Billick has winner, if he plays it right

July 30, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

Brian Billick attended the Orioles game Saturday. Hung out on Eutaw Street. Mingled with fans. Experienced the energy of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, even in the middle of a disappointing season.

"There shouldn't have been that much excitement," the new Ravens coach said. "There should have been a bunch of people who really didn't care. But they did care. And they were excited."

Now, think about how excited Baltimore will get if Billick coaches as well as he talks, if he can make the Ravens winners in a town where the Colts once were kings.

Billick thinks about it. And Billick can't wait.

He's the new hope on the city's sports landscape, maybe the best hope. And with his first training camp now open in Westminster, he senses that fans are desperate for him to succeed.

The Orioles are struggling. Baltimore isn't in the NBA or NHL. Slipping into his financial-analyst mode, Billick said: "The situation is ripe for us to solidify our place in the marketplace."

To say the least.

All you need to know about Baltimore's battered sports psyche is that Billick is more optimistic than the fans, eager not only for this challenge, but also the next one, trying to elevate expectations rather than temper them.

"The expectations are high, but it's odd. People will tell me how excited they are for the season, but then they very quickly follow up, `We realize it's not going to happen overnight,' " said Billick, the former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator.

"I came from a town where six out of seven years in the playoffs became, `What have you bums done lately?' That was the mentality, for a lot of different, documentable reasons. But they got used to us winning. Six out of seven years in the playoffs wasn't enough. And I understand that mentality, too.

"So, to come into this atmosphere and hear the fans, it's going to be fun to watch their evolution. Hopefully, we can raise their expectations -- not by our rhetoric, but what we can do on the field."

It sounds almost too good to be true, especially in a city that has grown accustomed to disappointment in professional sports.

The Orioles haven't won the World Series since 1983. The Colts left for Indianapolis in 1984. The NFL treated the city and state so shabbily in expansion, we up and stole a team.

Now here's Billick, full of ideas and energy, and the city wonders aloud, "Can he really be this good?" Even in the Ravens' offices, executives ask each other, "Have you seen a flaw?"

The answers will come soon enough, but Billick quickly detected what the NFL suits never understood during expansion -- the city is a sleeping giant, waiting for a reason to wake up the echoes of its past glory.

"I think that core mentality of a football town is still there. I think it's still a little dormant. That 13-year span -- that's a long time," Billick said. "As avid as Cleveland is right now after a three-year break, if that had extended for 13 years, I think you would see certain similarities."

Billick knows that some Colts fans are lost forever, but there is another side. A fan told him recently that the Colts were his team, his father's team and his grandfather's team, but the Ravens were the team of his 8-year-old son.

The exchange excited Billick.

"They've forgiven us for not being the Colts," he said. "They've gotten past that."

And yet, Baltimore is still Baltimore, a parochial town that often leaves outsiders baffled, a major city that sometimes gives the impression that it would rather be Wheeling, W. Va., than Washington, D.C.

"I didn't know what I was coming into in Baltimore," Billick said. "Mistakenly, not knowing the East Coast real well, I kind of thought I was coming into a New York-Philly mentality, which obviously it is not.

"I'm finding people here like to think of themselves as a small big town. Minneapolis was the opposite. They, in wanting to be more of a metropolitan area, were constantly pushing the concept of a big little town -- `We're not Des Moines.' Here, people like the idea that it's a well-kept secret. `Let's keep the big city at bay,' so to speak.

"They're obviously enthusiastic. I know I'm in the full blush of a honeymoon. I'm not naive that it's always going to be this way. Regardless of how you do, even when you're winning, there are going to be people that want you to win a different way."

Billick recalled that when he joined Minnesota in 1992, all the fans wanted was to beat Green Bay and Chicago. Then the Vikings started beating Green Bay and Chicago, and the fans wanted to beat Dallas and San Francisco. The team couldn't do enough.

Many coaches bristle over their inability to fulfill such rising expectations. Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, for one, occasionally voices frustration over his inability to satisfy media and fans.

Billick, however, plans to tell his players: "We are the only ones that can set the agenda, the criteria for what's successful." It's his show and the team's show, not the media's and the fans'.

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