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Billick reverse would be a big play

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Ravens were into the third day of their second minicamp when coach Brian Billick let loose. He yelled, screamed, dropped some expletives and then ordered the Ravens to run.

And run, and run, and run.

As his temper flared, and the growl came upon his face, he looked like the old Billick when he first came to Baltimore in 1999. But was this part of the new Billick, or just Billick having a bad day?

With about five weeks left before training camp, Billick remains as much of an intriguing story as Ray Lewis returning from a major injury, or Steve McNair gaining a fresh start. Shortly after last season, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti ordered Billick to change his abrasive management style in 2006, or find employment elsewhere.

Now, we're about to see what happens.

No owner ever gave Tom Landry, Vince Lombardi or Don Shula such an ultimatum. New England coach Bill Belichick would have told owner Robert Kraft to take a hike, and then would have taken one himself if Kraft ever gave such an order. But Billick, despite the public flogging and embarrassment, stayed.

Now, can he reinvent himself? Will the changes be subtle or obvious? Does he still have enough credibility left with his players to be an effective leader? "One thing that is certain, age won't be a factor," said J. Kevin Eckert, Ph.D., dean of Erickson School of Aging Studies at UMBC. "People are always changing and reinventing themselves regardless of their age. You can have an alcoholic, who decides to get counseling; that's a change. There's the 80-year-old who has lost most of their family members in death, but still has a good life. That's a change.

"The scenario with the Ravens and Brian Billick is fascinating, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out," Eckert said. "First, though, you have to have the shock, and either the person throws up their hands and says I'm out of here, or they say maybe I need to take a look at myself."

Either the money was too good to walk away from, or Billick took a look in the mirror. It's way too early to judge Billick, but some employees at the Ravens' training complex said he was humble for about two weeks after Bisciotti's news conference, and then the new Billick was the same as the old Billick. But several players have said Billick has at least tried to become more personable.

It's fascinating to watch this unfold because Billick's strengths are his weaknesses. He's intelligent, engaging, organized, confident and extremely successful. But he can also be arrogant, condescending and stubborn. That's the Billick who often appeared at the team's training complex.

Which Billick characteristics will dominate in 2006? "There are people who believe that they are successful because of a certain way they have presented themselves, and they are comfortable with that," Eckert said. "They have this type of behavior, and at a certain time in their lives, believe I am who I am, and you can take it or leave it.

"Then there are others who believe they have gotten where they are, but take the time to reflect, and are willing to make a change for the better. I believe that Brian is a very smart and intelligent man. He has been successful and I think he is willing enough to take a step back, use his resources, make adjustments, and do what is needed for him to continue to be successful."

Other coaches have changed their management styles, but only after they moved on. Tom Coughlin had an abrasive style in Jacksonville, and was hated by his players, but he has toned it down the past two years in New York with the Giants. There may not have been a more miserable, nasty, ornery and foul-mouthed coach on the planet than Belichick when he was with the Cleveland Browns from 1991 through 1995. He can still pump out the expletives, but a lot of the paranoia is gone, and the relationship with his players has improved significantly.

But there are some die-hards who won't change. Jim Mora never changed with New Orleans and later Indianapolis. San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer will never change and neither will Seattle's Mike Holmgren. Dallas' Bill Parcells? Don't even think about it.

You knew that Billick would hit this crossroads in his career. After seven seasons, sometimes the message gets old. He often talks at players, but not to them. He has to find a way to get on their level. Plus, he has the reputation of being a players' coach. That was fine when the Ravens won the Super Bowl in January 2001 and made playoff appearances in the 2001 and 2003 seasons.

But the Ravens haven't made the playoffs the past two seasons including a 6-10 record last season when team officials thought they could make a serious Super Bowl run. Billick hasn't changed his style, but his players are younger than the group he had when he first got here. Guys like Tony Siragusa, Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett wanted rings more than money. They could miss practice and still play at a high level.

These Ravens talk more about the money. They see Billick as "soft" when he moves practice indoors because it's either too hot or cold or it rains or snows. The Ravens could become a haven for over-the-hill veteran players who are aware of his light-hitting training camps and practice sessions late in the season.

In a sense, Billick has also been hurt by the team's change in ownership and move to newer practice facilities in Owings Mills. At the old place, space was tight, which forced interaction among players, the media, the owner and front office staff. Everyone was usually cordial. In The Palace, there is so much room that it's easy for people to become isolated, especially a coach from players. Former Ravens majority owner Art Modell promoted a family-type atmosphere while Bisciotti is totally corporate.

It's just so different.

Somehow, Billick has to get that magic back. What worked earlier this decade won't work anymore.

Billick has to reinvent himself while at the same time breathe new life into an organization. Can he do it? Who knows, but it's just as big as anything the Ravens might do on the field in 2006.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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