TAMPA, Fla. - The world met Brian Billick this week. And the world doesn't quite know what to make of him.
As if the rest of the NFL does. Or the people in Baltimore, for that matter.
You can paint Billick with a single stroke only in the most obvious sense, that he has succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams in getting the Ravens to the Super Bowl in just his second year as an NFL head coach.
But beyond that, trying to paint him with a single stroke is impossible. He is different things to different people, a human kaleidoscope. You just can't sum him up simply.
Baltimore fans see him in clear terms, as the coach who has put the city back on the NFL map. The front office sees him as a low-key, organized, meticulous and thoroughly modern football CEO who is plugged in to the Internet, planned his Super Bowl itinerary in December and never stops churning his mental gears.
His rivals aren't quite as admiring, not sure what to make of his unfiltered public swagger. The Tennessee organization certainly didn't mind embarrassing him with a video on the scoreboard before the Titans-Ravens playoff game. More than a few league observers can't wait to see him eat some humble pie.
The sporting press sees him as a willing, arrogant and feisty subject, a guy who once worked in publicity and knows how to play the media game, but also knows it isn't that important in the end. He'll tell you how to do your job, an annoying quality in anyone. But he also can laugh at himself and the image he knows he portrays.
When a 12-year-old doing Super Bowl reporting for the Nickelodeon cable channel asked him a question, he shot back, "Let me ask you a question: Do you also think I'm arrogant?"
Then, in answering a question about Ravens personnel man Ozzie Newsome yesterday, he said, "He has no ego, which is good because it balances out with me."
But if his ego is so out of control, why did he forgo his beloved, self-serving, pass-at-any-cost blueprint when it became clear the Ravens were better off running the ball? And why did he let the players take over the locker room with their music when he wanted it another way?
"The guy adjusts," Ravens safety Rod Woodson said. "We have so many colorful individuals, a loose team, and last year we'd be in [the] locker room listening to music and he'd say, `Shhh, cut it off. I want headphones on.' This year, we had music blasting before the second or third game and then we went out and won, and he said, `OK, you guys can do what you want to do. I'm going to let you be who you are.' He adapted to us."
His players, whose opinions matter most, see him as a fast talker who treats them like men and expects professional behavior in return, the rare coach willing to make himself a target of criticism so his players won't have to deal with it.
He might love it when he becomes the story, as he did when he chastised the media for its coverage of the Ray Lewis saga earlier this week, but there's always an ulterior motive. He's taking the focus off the players, striving to bring them together and driving home "it's us against the world" - even if that's not true.
No, the offense he was hired to orchestrate hasn't materialized, and because the major-domo of the defense is Marvin Lewis, there's the inevitable question: Where, exactly, is the tangible evidence he has helped the Ravens get this far? (Better check the batteries in your tape recorder before you ask that question, guaranteed to set him off.)
But, of course, his impact has been varied and huge; he runs the show in many ways, lording over the offense, picking the coaches and, most importantly, calibrating the tone in the locker room. Even though he was hired to design an offense to get the Ravens to the Super Bowl, he has gotten there because of his ability to relate to - and motivate - his players. That's no easy feat, a middle-aged, white-guy authority figure getting a team composed mostly of young African-Americans not just to agree with him, but also to bleed for him. Billick has done it. "He's like a sneaky guy, a psychologist, the way he gets you to play for him," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "He doesn't have bed checks, so he's treating you like a man. He never embarrasses you in front of your peers. He'll always talk to you privately when he wants to correct something. And he'll talk big in the papers, stick his neck out there."
What's a player not to love?
"It's a totally different atmosphere from when Ted [Marchibroda] was the coach," linebacker Peter Boulware said. "He's brought a totally different mentality. When Ted was there, it was like, `You go to work. You go to practice.' With Billick, it's like when you're young and you're playing football. You're not going to practice anymore, you're getting up to play football; you enjoy doing it, you love doing it, you look forward to doing your job. He's brought passion to it. He's made us that way. And that's what makes us special."
That's easy to fathom, unlike anything else about the Ravens' glib, confident, mercurial - and successful - coach.
"I've been in the league 14 years and heard a bit of everything," Woodson said. "I had Chuck Noll, a philosopher quoting books. I had Bill Cowher spitting in the meetings. I had Steve Mariucci in San Francisco, a laid-back California guy. Billick is into philosophy and poetry and stuff, and he brings in his movie clips to show us. He's a talker. But he's the perfect coach for this team. And on the bottom line, he's done a wonderful job of keeping us focused."