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Boys and girls, here are the Super Friends

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2001


TAMPA -- Long term, it's a cool relationship. Cool as in good, solid. Almost brotherly. Jim Fassel and Brian Billick, warmest of coaching buddies, become the hottest of Super Bowl XXXV rivals.

"Nothing better than beating a friend," said Billick, the baron of Baltimore brash. "Makes me feel good," said Fassel, nouveau Joe Namath with his whopper football guarantee for January, "that a guy I have so much respect for ... we're meeting in a game of this stature."

In the late '80s, Fassel was coach at the University of Utah, where a fierce competitor was Utah State, with Billick as offensive coordinator. They battled but also schmoozed.

"I have no better friend in the profession," said the Giants man. "We like exchanging ideas, going to dinner together. But not this week." Billick and Fassel have talked since earning Triple-X-Vee opportunities. "It's great fun," said the lead bird of the Ravens. "Two seconds after the game is over, there'll be no resentment."

We'll see on Sunday.

Jim is 51; Brian five years younger. Appearances are, Fassel is a twist or two tighter than Billick, but the Baltimore coach is more apt to erupt as this furious, oft-testy week evolves.

Billick's life has been offense, especially as Minnesota coordinator, his Ravens preamble. But at this hour, Brian is a Super Bowl coach who arrived in Florida on the sturdy, swift, sassy backs of a Baltimore defense that became the NFL's best ever. It's not unlike Dali eyeing a Rockwell painting and saying, "Look what we made."

Fassel, down deep, knows it nags Brian that the Ravens offense hasn't been more bombastic, like in his Vikings period. "One thing you quickly accept, upon becoming a head coach," said the Giants fellow, "is that the role involves everybody: offense, defense, special teams, trainers, equipment people, front office and more."

Billick is a fast learner.

"He's pretty sharp," Ravens defensive end Rob Burnett said, "not your typical football coach. Brian will take the fire from media. Saying some off-the-wall things to get everyone's attention, so his players can go about focusing."

Sounds like Fassel.

At midseason, when the Giants were dragging, Parkway Jim flared in the style of Broadway Joe, guaranteeing his team would make the playoffs. Big Blue hasn't lost since. Fassel got all blowtorches aimed at him. Meanwhile, his athletes went about excelling.

"When you go into the lion's den," said Billick, with the verve of his old Vikings superior, Denny Green, "you don't tippy toe. You carry a spear, go in screaming and saying, "Where's that SOB?' This is football, not diplomacy."

So the newspaper pens, TV cameras and radio microphones are now massively aimed. "If you're a president, mayor, senator or entertainer," Billick said, "when you're out in front like we are, you're going to say something that people don't like."

Brian is entertaining, not boring. Creative more than cliche-ridden. Many labels have been plastered, including arrogant.

"If arrogance is someone who is confident in himself, confident in people around him and wanting all who work with him to have a similar attitude, well then, I am arrogant."

Some call it winner.

Fassel's ride to Tampa, a two-hour charter flight, went with invigorating quickness. I mean, he was riding on a cloud. "I was talking with my wife and kids, telling them how I've been watching Super Bowls for 34 years, dreaming about this experience," Jim said. "I've been so busy with logistics and game-planning, the impact probably won't fully hit me until we drive up to the stadium."

That happens today, Jim's Giants and then Brian's Ravens assemble in Florida chill at the Super Bowl ballpark, a fresh NFL edifice called Raymond James. So many thoughts and memories in mind. Fassel will recall parents Dorothy and Bud, wishing they could be here.

"You'd like this week to include the people who brought you into the world," he said, emotions rasping the voice. "I thought about my mother and father a lot on the flight to Tampa."

His dad, long-time equipment manager at Jim's alma mater, Anaheim (Calif.) High, was killed eight years ago in a traffic accident. Dorothy Fassel, a receptionist for the Angels baseball franchise in the '80s, died in 1999.

On the way up, Jim's career was like an old vaudeville suitcase, with stickers from many intriguing stops. He began in 1973 at the school where Fassel was an excellent quarterback, Fullerton College. A year later, there was picturesque if low-budget life as player/coach with the Hawaiians of the quick-to-die World Football League.

Fassel's apprenticeship for the NFL came at Utah, Weber State, Stanford and with another franchise in another flash of a second-rate pro league, in 1984 among the New Orleans Breakers of the USFL.

Before becoming No. 1 with the Giants in 1997, he was an offensive specialist with the Meadowlands troupe (1991-92) and also spent time with the Denver Broncos (1993-94), Oakland Raiders (1995) and Arizona Cardinals (1996).

All leading to this week, the Super Bowl that danced in Fassel's mind at all his football locales. "There are a lot of reasons," he said, "but what immediately jumps to mind is the attitude and chemistry on this team.

"We've got the players in place. We have balance: running with Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne and passing the football with Kerry Collins. Lots of excellent tools, especially our receivers (Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard). Plus our offensive line is much improved."

Offense, too, is Jim's first thought.

Jeff Hostetler, triggerman of New York's win in Super Bowl XXV, worked under quarterbacks coach Fassel with the Giants and Raiders. He called to congratulate Jim at 7:30 the morning after the 41-0 rout of Minnesota in the NFC title game.

"Look at the QBs he's handled and the results," Hostetler said. "John Elway, Kerry Collins and I all had the best ratings of our careers under Jim."

So now the animals are convened for the biggest circus in American sport. But maybe not, considering the swagger of his guarantee. Out of character for Jim? "Not for those who really know me," he said with a sly, poker-player's grin.

If we're searching for stand-up comics, Brian has more of that look than Jim. "I learned a long time ago, learned it in Minnesota where Denny Green had fun," said the old Brigham Young tight end. "I can't admire a man more than I admire Denny.

"There was a time (with the Vikings) that media was pretty brutal. Made a lot of attacks, very personal. In 1996 they were sucking the fun out of it for me. But I love the coaching profession and I'm not going to let anyone ruin it for me.

"I'm going to take my job seriously, I'm going to take my obligation to my team seriously, and to my ownership and city, but I'm not going to take you all (media) and myself too seriously."

Let the mind games begin.

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