Longtime friendship could pave short ride to success

February 05, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

JIM FASSEL AND Brian Billick were sitting side by side. NFL Network cameras were ready to roll for an interview of the league's most unique pairing this side of Justin and Janet - with far better odds of appearing in future Super Bowls.

In fact, Billick and Fassel don't believe it's far-fetched to consider that this time, as in the Super Bowl next year in Jacksonville, the two former Super Bowl opponents will be on the same team.

Fassel wouldn't mind. On a TV monitor where Fassel and Billick watched as they waited for their on-air cue, the NFL Network replayed highlights of the Ravens' 34-7 Super Bowl win over the Giants. "Hey, what are we doing here? I've already seen this," Fassel groaned.

Luckily, it wasn't long before the NFL Network cameraman got his cue that they were about to go live, so a request was made to Billick and Fassel: "Can you two move a little closer?"

Now there's a question.

As the latter-day Butch and Sundance, Billick and Fassel are teaming up for what the pair says is a one-season consultation gig. For Billick, there's always the chance that his Super Bowl superiority will give him license to ultimately reject Fassel's advice.

In that case, maybe Fassel will decide to play golf and take his wife out to dinner every night of the week. But this is all about a friend helping a friend.

Billick and Fassel go back to 1979, when they met at a Palo Alto cocktail party. Talk about ties that bind. Talk about fertile primordial ooze for the genesis of a long-standing coaching friendship.

Fassel was at Stanford. Billick was with the 49ers. Bill Walsh and all that West Coast offense, quarterbacking guru stuff got in their veins and they liked to discuss it, keep up with each other. Billick went onto Utah State while Fassel coached at Utah.

But in the past month, after Fassel was fired by the Giants and then got aced out in Washington by the return of Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, Billick had his opening to enlist a trusty co-conspirator.

"I'd love to help him," Fassel said.

From all indications, Billick understands the dynamics of this newfangled arrangement: The Ravens need Jim Fassel more than Jim Fassel needs the Ravens.

With their anemic offensive schemes and worst-rated passing game in the NFL, the Ravens could not enter 2004 without a major change - not if the franchise didn't again want to waste one of the league's best defenses.

That Billick is beholden to offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh as well as quarterbacks coach David Shaw made it unlikely that any change would take place at those positions. Instead, Billick was presented with a rare opportunity to make an addition without having to make a subtraction.

"On the offensive side of the ball, we needed to take that next step," Billick said, adding: "I think Matt Cavanaugh, Brian Shaw and Brian Billick will all be better coaches by having Jim Fassel around."

There's reason to view this arrangement as win-win for Fassel and the Ravens. Fassel should help sophomore QB Kyle Boller nail down his fundamentals the way he helped John Elway, Boomer Esiason, Jeff Hostetler and Kerry Collins. Billick needs to turn Boller - that major draft-day investment - over to a professional.

But is this a one-year wonder experiment at the expense of installing a longer-range plan to bolster the Ravens' offense? Billick is adamant that in the NFL today, you can and must add pieces on a one-year basis. He talks about family and team, but says everyone in the business understands "family" only has to work from July through the end of January before you start over anyway.

"Mike Nolan's going to be a head coach one day. Does that mean he can't help us win a Super Bowl this season?" Billick said.

Likewise, Billick showed impatience for the idea that Fassel or any coach can instantly reinvent the Ravens' offense.

"The people who expect that are the same people who are mistaking that there's some magic formula or some intuitive genius who's going to step in and make all the right calls. Productivity stems from being fundamentally sound. There is no magic. If there was a system that provided that we'd all be running them," he said.

Well, maybe everyone will be surprised - even Billick. Unless Fassel betrays his own competitiveness, he's likely to challenge Billick in ways that no one else in the Ravens' organization has been able or willing to do.

And unless Billick is merely paying lip service to his own enlightened ideals of friendship and personal growth and the need for the Ravens to get better fast, then he better be ready to listen to his respected friend.

"When you are a head coach in New York City, it's like no other experience. Not only because of our friendship [is Fassel here], but because Jim has sat in that chair and he knows what you're going through. That's invaluable," Billick said.

Not to mention a bonus, even for a media-savvy coach who needs no foil.

"I don't know if I told you. Jim will be doing news conferences when we lose. I'll do them when we win," Billick said.

If it works the way Butch and Sundance hope, Billick will be doing a lot of talking.

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