Friends on the Hot Seat

Brian Billick and Mike Tice have known each other closely for 14 years, but their paths this year are so similar it's almost eerie. See what two of the better quote machines in the NFL have to say about their friendship and the year they have both endured.

Mike Tice has won one playoff game in his four years of being an NFL head coach. Brian Billick has won a Super Bowl.

The stark differences in success haven't made much of a difference in how the two former colleagues are being perceived this year.

Clearly, after a 2-5 getaway this season, Tice's job has been in question for all but about three weeks on the back end of a recent six-game winning streak. But after the revelation that his team has beaten exactly one team with a winning record this season, Tice's job – and his team's playoff hopes – are still in jeopardy.

And if you think a Y2K Super Bowl win has Billick comfy in Baltimore, think again. Not when the response to the first softball question from a Minnesota reporter regarding Billick's big 48-3 win on Monday Night Football was this: "I don't know, are you going to rip my (butt) or not?"

Such are the fragile securities of an NFL head coach.

The Billick-Tice relationship began in 1992, when Tice was a tight end for the Vikings and Billick was his position coach. Eventually, Tice retired as a player and tutored tight ends and later the offensive line while Billick ascended to offensive coordinator under then head coach Dennis Green.

"Mike and I are very good friends. Our families have enjoyed each other's company. Our kids are relative ages so we are kind of going through the same things that parents do with kids at that point," Billick said. "I was there when we brought Mike into the profession, so to speak. I have a huge amount of respect for Mike and a huge amount of respect for what he has been able to deal with there this year and overcome. That's not an easy thing to do. I look at certainly the beginning, going through some of the similar things we went through, but for them to fight their way back out of it, particularly with all of the external circumstances as well, I think is amazing."

Billick hasn't been quite so fortunate this season. Despite an immense amount of talent on defense, his team has also dealt with numerous injuries and floundered to a 5-9 record even after its impressive display of offense in the 48-3 shellacking against Green Bay.

While the Tice-Billick relationship has gone through its ebbs over the years, it started with Tice, a veteran tight end at the time, questioning the excitement of his position coach in 1992.

"Well, when Steve Jordan and I were tight ends, we were about 40 years old and he tried to make us do drills that you would make a rookie do. We turned and looked at him one day in practice and said, ‘Are you kidding me? Cone cutting drills? Don't you want us to be fresh for the game?' He was a very overzealous, young tight end coach that was going to make both of us better," Tice recalled. "I was about 33 or 34 and Steve was about 31. So that is what I remember about him coaching me. I think when he coached me we were veteran enough to where we would sit in the meeting, get the game plan and go drink coffee and get ready for practice. We were a little older then.

"He was very sharp. He is a detail guy. He really was the one that taught me about tendencies and paying attention to tendencies, not only about paying attention to the opponent's tendencies, but self-tendencies. I have used that to this day, extensively."

During Billick's days in Minnesota, he would sit down with reporters in his office, pull out charts and reference statistics. He not only tutored his players as a position coach, and assistant coaches as a coordinator, he taught reporters about the important trends and statistics.

Tice has taken on that role during his tenure as head coach, citing the rankings and statistics that point to his team's successes and failures. Frankly, both are dream head coaches from the standpoint of getting useful information to inform the public.

Eventually, Billick gained a reputation as an offensive genius following the Vikings' record-setting 1998 season. It was then that the high-flying, multi-talented offense scored an NFL-record 556 points and Billick became labeled a genius.

"I've never, quite frankly, placed any value on the labels that people throw around. When we were doing everything we were doing in Minnesota, the guru, genius, mastermind kind of stuff that you guys kind of throw out sometimes, I've never placed much value on that. I know it doesn't exist," Billick said. "I've never in 35 years of coaching ever heard one coach refer to another coach in that way. When I got to Baltimore, we had a definite set of assets that were primarily on the defensive side of the ball. I found very early that we had a certain formula that fit us."

Fittingly, just as Tice has traced Billick's road to being a head coach, Tice now is in the position of relying on a strong defense. What Tice doesn't have is a consistent, power running game to complement that defense. Since Billick's days in Minnesota, the Vikings offense has slowly eroded of Pro Bowl talent and Tice, a coach who reminds reporters that he still knows offense, has struggled to generate much of it this year.

Until a 48-point outburst Monday night Billick could relate. Maybe someday this offseason, Tice can make another call to Billick, just as he did a few weeks ago, and the two can get back to the old days when they would banter back and forth about offense.

"I think there are some stories that are probably floating around the building about Brian and I and our heated conversations about the game plan and the direction that the game plan should take, but the one thing we realized is that when we got finished with the discussion, whichever way it went, that was the game plan we were going to buy into. So we have had a few infamous discussions," Tice said.

Said Billick: "I loved coaching with Mike Tice when I was at the Vikings. We would argue and dog cuss each other about game plans every week. We would get at each other. He brings such intense passion to what he does. It was great. In the end, we'd be bloody, but we'd have a good game plan."

Without those great offensive game plans – or the talent to execute them – both head coaches are being bloodied by local columnists and fans.

The ascent from genius to Super Bowl winner can take much longer than the fall from guru to goat.

"I go home and occasionally go up to my bedroom drawer and open it up and pull the (Super Bowl) ring out to remind myself I'm not the village idiot," Billick said.


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