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Rare breed

Fassel, Billick actually have something interesting to say

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Posted: Tuesday January 23, 2001 9:15 PM
Updated: Wednesday January 24, 2001 2:52 AM

   Brian Billick Ravens head coach Brian Billick made it crystal clear to reporters that he did not want them to harass Ray Lewis. AP

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- There was a measure of curiosity surrounding the words of Jim Fassel and Brian Billick at Media Day for the Super Bowl. After all, these are head coaches who actually say things worth hearing.

Things like guarantees and warnings.

What would they come up with Tuesday in front of the biggest media horde they're ever going to see? Fassel pretty much said it all in November and didn't have much to add. Billick, who took center stage Monday by telling reporters to lay off Ray Lewis, defended his strong words with, well, more strong words.

"I think it was very clear cut what we were trying to do," Billick said. "There was no angle on my part. I very rarely rant and rave.

"It would have been naive on our part to come in and act like this was not going to come up. I wanted to make sure that everyone understood what our perspective was going to be, which was simply: We've been through this before, we are making our statement very, very clear, and I wanted to give the players an avenue to simply say, 'Our perspective has been stated pretty clearly by coach Billick.'"

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That's exactly the tack taken by Lewis, who was surrounded by at least 200 reporters in front of his podium at Raymond James Stadium when the Ravens' session opened. Three sets of bleachers were filled with people toting cameras, microphones and notepads.

What they got wasn't nearly as juicy as Billick's caveat the previous day.

"I think he said what was in his heart," Lewis said, referring to his head coach. "My focus is on why I came here, to try to win a Super Bowl. I'm not here to justify anything that has gone on, because that is a story in my book that is closed, regardless of whatever questions come up."

Many questions came up, most about football. Only occasionally did Lewis talk about the murder case in which he was absolved of charges, pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in exchange for testimony against his co-defendants.

"The media's been focused on me all year," he said. "It hasn't distracted me yet, so it won't right now."

Fassel wasn't nearly as popular at the Giants' session as Lewis and Billick were later in the day. Of course, Fassel spoke his piece more than two months ago.

And it worked.

"When all is said and done, all that matters is what's good for the New York Giants," Fassel said when he wasn't staring into television cameras and answering questions about music, food and vacation destinations. "No matter how it's done, that's all that matters."

Fassel's guarantee -- "This team is going to the playoffs" -- came after two home losses dropped the Giants to 7-4. It was premeditated, designed to put the heat on the coach and not on his players. But even before he made his verbal vow, Fassel delivered some strong and angry words to the Giants. There were no traces of coachspeak in that tirade.

"Oh, we hear a lot of that from him, stuff you might not hear about outside the locker room," said linebacker Jessie Armstead, the team's locker room leader. "But he got his message across, loud and clear."

So loud and so clear that the Giants haven't lost since. Rarely has a head coach in any sport publicly put his neck on the line and come through so well.

Not that his players place much emphasis on Fassel's statement. Even if he had called the Giants quitters or monumental underachievers, "we still had to start playing a whole lot better," Armstead said.

"I didn't know that 7-4 was such a death sentence," added Jason Sehorn, who once again has become a premier cornerback. "You're still three games over .500. We were still in first place in our division."

Fassel admits he doesn't often go the controversy route. But when he does ...

"As a coach, you have to know when you're coming around the final turn and how to push your team to the next level," he said. "Sometimes you can overdo something. I said it because I believed it 100 percent.

"I was angry and upset and I had to get the focus going in a direction."

That direction wound up being north in the standings, and now south to the Super Bowl.

Related information
Super Bowl Day at a Glance: The week is the hard part's From the Newsstand: Jan. 23 edition
Life of Reilly: Fatal Distractions
SI's Peter King: Collins is the week's biggest star so far
Burning Questions: Three points to ponder's Karp: Giants DE Strahan born for this moment
Super Bowl Scene: Tampa rolls in the money
SI's Don Banks: Introducing Ray Lewis as your ringmaster
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