“Billick treats us like men. He doesn’t view everything like it’s the Invasion of China when he lets us know what’s going to happen. On the first day of training camp, he gave us the full schedule of camp and it never changed.”
– Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett, Summer 2000
“Hi, Coach Billick? My name is Nestor Aparicio. I own the all-sports radio station in Baltimore and I’m about to become your new best friend.”
THE FIRST WORDS I EVER spoke to Brian Billick.
The timing couldn’t have been much worse to meet a man. Billick’s Minnesota Vikings were about 20 minutes removed from losing a 10-point lead and a Super Bowl berth to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
I’m a pretty big football fan and I go to a league championship game nearly every year, including the Modells’ infamous loss in “The Drive” to John Elway in January 1987, long before the Ravens even existed.
Thinking of the strange twist of fate that brought us together that day, there were really only two reasons I picked Minneapolis over Denver, where Vinny Testaverde and the Jets were playing the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. First, the weather. I knew it would be 72 degrees at kickoff in Minnesota because of the dome. The thought of an outdoor game at Mile High in January made me afraid of having the flu for the Super Bowl in Miami two weeks later. The other, was a gut suspicion that Brian Billick might be a guy I needed to meet and get to know.
I obviously have no regrets about going and not only seeing a most memorable football game, but also establishing Baltimore’s first relationship with Coach Billick. I never did get to see a football game at Mile High Stadium, though as a bonus, and in some twist of perverse Baltimore Colts and Bob Irsay irony, I missed John Elway’s last home game as an NFL player.
My choice, which was made on the Monday before the game, was justified even more on Thursday, when several sources in the organization and around the league informed me that Billick would be the second head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.
While everyone else around town was either uninformed or tepid, I was breaking news.
I had a phone call on my radio show at WNST-AM on that Thursday morning before the game, and the caller kept making comments like “if Brian Billick becomes the coach” and “if we hire Jim Haslett” and “if we have to take Chris Palmer” and “if we go in another direction.” Finally, I cut him off and stood my ground and made a pronouncement that I haven’t regretted.
I said, “I don’t think that Brian Billick will be the next coach of the Baltimore Ravens, I know he will be the next coach.” I was so sure of myself and my sources that I put a lengthy profile that had been written about Billick in the previous weekend’s St. Paul Pioneer Press on the front of my website and told people to learn about their new coach. The story was fascinating. All Billick talked about was football and family. He bluntly stated that he had no other hobbies.
So off to Minneapolis I went, with one sole purpose: meeting Brian Billick. Of course, I thought it was going to be to shake his hand and tell him I’d see him in Miami at the Super Bowl. The Vikings were a heavy favorite, the home team and a team that had set virtually every record in the book for offensive production that year. They scored 556 points in 16 games (a 34.75 average!) and were 15-1 during the regular season. There was no reason to think that Billick would be the head coach of the Ravens by Tuesday.
It’s easy to learn about people when they win. Everyone’s a helluva winner. I think I learn the most about people when they lose.
Needless to say, I learned a lot about Brian Billick that day at the Metrodome.
Before I even left my seat in the upper deck, I wondered what the future head coach of the Baltimore Ravens might be like. Friendly? Stern? Spirited? Ambitious? With the admission of having no hobbies, I wondered aloud what kind of nerd he must be. I think “football jarhead” was the term I used with my friends to describe anti-social behavior by coaches. But, as always, I kept an open mind.
When I finally left my seat, with seven minutes remaining and the Vikings holding a seven-point lead and the ball, I stopped off in the main press box to watch the remainder of the game. I was just passing time, really.
The Vikings marched down the field to the Falcons’ 21-yard line, chewing up the clock until turning the ball over to their kicker, Gary Anderson, who hadn’t missed a field-goal attempt all year. With just 2:07 left in regulation and a 27-20 lead, Anderson was wide-left with the icing field goal that would have sent the Vikings back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 23 years.
Six plays and 1:18 later, Falcons QB Chris Chandler hit Terence Mathis with a 16-yard TD strike to tie the game. With 49 seconds remaining in regulation, Vikings head coach Dennis Green and Billick, his offensive coordinator, chose to sit on the ball and let the clock expire while heading the greatest offense in NFL history.
From nearly the identical spot that Anderson missed his field-goal attempt in regulation, his counterpart, Morten Andersen of the Falcons, nailed a 38-yarder through the uprights 11:52 into overtime to send the Falcons to their first-ever Super Bowl.
I was nervously watching history unfold from the press box as Billick inched closer to Baltimore, but there’s just one little story I need to fit in here – a story of joy that I didn’t understand until that night in Tampa at Super Bowl XXXV.
The second that the ball went through the uprights, the man sitting next to me started shrieking and hyperventilating in a way I’d never seen before. I thought he was having a heart attack. He jerked up out of his seat and just started hysterically crying and screaming and hugging anyone and everyone he could get his arms around. That man, I would later deduce, was Falcons president Taylor Smith, who was reacting to what would be the greatest single moment of his professional life. After 33 years in football and countless heartaches, losses and failures, I saw a man’s reaction to the greatest accomplishment in his profession and it moved me. I got teary-eyed seeing his utter, child-like joy next to me.
He quickly disappeared down the stairwell in the back of the press box and it was back to the business of finding Billick for me.
