Brian Billick has reached the National Football League pinnacle, having guided the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl victory in 2000. But Billick has never forgotten his roots and he says his experience at BYU as a player has played a role in the success he's enjoyed in the NFL.
After spending one season at the Air Force Academy, Billick transferred to BYU and was named an honorable mention All-America tight end in 1976. He was member of the BYU football program at a time when coach LaVell Edwards was on the cusp of leading the Cougars to national prominence.
"As you look back at it, it really was a pivotal time," Billick told the Deseret Morning News in an interview Tuesday, when he visited Salt Lake City to speak at a luncheon co-hosted by MountainWest Capital Network and AGC Capital Connection. "It was great to be a part of what became the emergence of BYU football. Coming in with LaVell, they hadn't had a lot of success up to that point but you could tell they were on the verge of it. LaVell, obviously, was a great coach."
Billick recalled the Cougars limping to an 0-3 start in 1974 before visiting Colorado State. The night before the game, Edwards delivered an emotional speech to his team.
"You could read between the lines," Billick said. "To this day, I believe in my heart, if we didn't get it turned around, that was probably going to be it for LaVell."
The Cougars and Rams played to a 33-33 tie that day, but BYU wound up winning seven straight games to claim the Western Athletic Conference championship and appear in its first bowl game, the first of many over the next 25 years.
"We overcame all obstacles," Billick said. "It was a great time to be on the ground floor of what everything BYU accomplished that way. I'm very proud of the time I spent at BYU."
Billick returned to Provo in 1978 as a graduate assistant and essentially launched his coaching career. He said Edwards' influence on him remains strong today.
"You try to take a little bit of something from everyone you've been around. I've been so fortunate to work with people like Bill Walsh, Tom Landry, Mike Ditka, Dan Reeves. But LaVell, with his constant sense of priorities, and I don't know if it's something I appreciated as much when I was younger, but now, being in this league, it's hard to keep that sense of priority sometimes. It is a very volatile situation, and you're under public scrutiny. LaVell was so admirable in the way that he did that. I really treasure my time with LaVell as one of the great coaches I was allowed to be around."
Another Edwards' protege, Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, played with Billick at BYU. Former Cougar teammate Tim Halvorson serves as Billick's chief financial adviser and accountant.
Billick keeps up with BYU football as much as he can these days and he's impressed with coach Bronco Mendenhall's efforts in restoring glory to the program.
"Bronco's done such a great job of bringing back and maintaining and re-establishing some of the ties to the past," he said. "Every program covets that. The heritage that BYU has established, Bronco's done a great job of re-establishing that in a world that constantly brings about changes."
In preparing for the 2007 NFL Draft, Billick watched all of BYU's games the last two years on tape so he could watch quarterback John Beck, who was picked by the Miami Dolphins in the second round.
"I'm very impressed with John. He's very poised and has a great knowledge of the game and a huge passion for the game," Billick said. "He has a great sense of how to move the chains, which is something you're always looking for as a coach. He'll do very well in the NFL."
While Billick has strong ties to BYU, he also has a connection to Utah because of his relationship with Ute coach Kyle Whittingham. "I've known Kyle since he was a little kid," Billick said. "Kyle's dad, Fred Whittingham, was the defensive coordinator when I was at BYU. I remember Kyle as a little rug rat running around. He's doing a great job at Utah right now."
His bonds with the Beehive State don't end there. Billick served as the offensive coordinator at Utah State from 1986-88. He inherited the nation's second worst offense in 1986 and he turned the Aggies into a top 10 offense in those three seasons.
"We loved Cache Valley. Of all the coaching stops we've had, that's probably still my wife's favorite place," Billick said. "It's a tough stop from a coaching standpoint, to compete with BYU and Utah, with the resources, and where you are in the pecking order of getting athletes. But I really enjoyed my time up there."
As for his current team, the Ravens are coming off a 13-3 season, the best record in franchise history. They won the AFC North title before losing to eventual Super Bowl champions, the Indianapolis Colts, in the divisional round.
"Every year, if you don't win the Super Bowl, there's a feeling of emptiness," Billick said. "It's very tough to win in the NFL. We feel good about where we are and we were able to maintain the core of our team for next year."
Billick has led Baltimore to a 75-53 record in nine seasons at the helm. He is tied with Reid for the third-longest tenure in the NFL behind Jeff Fisher of Tennessee and Mike Shanahan of Denver.