Putting It Into Practice


IN AN elegant upstairs ballroom at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, Brian Billick is speaking to a rapt audience from First Financial Group, most of whom seem to be thinking the same thought:

When I die, I want to come back as a Super Bowl-winning coach.

At the podium, Billick looks like his days of buying off-the-rack are long gone: A rich-looking charcoal suit draped over his 6-foot-5 frame falls just so at the cuffs and heels.

On a table to his right is the gleaming Vince Lombardi Trophy, which half of Baltimore has touched since the Ravens brought it home from Tampa in January. On the big screen to his left, they've just shown an introductory film of the Ravens coach so stirring that if it were Billick vs. O'Malley for mayor in this room right now, the Irish guy gets crushed.

Clearly, when you win the Super Bowl, doors don't just open for you. People will bulldoze entire buildings to bask in your aura.

But standing now before 255 heavy-hitting business people, Billick wants them to know it hasn't all been a cakewalk since the Ravens whacked the Giants four months ago.

He wants to allude to the pressure that comes with his job now. He doesn't want people feeling sorry for him - no, that's not it at all. But he wants them to know about the burden of great expectations that can weigh down an NFL coach like a piano tied to his back.

So he trots out a story he's been using on the banquet circuit this spring.

After the team's post-Super Bowl party in their Tampa hotel, he tells the audience, he finally returned to his room in the wee hours of the morning, showered, changed and went downstairs for his 7:30 a.m. news conference with the national media.

"First question they ask me," Billick tells the audience, "is: 'Can you repeat?' "

He pauses for moment to let it sink in.

"Can you believe that?!" he roars. "I've only had the [trophy] 12 hours! And they're already asking me if we can do it again!"

The audience laughs and nods knowingly.

A guy at the next table whispers: "I'd still trade places with him."

Everyone nods at this, too.

A few hours earlier, relaxing in the hotel's lobby bar, Billick talks about how his life has changed since "Super Bowl-winning coach" became permanently affixed to his name.

A trip to the convenience store now takes 35 minutes as he wades through knots of well-wishers and autograph-seekers.

His price for speaking engagements has jumped to $25,000 a pop (although First Financial booked this gig last year and got him at his pre-Super Bowl price).

And he's also coming out with a motivational book, due in stores later this month, which is the main reason I've been following him around like a stalker.

The book is called "Competitive Leadership: Twelve Principles for Success" (Triumph Books, $24.95), co-written with James A. Peterson, a sports-book guru. (Half of Billick's profits will go to the Baltimore-based Living Classrooms Foundation, a non-profit educational program for disadvantaged and at-risk youth.)

Leadership, Billick says, is something that's fascinated him his whole life. For years he's devoured books on the subject, among them John Wooden's "Beyond Success: The 15 Secrets to Effective Leadership and Life," Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski's "Leading with the Heart," and Noel M. Tichy's "The Leadership Engine: How Winning Companies Build Leaders at Every Level."

"No matter where I go and who I talk to, the qualities of leadership seem to be what people are most interested in," Billick says. "However you term it - decision-making, crisis-management, team-building, goal-setting - these are all elements of leadership."

Billick says he's been collecting inspirational quotes - this is a guy who could work Mark Twain, Sun Tzu and Vince Lombardi into the same sentence - and gathering research material on leadership for years. He says he actually started putting the book in place his first season with the Ravens, in 1999.

"When I took this job, I [thought] 'I'm gonna win me a Super Bowl,' " he says. "And I want to be ready [with a book] when I do."

Actually, Billick and Peterson were considering launching the book even if the Ravens' storybook season had ended with the AFC title. But as soon as the Ravens won the NFL championship, it was a no-brainer; again, there's nothing like slapping "Super Bowl-winning coach" atop a book jacket, especially if it's a motivational book.

At this point in the conversation, I feel compelled to point out to Billick that the bookstores are bursting with motivational books. You could wallpaper an entire sub-division with the contents of the self-help section in one Barnes & Noble alone.

So how's your book different from all the other motivational junk on the market? I ask.

"Most people who are pro-active, assertive, goal-setters, goal-oriented, when they pick up any self-help book ... there's a part of them that goes: 'This is just common sense,' " Billick says. "But I've also found, to steal a line from Steven R. Covey" - this would be the best-selling author of "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" - "that what's common sense isn't always common practice...."Yeah, this [book] is common sense. But until I stood on that podium [after the Super Bowl], holding that Lombardi trophy, like every coach, it's all theory. You believe in it, you think you know it, you espouse teamwork, you espouse unity, you espouse family, you believe in your heart that those are the keys to success, that that's the key to leadership.

"But until there's a defining moment for you ... like standing on the podium holding the Lombardi trophy, it's all theory."

I'm hardly an expert on motivational books. But a real strength of the book, it seems to me, is the way Billick relates his leadership principles to the speed bumps the Ravens encountered on the way to the Super Bowl.

In a chapter titled "Be Prepared," he writes that a leader must adapt, then ticks off all the ways the Ravens were forced to adapt last season: the murder indictment of their best player, linebacker Ray Lewis; a first-half schedule that included 5 of 7 games on the road; a three-game losing streak; a five-game run without scoring a touchdown.

In a chapter on communication skills, he writes: "One of the film clips I used in my first year with the Ravens was a scene from "The Fugitive" with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. Early in the movie, Ford's character [the fugitive] was holding a gun on Jones, who played a U.S. marshal who was pursuing Ford.

"A very tense moment occurred in the film when Ford, in an impassioned voice, said: 'I didn't kill my wife.' Jones, looking down the barrel of the gun, looked up without flinching and responded: 'I don't care!'

"The message I was trying to convey in showing that clip to my players was that Jones' singular purpose was to hunt down and capture Ford. The fact that Ford was innocent was of no consequence to Jones. He was going to do his job regardless of the facts."

Whew. If you're a football player, I don't know if you listen to something like that, stand up and slam the guy next to you into his locker.

But it says something about single-mindedness, all right.

One week later, I'm sitting in a ballroom at the Pier 5 Hotel, where Billick is addressing a gathering of Deutche Banc Alex. Brown employees, some of whom have flown in from all over the country.

Billick has been talking for about 45 minutes to another spell-bound audience. It's time to wrap things up.

But he wants to leave these go-getters with a message, something about how single-mindedness pays off in the end, something about how applying these principles of leadership and problem-solving and goal-setting has an ultimate reward, if you work your tail off, too.

So he tells them another little story.

After the Ravens thumped the favored Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship game, he says, he climbed giddily aboard the team bus and, as is his ritual, pulled out the cell phone and called home.

His wife, Kim, picked up and immediately started weeping with joy. His youngest daughter, Keegan, got on the phone next and started crying, too, "mainly because she sees her mother crying, so she figures she has to cry."

"Then," Billick continues, "the 17-year-old [Aubree] gets on the phone. And as cool as the other side of the pillow, she says: 'Dad, we made a lot of money today, didn't we?' "

Brian Billick smiles.

The audience laughs and nods knowingly.

In front of them, in another immaculately tailored suit, stands the very embodiment of success. And in this room, that plays very well, indeed.

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