Of course my mind was racing on that walk down to the Vikings locker room. Not only was Billick coming to Baltimore, he was coming now. The Vikings lost. How in the world did they lose that game? Why did they sit on the ball? The media’s gonna torch him and Green. What a great time to meet the new coach of the Ravens. Could this guy possibly be in a worse mood? Then it got crazy. What if he doesn’t take the job? I saw a guy in the hallway who looked like Dwight Clark, who was the personnel director of the Browns. Would he be reporting back to Browns president Carmen Policy with a Billick update? What if he goes to Cleveland instead? I’ll look like a fool! My sources guaranteed me he was taking the Ravens job!
Inside the Vikings locker room, it was like a morgue. Guys were crying, bleeding, screaming, frustrated, moaning, yelling at each other. Not a pleasant place to be. Out on the field, the video crews were capturing the infamous footage of Falcons head coach Dan Reeves doing “The Dirty Bird” with running back Jamal Anderson and company.
I waited off to the side of the locker room and inquired as to where the coaches’ office was located. A couple of ball boys told me they saw Billick inside of that room, so I knew he was in there. But time was crawling. It seemed like the game had been over for at least 30 minutes and the media was beginning to clamor for Billick because of the decision to sit on the ball in regulation. Apparently, Green didn’t give them the answers they wanted because they were flooding back into the locker room from the media cattle call press conference down the hall. I kept wondering if Billick hadn’t slipped out the back but an assistant coach swore to me he was still in that room.
Moments later, with a towel draped around his neck like a prizefighter and a can of soda in his right hand, Billick strolled down the hallway. I darted toward him to cut him off from the other media who were waiting so I could have a private word with him.
And then the immortal statement:
“Hi, Coach Billick? My name is Nestor Aparicio. I own the all-sports station in Baltimore and I’m about to become your new best friend.”
At that point, I realized how tall this man is. He didn’t look that tall on TV.
I started blathering on and on about Charm City and crab cakes and fans and tradition and how the city would love him, handing him business cards and extolling the virtues of my hometown.
Billick would later recount the story thusly:
“There I come out of the coaches office having lost the biggest game of my career and I look down that hallway and there is you and Vito Stellino (of The Baltimore Sun), and the only thing I could think was, ‘Carmen, start the plane! I’m coming to Cleveland.’ ”
Asked point blank by some smarmy kid from East Baltimore he’d never met before about the possibility that Cleveland would sweep him off his feet and he’d leave Baltimore at the altar, Billick said it three times privately to me.
“Young man, you can go back to Baltimore and tell everyone there that they will be my first stop,” he said. “You can tell Art Modell, anyone you want, that I’m coming to Baltimore first. You have my word.”
In spite of the awful timing, he was good humored, very sincere and thoughtful in his answers. I believed him.
I listened to the 20-minute sermon he gave to the media that day about losing the game, sitting on the ball and his prospective job search. When he was finished, he shook my hand again and said he’d see me later in the week.
Two hours later I left snowy Minneapolis and had to change planes in Pittsburgh. I called Kevin Byrne, the Ravens Vice President of Public Relations, from my cell phone in the airport.
“Well, what do you know?” Kevin asked me.
“The timing could have been a helluva lot better,” I said. “He seems like a great guy, very friendly, media friendly anyway, and he swore to me he’s coming to Baltimore first.”
On Monday, I spun the stories on the air all day at WNST, about Billick’s demeanor, his height, the fact that he was coming to Baltimore. He promised me he was coming.
That night as I watched the 11 o’clock news, WBAL-TV – dirtmongers that they are, God love ’em – had footage of Billick and his family along with Art Modell and his family leaving Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse downtown.
The next morning would be the big day.
I arrived at the station around 7 a.m. and was preparing to do my 9 a.m. to noon shift. Around 8:45 it hit me. Billick’s in Baltimore and I can find him. Where would the Modells put Billick and his family up to impress and hide them. Then, a stroke of genius. When the Modells first fled Cleveland, they lived at the Harbor Court Hotel until they found a home. It was logical.
“Good morning, Harbor Court Hotel,” the operator said.
“Can you ring, Billick, Brian Billick please?” I said.
“Connecting!” she said.
“Hello, Brian,” I started. “It’s Nestor. Remember me?”
“You know, I had a feeling you’d be the first guy I’d hear from this morning,” he said.
He said he was happy to be in Baltimore and that my name had been a topic of conversation over dinner with the Modells the night before.
“Yeah, I asked who this crazy kid was and what was he doing in Minneapolis,” Billick said. “You got the Modell seal of approval.”
Ten minutes later, WNST-AM had the exclusive first interview with soon-to-be head coach Brian Billick. He spoke of his intentions and football philosophy, mostly the same stock stuff you always hear, but he was so obviously impressive and intelligent that most fans knew it was just a matter of time and money.
LISTEN TO BILLICK’S FIRST APPEARANCE ON BALTIMORE RADIO HERE:
He was a cool dude, with a knack for saying the right things. He wasn’t the typical stiff jarhead coach. He even joked about switching from Vikings purple to Ravens purple.
“It’s an obvious ploy to keep my wife from having to change her wardrobe,” Billick ribbed.
It didn’t take much imagination to realize what was happening – pass the pen, sign the contract.
At 6 p.m. that evening, there was a press conference at PSI Net Stadium to announce his hiring.