Proverbs 29:18 says: ‘Where there is no vision the people perish.’ I guess that’s why I feel like we stuck to the vision and the team grew into it.”
– John Harbaugh (March 2013)
IT WASN’T EXACTLY A RESTFUL sleep for Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick on the night of Dec. 30, 2007, but the 27-21 home victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier that evening snapped a dismal nine-game losing streak to end the season on some semblance of a bright note and his agenda for beginning 2008 was clear after a disastrous 5-11 finish in a season that was steeped in promise with a 4-2 start.
Earlier that week, Billick sat for hours with Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and General Manager Ozzie Newsome, as he frequently had, reviewing and evaluating the state of the Baltimore Ravens roster and future. After the final game with Pittsburgh, he visited emeritus owner and founder Art Modell in his box at the stadium feeling good about defeating the Ravens’ arch rival and snapping a nine-game losing streak to finish 2007 with a modicum of success and a hint of some future achievement.
The long, exhausting season was over, but while December 31, 2007 wasn’t officially 2008 just yet, Billick’s sleep deprivation had to do more with future planning than a future canning. He had repeatedly been told his job was safe during the agonizing losing streak and the team’s public relations machine moved earlier in the month to announce publicly that Billick wasn’t going to be fired. He was “safe.” Plus, he was only concluding the first of a four-year, $24 million contract he signed after the 2006 Ravens went 13-3, but suffered a tough loss to the Indianapolis Colts during the playoffs.
Yet, on what is always known around the NFL as “Black Monday” for its many coaching staff firings, many sports media outlets were still speculating about the state of Billick’s job security.
At 8:40 a.m., during a 25-minute phone call, he was insistent that his job security was, well, secure. Billick was always candid, always painfully honest and up-until-this-point, always “in the know” when it came to the state of the Ravens. Over the previous nine years, his integrity, honesty and information had been in his words “unfiltered” — meaning the unvarnished truth.
At 10:10 a.m. the internet and local sports world exploded with multiple reports that Brian Billick was out as the coach of the Baltimore Ravens.
The shots heard round Owings Mills were not only unexpected by Billick, but by most of the media, many members of his coaching staff, and everyone else in the organization who reasoned that the three years left on his contract — still damp with just 11 months of tread on it and $18 million more of Baltimore Ravens’ owner Steve Bisciotti’s money guaranteed — made him amongst the safest coaches on the continent.
Sure, the Ravens had a bad year amidst a sea of injuries and another season of dreadful quarterback play with a broken down Steve McNair, an overmatched former Heisman Trophy winner in Troy Smith and the unfulfilled potential of 2003 first-round draft pick Kyle Boller, but firing a decorated coach was certainly a major risk (and expense) for Bisciotti.
Newsome was powerless and only became aware of Bisciotti’s intentions hours before. This was Steve’s decision and Steve’s alone.
The head coach who had led the Baltimore Ravens to the playoffs in four of his nine seasons and a 2001 Super Bowl title was unceremoniously fired and suddenly an NFL head coaching job was now available, where only moments before there was a franchise with a clear leader and a clear direction that had led the team to a 13-3 record just 11 months earlier.
Billick, whose self-parodied egotistical, arrogant and large personality, was now on the street with more money in his pocket than anyone in the history of the league with a terminated contract.
Such is life in the NFL. You’ve heard it before: NFL stands for “Not For Long.”
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti had made the most difficult – and expensive – decision of his brief ownership tenure in Baltimore after taking over for Art Modell in a 1999 sale that took five years to fully execute.
Now, to begin the 2008 calendar year and season, finally Bisciotti could hire his own coach, picked from scratch and molded by his ethics, policies, and vision.
Bisciotti’s entire corporate background and fortune were built by finding good people. His company, Aerotek, outsourced personnel in the technical & engineering industry and he built a $2 billion empire by knowing whom to hire. In 1999, he purchased a minority share of the Baltimore Ravens from financially struggling Art Modell after the move from Cleveland proved more costly and burdensome for one of the long-time patriarchs of the modern-day NFL, who bought the Cleveland Browns for $3 million in 1961. The sale price was $600 million but Bisciotti gave the Modells $275 million at the closing in 1999, which allowed the team to move out of debt and into the market for better football players.
Bisciotti’s investment directly affected the Ravens ability to recruit and keep the likes of Shannon Sharpe, Rod Woodson, Michael McCrary and others during the 2001 Super Bowl XXXV run headed by deposed head coach Brian Billick.
Bisciotti took full control of the Ravens in 2004 and immediately named Dick Cass, a close confidant of Jerry Jones and the man who did numerous sales transactions in the NFL involving the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins to replace David Modell, the son of Art Modell, who had grown from a ball boy in Cleveland in the 1970’s into the team’s President when the Ravens won the 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa.
In December 2008, Bisciotti directed the Ravens P.R. director Kevin Byrne to inform the media early in the month that Billick was “safe” even though it was clear from midseason that the team’s 4-2 start was disintegrating amidst a sea of defensive injuries and an ugly string of losses to AFC North rivals in November. Billick’s fate might’ve changed forever in December when the Ravens went to Miami and lost a humiliating overtime game to a winless Dolphins team lead by soon-to-be-fired-himself Cam Cameron and the losing streak reached nine games by Christmas week.