we're speaking with Brian Billick. He coached the Baltimore Ravens in 2000 and won a Super Bowl. He's now a commentator for Fox Sports and for the NFL Network.

I read that in the 2000 season - which was your championship run - that during the season you forbade players from using the words playoff or Super Bowl, and even fined one of them, Tony Siragusa, for violating it. Is that true?

Mr. BILLICK: Yeah. It was interesting. Keep in mind, when I came to the Baltimore Ravens, they had not had a winning season since their inception. And they had some good football players. They had a number of players that had gone to the Pro Bowl. But I had made it very clear, you know, at some point if youre going to be a team - a good team, a championship team, you got to decide what your priorities are. Is it more important to go to the Pro Bowl or to a Super Bowl? And once we started to get on a run and started to be a team that could think of themselves that way, I wanted to challenge the players that, you know, look, you got to earn the right to think of yourself as a playoff team -to call yourself a playoff team. And until that happens, you know, you haven't earned that yet, so that's the carrot. Go earn the right to be thought of as a playoff team, even to the point - and we had kind of some fun with it, kind of the kangaroo court of, okay, we can't use the word playoff.

Which made it very interesting because as we got close to it, the league, once you become within legitimate striking distance of making the playoffs, allow the organizations, particularly those that have the chance of having a home playoff game, to start selling playoff tickets because administratively, financially, you just need to do that. So I put my organization in a bit of a bind because I forbad the use of the word playoff, and here they had to sell playoff tickets. So they had to come up with, I think they used the term, there's an old "Seinfeld" episode, they made up a term Festivus Maximus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BILLICK: And we kind of had - and that was what we called it because they didnt want to, you know, incur the wrath of the head coach and be fined for using the word playoff. And it was kind of fun. And the players picked up on it. And so when, I think it was, we beat the San Diego Chargers and had a couple games left in the season, actually, and actually qualified for the playoffs, we removed the ban on the P-word because we were now a playoff team.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, if you hadn't spent a hundred hours a week watching film and doing other coaching tasks, you would've known that Festivus was a substitute for Christmas in a "Seinfeld" episode. That's a...

Mr. BILLICK: Well, it served our purpose, so what the heck.

DAVIES: Got a Super Bowl Sunday. What do you expect is going to happen?

Mr. BILLICK: A fascinating game. You know, its going to be a shoot out. It could be a real track meet. Now, having said that, it'll be 6-3 and prove me wrong. But both teams, dynamic offenses, two of the best quarterbacks probably to ever play the game, clearly in Peyton Manning and probably in Drew Brees. This is going to be a shoot out. Could be lots of fun.

DAVIES: And I have to ask you on behalf of many, many friends - when are we ever going to get rid of the Gatorade shower for the coach at the end? How did you feel about that?

Mr. BILLICK: Oh, you dont want to do that. That's very profitable. That pays very well. I got to tell you, that - that shows up on commercials a lot and they got to pay you for that. So as a coach, no, bring it on. Pour that Gatorade on. But it's kind of a traditional thing. How do you get rid of tradition?

DAVIES: You felt it a few times. Did you ever try and dodge it?

Mr. BILLICK: You know what? It was interesting. In our Super Bowl game it was fun because, you know, its rare that you have a chance to really while youre in the moment step aside and realize what's going on, and in the fourth quarter of our Super Bowl XXXV, you knew we were going to win. We had - the game was in hand and so you have a chance to really kind of take it all in. And I remember grabbing Matt Cavanaugh, who was - my offensive coordinator's son Andrew was kind of a ball boy for us, and it's great when you can have the kids around that way, and I grabbed Andrew about the middle of that fourth quarter and I said, and the security guy that was, you know, responsible for me and I said, oh, Andrew, I want you to go around and empty out all the Gatorade buckets okay? And I told the security guy, if I get Gatorade poured on me, youre fired. Okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BILLICK: Youre with me. They both bailed on me immediately. But it -because it is kind of a rite of passage and really something as a coach, although it was cold that night and I really didnt want to get wet. But it was one of those things that you really do, you look back on and you do treasure because it is that rite of passage and signifies something very special.

DAVIES: Well, Brian Billick, thanks do much for joining us.

Mr. BILLICK: Glad to do it.

GROSS: Brian Billick spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Billick won a Super Bowl the second year he coached the Baltimore Ravens. He's now a commentator for Fox Sports and the NFL Network and is the author of the book "More Than a Game."

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