I'm not a fan of the sport, but here's an article of a football coach's use of technology. I'm thinking of using it to reach the less technically-inclined of our members.
August 5, 2004
THEIR OWN DEVICES
A Coach's Rise, Plotted at the Keyboard
By SETH SCHIESEL
OWINGS MILLS, Md.
BRIAN BILLICK remembers when he realized just how tough it would be to make it as a football coach. It was January 1984, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dallas. Billick, an obscure 29-year-old assistant at San Diego State, walked into his first big-time football coaches' convention.
"You go in and there's 4,000 coaches, all in the lobby, all interacting with one another; you've got a ton of guys out of work," he recalled. "Those going up the ladder, those going down the ladder. It was really an epiphany for me: 'Wow - how am I going to distinguish myself in this group?' They're all good coaches, they're all hard-working, they're all deserving. No one's any more of those things than the other. How do you distinguish yourself? How do you find that competitive edge?"
Billick, now 50, pauses in his reverie, leaning back slightly in a cavernous sitting room at his Maryland home. In a polo shirt and casual shorts, his tanned, barefoot 6-foot-5 frame seems a cast of prime-of-life confidence. And why not? As head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, with a new multimillion-dollar contract and with a Super Bowl title four seasons ago, he has found a way past all those coaches in the lobby.
"And I'll tell you," he said later, "in the success that I have had being a coordinator and then a head coach and winning a Super Bowl, my willingness to embrace technology in a focused way has had as much importance as anything else I have done."
As National Football League teams sweat through preseason training camps, many fans might not think of Brian Billick as a technology guru. But as with many prominent non-geeks in many fields, both Billick's rÃ©sumÃ© and his reputation have been at least partly defined by new technologies behind the scenes.
Behind his desk at the Ravens' home base, he is just another tech-savvy executive: two computers and a television at hand, complex Excel spreadsheets, FreeHand renderings and PowerPoint presentations at the ready. Instead of financial projections, he crunches his opponent's play-calling tendencies. Instead of selling products to clients, he works up colorful presentations to sell his game plans to players.
As Billick has ascended to the leading ranks of the football world over the last 25 years, compiling a record that includes a 10-6 finish and a division title last season, the way has been eased by a surprising grasp of emerging digital systems and media. Surprising, that is, to everyone except those who know him.
"I would say he's on the forefront among people in sports in his understanding of new technologies," said Bill Walsh, the former coach of the San Francisco 49ers, who has been a sort of mentor to Billick. "He's very intelligent and very detail-oriented, and because of some background he had some years ago in computers, it has served him very, very well as a coach. He does more than anyone else to use programming for the information he needs to make his decisions."
Even before they involved computers, Billick programmed his decisions. For instance, he may be the only pro football coach who started planning his media strategy in the classroom (a quality not to be underestimated in the press-drenched N.F.L.). As a football player at Brigham Young University in the 1970's, he majored in public relations. And after he washed out as a player in a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys, he returned to B.Y.U. in 1978 for a graduate program in communications.
It was at B.Y.U. that Billick began to grasp both the workaday mechanics of modern technology and the workings of modern media - both qualities that would gird his march to the head of the coaching ranks.
"I wanted to coach and my undergraduate degree was in P.R., so I figured a master's in communication, journalism, would serve me with regard to getting with the media, alumni, boosters and what have you," he said. (And as a crucial bit of training, "I took typing class," he said. "To me, particularly early on, I think that the most intimidating thing for coaches is they didn't type well, so the whole idea of dealing with the computer was very intimidating for them.")
Just as important, Billick learned the power of image and communication - a skill he honed in his first N.F.L. job, as a public relations assistant with the 49ers, then coached by Walsh.
"You have to have a very strong command presence when you're talking about interacting with people in the scope that we have to deal with," he said. For Billick, part of that command presence lies in being able to communicate his planning effectively and confidently to players steeped in electronica.
From the two-way pagers to the cellphones and luxury S.U.V.'s with embedded video-game consoles, modern N.F.L. players are probably even more tech-savvy than most other young men. (Billick jokes that his players constantly change their cellphone numbers because "they don't want to have to talk to the principal unless they want to talk to the principal.") And that is where Billick's comfort with modern technology comes back into play.
