Blog & Tackle: Notes from the road

January 11, 2008 | Chris Pika

Cleaning out the notebook with various thoughts on the Ravens, coaching searches in general while working a pair of bowl games in New Orleans and spending a lot of time in the car.

Ever since I got the text message from WNST about Brian Billick’s firing, I’ve written about what happens when a team fires a coach, and I am interested in how they have set up their interview process.

Having been through the firings of Jim Haslett in New Orleans and Jim Mora in Atlanta, as well as the firing of GM Randy Mueller in New Orleans as a staffer for those clubs, I’ve seen the changes close up.

Haslett’s firing was a “mercy killing” after missing the playoffs five straight years and the tough conditions that Hurricane Katrina forced the club to go through in San Antonio as they went 3-13. Mora looked like he would survive to 2007, but an ill-advised radio appearance in Seattle made Falcons owner Arthur Blank livid and shortened an already tight rope. Mueller’s dismissal was strange in that there was no indication that it was coming. Owner Tom Benson just decided he was better off without him at GM, which shocked the entire building.

There is no good way to tell someone that their services are “no longer needed” in the NFL. Most coaches understand the territory they walk and know that one day, the firing squad will knock on their door.

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Most of the time when clubs decide to change the head coach, clubs have a pretty good bead on who they want to replace the current man in charge. Whether that’s a list the owner or GM keeps in their desk or just a list of qualifications for the job, it’s important to have a plan. I wonder in the scheme of things if the Ravens really had a plan before the decision to let Billick go was made.

The good news is that they have settled into the search process, unlike the Falcons trying to hire both a coach and GM (and the current GM doing the interviews for his replacement).

The bad news is that some players are voicing their “concerns” about the next coach, whoever it will be. Teams can listen, but not hear those concerns from players, much like I wrote about club’s hearing, but not listening to fans in making key decisions. If you hire a coach who will have as long a tenure as Billick (nine years) or more, then the entire roster will turn over during that time with rare exceptions.

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Memo to Ravens players: Even the most outspoken of you will not be in a Ravens’ uniform by the time the new coach is into his second five years at the helm. Clubs must build around the type of players who will fit the new coach’s system, not necessarily the current guys in the locker room right now.

Head coaches in the NFL today are managers. They have to manage the egos of players while putting the best combinations on the field to win. The days of autocratic coaches like Vince Lombardi are long gone and even the modern-day tough-guy coaches like the Giants’ Tom Coughlin have had to make changes to keep a locker room from fracturing. It’s worse in the NBA since if a coach’s message is lost on two key players, the team can fall apart quickly. With 53 active players, the message can be lost on a couple of players, but a team has to cut out the “cancers” who influence others to their way of thinking. The Ravens might need to conduct some cancer surgery on the roster once the new guy is in the office.

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I had the opportunity to work both the Sugar Bowl and the BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans over the past couple of weeks in a media relations capacity. I had not been back to the Crescent City in nine months after living there for over six years.

There were a couple of lump in the throat moments for me while visiting. One was the sight of thousands of people dressed in team gear from Hawaii, Ohio, Georgia and of course Louisiana walking the streets of the French Quarter and around the Superdome. It looked no different that any of the other Sugar Bowls I’ve worked over the years before the storm. You realize how far the city has come back from Katrina in the tourist areas and most seemed to enjoy their time in New Orleans. It gives you hope for the future.

But, go away from the Superdome out to New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward — the areas hit hardest by Katrina and there is a different reality. There are still plenty of trailers next to houses being rebuilt, boarded up apartment complexes, etc. The hardest thing for me was to drive with my wife around the Lower Ninth. As you make your way around the streets, all that is left in a lot of cases is the three steps which went into the shotgun-style houses popular in New Orleans, a twisted metal bannister and a low row of bricks where the foundations of those homes stood.

Also, you can still see the bathtub rings denoting the largest point of the flood around the remaining houses, boats that helped rescue people off of roofs still in the middle of some streets and the markings made by rescue personnel who searched house-to-house for survivors. There are more than a few “one dead in house” markings still visible. The sight of that phrase in spray paint still brings tears.

In talking with fans from the states who visited New Orleans, many had taken the time to venture out and see the destruction for themselves. Being in town to watch their team was important, but there were a lot of people who wanted to gain some perspective on what happened to one of America’s great cities.

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The nicest college football fans had to have been those from Hawaii. The 20,000 or so who made the trip from the islands or “the rock” — as one UH student band member called it — had a great time. Even though their team was outclassed by a strong Georgia squad, they stayed in the stands until the end of the game and sung as a group after the game was over. They were proud to see their school in the Sugar Bowl, even though it didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to.

The Georgia fans may have been the most arrogant. Their student section was chanting “Overrated” at the Hawaii fans in the third quarter as the game was no longer in doubt. The Hawaii fans took in stride, but you could make out a faint chant of “LSU” from the Warrior faithful in reference to the Bulldogs being left out of the BCS title game.

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As for that championship game, the atmosphere in the Superdome was electric. The LSU and Ohio State fans raised the roof for over three hours before the Tigers pulled away to capture the title. It was a great win for LSU and the state of Louisiana. The French Quarter rocked into the wee hours after the game and LSU coach Les Miles went out onto a balcony of a hotel overlooking the Quarter and raised the crystal football to a wild scene in the streets below.

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Enough about Ohio State being the Buffalo Bills of college football. If the Tigers don’t block a field goal in a tight game after OSU had grabbed a quick 10-0 lead and LSU came back to tie, the result might have been a lot different. LSU was just quicker on the turf and they made the plays especially when OSU had to throw the football in the second half.

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By the way, there is no need for a college football playoff in my opinion. This system creates just enough controversy to keep the columnists writing and the callers talking on sports radio stations. “Controversy Creates Cash” was the title of a book by wrestling’s Eric Bischoff and it could also be the motto of the BCS as well. Until the Rose Bowl buys into a playoff system, the current setup will prevail well into the next decade.

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