Us vs. Them
Head coaches Billick, Fassel mastering mind games
Updated: Thursday January 25, 2001 9:52 PM
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Making a guarantee he can't keep is one sure way for an NFL head coach to quickly become an ex-coach. Another is to pepper every moment with bold, brash statements, then fail to produce a winner.
As everyone knows, big talkers Jim Fassel and Brian Billick are both securely employed.
The head coaches of the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens have taken a unique, refreshing approach to football this season. They've substituted platitudes and coachspeak with reality and emotion, and that could have as much to do with their teams' sudden ascension to the Super Bowl as anything else.
"Both coaches sort of put sticks of dynamite out there and told everybody, 'This is what we've got going,'" sports psychologist Greg Buell of Wichita State University said. "Once they said it publicly, it became easy to continue it in their locker rooms. It was easy to say, 'If we continue to do what we do, we're going to be fine.'"
For Fassel, it was the famous November playoff guarantee. The Giants were reeling from two consecutive losses and, in the coach's mind, being savaged by the New York media.
Coming off two straight non-playoff seasons, it was almost universally agreed Fassel was out of a job if he didn't produce a postseason trip. He knew as much, so he compared his situation to a poker game.
"I am shoving my chips right in the middle of the table," he said. "I am raising the ante. Anybody who wants out can get out. This team is going to the playoffs."
It was his way of telling his players he believed in them. Some were shocked to see their placid coach get so out of character.
"I think it was temporary insanity," defensive lineman Michael Strahan said. Buell believes it was much more calculated than that.
"It was a situation where he read the tea leaves just right," Buell said. "Was he stupid? No. He shot high. He raised the bar. His players responded and he turned out to be right."
The Giants have won seven consecutive games since the guarantee.
For Billick, there has been no single, defining event, just a general air of confidence.
After a 15-10 victory in Jacksonville -- one of two ugly victories in which the Ravens didn't manage a touchdown - NFL Films caught Billick addressing his team in an impassioned victory speech. He sprinkled words of encouragement, profanity and the us-vs.-them attitude that seem to work in most team sports.
When the Ravens won at Tennessee in the playoffs, Billick expressed his team's mindset perfectly, saying there was no use tippy-toeing into a lion's den.
"You carry a spear, you go in screaming like a banshee, kick whatever doors in. If you go in any other way, you're going to lose," Billick said.
His latest act of brazenness came Monday, when he gave the media a verbal spanking for its coverage of the Ray Lewis saga, and warned reporters against overdoing it come media day.
"If he can become a lightning rod in the Lewis thing, if the heat gets turned toward the coach, I believe the coach has done a good thing," Buell said. "He knows in this fishbowl, you're not going to escape it. But there's nothing wrong with making a statement like that."
Both head coaches also seem to have a great sense of when not to overplay their hands. Knowing he had rubbed people wrong early in the week, Billick went to the podium Wednesday and jokingly jabbed his finger at reporters.
"For those of you who weren't here Monday, I want to make one thing perfectly clear ..." he said, with mocking sternness. Then he moved onto new subjects, less bombastic material.
Likewise, all week, questioners have been trying to goad Fassel into making a victory guarantee at this event, the venue where Joe Namath coined the practice 32 years ago.
Fassel never bit.
"Sometimes you can overdo something," he said. "You can try to be cute and funny. I said that because I believed it 100 percent. I was angry and upset, and I had to get the focus going in a direction. I achieved that. Now, I don't have to be cute and funny and quotable."
Sometimes, however, it seems these coaches can't help it.
Buell says Fassel and Billick are doing what all effective coaches do -- mastering the psychological side of the sport.
"They're selling a system that works," he said. "There's a high level of belief in what they're doing and saying. You have to believe a big part of the success is because of how the coaches have postured themselves and sold themselves."