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When Brian Billick was hired by the Ravens in 1999, he seemed to fit the stereotype of what NFL general managers were looking for in a head coach. He had been working in the league for nearly two decades and had been offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings for six seasons.

He was 44 years old and considered one of the game's up-and-coming coaching stars.

When Billick looks across the field at M&T; Bank Stadium Sunday afternoon during his team's 2007 home opener, he will see what many consider to be the face of the NFL's coaching future. Not necessarily that of New York Jets coach Eric Mangini, but what league executives will be looking for to fill future vacancies.

A year ago, Mangini was hired by the Jets two days before his 35th birthday, taking a team many considered among the worst in the league to a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance. What Mangini did certainly opened the doors for other thirtysomething coaches to enter this elite company.

Earlier this year, the Oakland Raiders made Southern California offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin the youngest head coach in modern NFL history at age 31, a day after the Pittsburgh Steelers introduced Vikings first-year defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, 34, as their head coach.

While three hires among 32 teams might not qualify as a definite trend, it could be the direction the NFL is headed in finding its next generation of head coaches. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said last week age is a meaningless stat in measuring a coaching candidate's potential.

"You look for a guy that can be a leader, and I don't think you put a number on that," Newsome said.

Billick, now 53, certainly noticed what Mangini, a defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots for three years under Bill Belichick, did in his inaugural season as a head coach. Mangini had been in the NFL for 12 years, starting out as a 23-year-old ballboy when Belichick coached the Browns.

"Anytime a first-year coach has that kind of success, you have to be impressed with how quickly he transitioned into that," Billick said. "There's a lot to learn. I don't care who you are or what your background is, there's a lot of on-the-job training and they obviously learned very quickly. I don't think I would have been ready at that age."

What does Billick remember about his first season with the Ravens?

"Just how fast it went, and how unprepared you really are for the myriad things that come at you," said Billick, whose team went 8-8 after it was 6-10 the previous year under Ted Marchibroda. "You've got to be very, very good with time management. Things can get away from you if you're not well organized."

Consistency

Mangini agrees. He heard the same thing from a number of coaches for whom he had worked - everyone from Bill Parcells to Marchibroda, who hired Mangini as a quality-control assistant during the team's first season in Baltimore - about how he should approach going from an assistant to being the head coach.

"The message was consistent - one thing you can expect is the schedule to change day to day, the challenges to change each day; there's going to be five things that come up that you haven't planned for," Mangini said earlier this week. "You have to deal with those things. The flexibility is so important."

He looks at all the positions he held as preparation for becoming an NFL head coach.

"To me, I wouldn't trade that process for anything," said Mangini, who worked for the Jets previously as an assistant under the legendary Bill Parcells. "I feel like I have a good sense of all the different things that go into making a team successful organizationally."

Age has never come into the equation.

"It's something I'm used to, I've always been the young guy, except when I was the ballboy and I was working with 15- and 16-year-olds," he said. "I learned that if guys realize that you're giving them a chance to be successful, they're going to respond to that whether you're 35 or 23 or 70."

Newsome met Mangini when both worked in Cleveland - Newsome as a special assistant to owner Art Modell and Mangini as a public relations assistant under current Ravens vice president Kevin Byrne - but the Ravens general manager and the Jets coach worked extensively together during Mangini's one season in Baltimore.

"He was a football junkie," Newsome said of Mangini. "He was very bright. He had an unbelievable work ethic and he was a fun guy to be around."

Ravens kicker Matt Stover also knew Mangini in Cleveland, where Mangini's relationship with Belichick helped kick-start his coaching career. Mangini would become a defensive coordinator under Belichick when Romeo Crennel left to coach the Browns.

Knows the system

"I respect a man who is willing to start from the bottom, was willing to do what was necessary, go about his business very well and look at him now," Stover said. "The system he has learned from Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells, I think he's come out to be a very well-prepared head coach."

Billick knew that, when he became an assistant in Minnesota and later as a head coach, that he had more to prove than others because his resume didn't include playing in the NFL.

"Former players make great coaches because the players will respond very readily," said Billick, whose playing career ended as an honorable mention All-American tight end at BYU. "But you've got to follow it up with your work. When you come in at that age, you're tested day by day, week by week. They're looking to see whether you're competent and whether you can lead us."

Said veteran Ravens tackle Jonathan Ogden, who was a rookie the year Mangini spent in Baltimore: "You earn your respect with your knowledge of the game and how you coach it. I don't care if you played or didn't play. If you bring a good philosophy about how your team should run, you could have come from the post office for all I care."

With the hiring of Kiffin, Mangini and Tomlin, there is an interesting dynamic of coaches being close in age to, or even younger than, some of their players. Three members of the Raiders are older than Kiffin and several others are within a year or two of their coach.

Stover recalls when Belichick took over in Cleveland at age 38 in 1991, veteran linebacker Clay Matthews was 33.

'It's the position'

"I asked Clay how that was and he said, 'I don't have any problem with authority,'" said Stover, now 39. "If you have an issue with authority and you put age along with that, then it becomes an issue. To me, it's not necessarily the person, but it's the position of authority he's been granted and I have to respect that position."

Though it is unlikely to happen, Ogden said he could have played for someone younger than himself.

"If you approach it the right way, sure, I could play for someone like Lane Kiffin," Ogden said. "I'm sure I'd rather play for him than some of the older guys. I wouldn't want to play for a Bill Parcells or a Tom Coughlin, those old school guys."

Where does Billick fit in?

Of the 32 current head coaches, 25 are between the ages of 40 and 59. Only four are 60 or older. But even though Billick is closer in age to Coughlin, the 61-year-old who coaches the New York Giants, than Tomlin, Billick's approach is more New Age, learned at the knee of the legendary Bill Walsh in San Francisco where Billick, like Mangini, started out in public relations.

"I would consider [Billick] an old school guy, but ahead of the curve with his style," said Stover, who is in his 18th NFL season. "The new generation of player can very well be integrated into his style because of his adaptability to get into this locker room and gain the respect that is necessary.

Newsome said that as other NFL general managers start looking for coaches down the road, a candidate's knowledge of the game is only one aspect.

"It's the profile. You're looking for a CEO," Newsome said. "You're asking whether a 34- or 35-year-old can be a CEO of a major corporation. Why not, if he has those types of talents and gained that type of experience?"

don.markus@baltsun.com

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