A 9-year tenure with the sweetest start finishes on the sourest note

They wanted to be right. There was just no room for error. So nine years ago, searching for only the second coach in Baltimore Ravens history, team personnel conducted 27 background interviews before finally speaking with the bright, articulate offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. They spoke with players Brian Billick had coached. Men he'd worked alongside. Even the best man at his wedding.

"Coming in, everyone we talked to was just effusive about the type of individual he was, the type of leader, the work ethic, the acumen, every superlative you can imagine," said David Modell, a former Ravens vice president.

Billick flew to town and dined at a downtown steakhouse with Modell, his father, Art, and Ozzie Newsome. The Ravens' brain trust had no doubts: Billick was the perfect man for the job.

And in 1999, that was certainly the case.

As the seasons passed, however, and the pages turn from 2007 to 2008, it's clear that to progress, the Ravens had to part ways with an important piece of their past.

After nine seasons as coach - a Super Bowl ring, four playoff appearances, 80 wins and 64 losses - the Ravens said goodbye yesterday to the best coach the franchise has ever known.

Because of Billick's past success, because of the roots he and his family had planted in the community and because he'd fielded a competitive team most seasons, the decision to dismiss the coach wasn't easy for team owner Steve Bisciotti.

With the exception of a memorable 2006 season that produced a 13-3 record and a stinging playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, the past few years have not prompted many ticker-tape parades through downtown. Billick's teams missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons and managed just one postseason victory since their incredible Super Bowl run in the 2000 season.

Seemingly every weekend since September, the team has found new depths. Trounced by the Cincinnati Bengals. Embarrassed on Monday Night Football versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. Routed by the previously winless Miami Dolphins.

The season mercifully ended Sunday, and the Ravens had no choice. The beatings, the shame, the locker-room backbiting and the team's lack of discipline had snowballed the group into a punch line in football circles, and a franchise-record nine-game losing streak forced Bisciotti's hand. The coach who'd led this team up the NFL's tallest mountain had also guided it back down.

Still, at a news conference yesterday held to announce Billick's firing, a visibly pained Bisciotti complimented his departing coach - and with good reason.

"He gave his heart and soul to this thing, and he gets a disproportionate amount of blame," the owner said.

That's up for debate. Surely, the team had more than its share of injury woes this season, but Billick's decision-making and play calling were nearly as costly.

The weekly Monday-morning quarterbacking made it easy this season to identify Billick's flaws, but as his time with the Ravens officially ends, it's worth remembering that as familiar and frequent as his mistakes and mannerisms might have seemed, 2007 was an atypical season.

Billick will not be remembered around here as a coach who failed. Though his effectiveness found its limits (and his public persona and leadership style distanced him from many), much of Billick's tenure in Baltimore is worth celebrating.

Fans had reason to have high expectations most years. The defense was consistently one of the most feared in the league. He not only managed players with big talent and bigger personalities, but also groomed several coaches for bigger jobs.

And, of course, there was that Super Bowl.

"I want to thank him for everything he's brought Baltimore," Bisciotti said. "Brian made history - Baltimore football history - by bringing a Super Bowl back to Baltimore. All of us who've been here know from our Colts days how few and far between they are."

Billick led the Ravens to the Vince Lombardi Trophy in his second year as coach. He set the bar so high and so quickly that in subsequent years, postseason outcomes inevitably failed to match preseason expectations.

To many, what Billick accomplished in nine seasons would qualify as success. An NFL head coaching job doesn't offer much permanency. The turnover rate is high, and the bad coaches tend to outnumber the good ones. For much of his time in Baltimore, Billick was one of the good ones.

(In fact, Billick had the third-longest tenure of any coach in the league, but before you start shedding tears, remember that he is reportedly walking away with as much as $15 million in his pocket.)

At best, hiring a new coach is a 50-50 proposition. The uncertainty that comes with such a major reshuffling of the deck was certainly a consideration for Bisciotti. But as the owner explained yesterday, and as fans and analysts have been howling for months (in some cases, years), Billick's proper place is in the team's history books, not its plans.

Still, if Bisciotti finds a coaching candidate he thinks might offer success similar to Billick's in these past nine seasons, you can bet he'll jump at it.

Though his time in Baltimore ended on the sourest of notes, Billick's career here will be remembered for the Super Bowl journey, not for a disappointing final season.

"Nothing has compared - and I doubt anything will compare - to that thrilling ride that we took," said David Modell, "and Brian Billick was every bit of the reason that it happened.

"At the end of the day, I think he should be remembered for providing not just the Modells with that, but the entire community, the entire state and all of Ravens nation with a thrill that I hope we'll experience again someday soon."

rick.maese@baltsun.com
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