A steady hand at the helm

The Baltimore Sun

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Through all 18 meetings between the Ravens and the Titans,there has been one constant for Tennessee. Jeff Fisher has been on the sideline.

Fisher has led the Titans and their precursors, the Houston Oilers, as head coach for 14 full seasons and part of one other. That's longer than the Ravens have been in Baltimore. That's longer than any other NFL coach, with the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick a distant second at nine seasons.

Since Fisher took over full time as head coach in 1994 when the team was in Houston, there have been 99 other men who have held the same job elsewhere in the NFL - and counting.

"Things happen fast, they really do," said Fisher, who, at age 50, is still relatively young to be the dean of NFL coaches. "Bill [Cowher] made a decision a couple of years ago to get out, and Mike [Shanahan] is out. There's been a lot of change. Really, I'm just consumed by the next game. That's what motivates me."

Since the team relocated to Tennessee 12 years ago, Fisher has had just three losing seasons and taken his team to the playoffs five times, including a trip to the Super Bowl after the 1999 season when the Titans fell short by a yard to the St. Louis Rams. This season, they're the AFC South champions and the conference's top seed as they prepared to play the Ravens on Saturday at LP Field.

Fisher's early head coaching years were marked by constant change, including the franchise move itself and playing in four home stadiums in three cities, Houston, Memphis and now Nashville.

Interestingly, the Titans' coach said that all the turmoil might have actually bought him some time that more recently hired coaches might not get to enjoy, especially now that the Ravens' John Harbaugh, Miami Dolphins' Tony Sparano and Atlanta Falcons' Mike Smith have turned those teams around in a single season.

"I think history shows that over the last 10, 12 years, there's been a lot less patience with coaches. Mr. [Bud] Adams was patient because of our unique circumstances," Fisher said, referring to the Titans' owner. "That was the first year of the salary cap and there were a lot of things going on. Now the system is working ... we're using free agency. In light of what's happened this year, there may be less and less patience because we've have such great impact by the three new coaches."

Fisher, who played college football at Southern California, maintains a laid-back demeanor. He doesn't make a habit of crashing on his office couch as well-known NFL workaholics Dick Vermeil and Joe Gibbs used to do.

"It makes no sense to make a decision after 10 or 11 o'clock at night ... and then change your mind the next morning," Fisher said. "It's not a contest to see who can get here earlier and stay later, it's just get your work done."

But while Fisher might be laid-back, his teams have always played with an intensity and style that mirrored the Ravens' - a rugged defense and a power running game. Before realignment, the two teams played in the AFC Central.

The result was a rivalry characterized by some verbal zingers that former Ravens coach Brian Billick tossed at Fisher and, more obviously, by the brutal clashes on the field. So far each team has won nine games in the regular season and playoffs combined.

"Since the realignment, the intensity has lessened a little bit, but the memories are still there," Fisher said. "But there are so few players around who really understand. But they were great matchups and great rivalries and great battles."

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