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THE LIFE OF KINGS

Shakespearean personality to be missed

On Brian Billick

April 12, 2008|By KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG

You know what? I'm not ashamed to say it. No disrespect to John Harbaugh, but I'm going to miss Brian Billick. Not Billick the play-caller or Billick the strategist.

Like most, I had my fill of those. It's probably the case that I'll never watch a Ravens wide receiver catch a 6-yard pass on third-and-seven again without thinking of Billick, on the sideline, looking on in dismay. And I'm not sure I'll ever believe that the decision to get rid of Trent Dilfer after the Super Bowl was about anything other than ego.

But I will miss the man who was on display Thursday at Towson University, speaking to a communications class about standing at the crossroads of life. Billick, according to the story written by one of my colleagues, Don Markus, was funny and biting, full of bombast at times, yet contemplative and ruminative at others. He was even humbled when he told the story of his recent trip to Iraq, where he met with U.S. soldiers, some of them who weren't even old enough to buy a beer.

I always felt the public misunderstood the media's relationship with Billick, with his defenders believing that reporters or columnists hated him and assuming we couldn't stand his arrogance and bluster. Although I never covered Billick on a daily basis, and I can't speak for every member of the media, I always loved the Shakespearean character that was Brian Billick. That didn't mean I thought he was a great coach; it just meant I thought he was never dull, which is really all we ask for when we cover someone.

When I read that Billick is contemplating taking a media job, it made me smile. This, after all, was a man who once smugly told reporters after Elvis Grbac led the Ravens to a surprise last-minute victory: "That's why coaches coach, players play and writers write."

This philosophy of absolutes does not extend, apparently, to becoming a network talking head - he's reportedly going to help the NFL Network with its draft coverage - but that's OK. Because while watching Billick contradict himself over the years might have been maddening at times for the fans, I always thought it was fascinating. Did Billick really believe half the stuff he was saying? Was he full of complexities and nuance? Or was he just skilled enough at the art of bullying that it didn't matter what was true and what was bluster?

I always believed Billick's defining moment, the one that caused so many media people to turn on him forever (especially the national media), was actually an act of brilliance disguised as arrogance. It might not have even been intentional on Billick's part, but I think it was. It came before the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., when Billick gave his now infamous lecture about how the media weren't "qualified" to retry Ray Lewis' double-murder trial.

Billick knew he couldn't control what the media were going to write about or talk about, especially at the Super Bowl. But he needed, if only for a moment, to take the heat off Lewis and remind his team that the country, at least outside of Baltimore, was rooting against them. My friends and I still laugh whenever one of us shouts out snippets of Billick's "You're not qualified!" speech. It was his Mercutio moment, casting a plague on all of our houses.

It worked, though. For one day, all the focus was on what an insufferable blowhard Billick was, and not that Lewis had been involved in an altercation that resulted in a double homicide at the previous Super Bowl. It says a lot about Billick and Lewis that Billick stood there that day and took all those arrows for Lewis, and Lewis still ripped the coach's play-calling years later on his radio show when the Ravens' ship was sinking.

It was a double-edged sword though, because over the years, Billick ended up leaning on the "you foolish media" crutch a few too many times to explain away the Ravens' on-field bumbling. And the end, you could tell his heart wasn't even in it the way he would mumble through brief post-game news conferences, then take a quick dig at the supposed expertise of any reporter who tried to assess what he had witnessed.

Right or wrong, it was always interesting. Very few media members, if any, took it personally. He was always fascinating, even when he was blowing kisses at opposing players. It was always better than having a complete bore for a coach. Media from other cities often told us they wished that had someone like Billick to cover.

Now that he's contemplating joining our ranks, even if it's only temporary, we promise to welcome him with open arms. Yes, coaches are supposed to coach, players are supposed to play, and writers are supposed to write, but we won't try to tell Billick he's "not qualified."

We only ask that he be interesting, just as he always was.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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