"Every time I have to get up in front of the team, I have a PowerPoint," he said. "This game is all about teaching," he added in a refrain he repeated at least a half-dozen times.
"If you stand up in front of a group of young people now who have grown up with a certain set of stimuli their entire life now, and you now stand up there and drone on and on with a black-and-white overlay, you better understand that what you present had better have color, action, movement," he said. "You better elicit that learning, emotionally as well as mentally, to maximize the retention."
And that is only what the players see. For two decades, Billick has been integrating computers into the back-end planning that helps cull winners from also-rans. In some ways, his evolution mirrors the evolution of the computer industry itself.
For instance, in the early 1980's, an older brother, Mike, an Air Force officer, built on Billick's typing expertise and introduced him to early spreadsheets like VisiCalc.
"He wasn't technical growing up," recalled Mike Billick, who now works in the aerospace industry. "He was pretty much into football and all that it entails. But he saw what the computers could do for him as he got into coaching, and he really took to it. I think he's reached a point now where he thinks electronically, so he can visualize on the screen as fast as most of us can visualize on paper."
By the time Billick was on the coaching staff at Utah State University in the late 1980's, he was working with some of the school's computer experts to process game information. As he put it: "When you go to computer science guys, they're so into the bells and whistles you get a lot more than you really need. But the guys in the business department, they know how to crunch numbers for a purpose."
And by the end of the 80's, when Billick was on the staff at Stanford, he was connecting computers to VCR's to start categorizing and processing game film. Around the same time, he heard about something called the Macintosh, this time through another sibling.
"My sister, oddly enough, is the one that got me started," he recalled. "My brother is a staunch I.B.M. guy: 'Apple useless, toy.' My sister: 'Oh, look at the great graphics.' Creative versus number crunching. So the number-crunching side of me is served well by my background of my brother helping me learning the spreadsheet concepts. But now as my sister starts to show me what she's doing on these little Apples, I'm thinking, 'Damn, if we can input our plays and catalog them and save them and literally drag and drop, how much time are we going to save?' "
A lot, as it turned out. After Billick's boss at Stanford, Dennis Green, became the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, he brought Billick with him to the N.F.L., a move that Billick attributes largely to his computer skills. At the same time, however, he battled to demonstrate his core football acumen.
"Particularly early, people were like, 'That's not football. You're messing around,' and that was something I had to fight against: 'Oh, he's just a tech guy, a glorified video guy,' " Billick said. "The perception was that if he knows so much about the tech side, he can't possibly know football."
Suffice it to say that Billick demonstrated that he knew football. And he is still using some pretty snazzy technology, even if he barely uses his Palm hand-held and only got a cellphone when he became a head coach in 1999. (As he put it, "When you're a coordinator, you don't need a cellphone, because you're always in the office.")
Amid the photos and magazine covers on the walls of Billick's office is a small cartoon given to him in Minnesota. In the frame, a head coach is addressing some players on the sidelines of what seems to be a big game. "The system's down," the coach says. "I guess we're going to have to punt."
Watching Billick at work, the point seems well taken, if a bit harshly put.
"So now I'm going through Atlanta's 237 third-down plays last year," he says, gesturing to the dizzying columns of numbers on the screen; the shades by his desk are almost always down so he can see the monitors more easily. "And you see they had 24 third-and-1's. Now I want to get rid of the goal-line plays, so I'm taking out everything inside the 20-yard line." Click, click.
"So now here's every third-and-1 Atlanta ran in the open field, and there are 17 of them," he says. But the raw data showing the setup, formation and result of the plays aren't enough. A few more clicks, and practically broadcast-quality video of each play begins unfolding on the TV screen beside him, seamlessly streaming from the team's video data server in real time.
"We went from 16 millimeter, very cumbersome, to VHS, which was still time-consuming, to digital," he says. "If I had had to call up the film guys and asked them to do this, it could have easily taken two days and we did it in what? Twenty seconds?"
For Billick and the football vanguard, the next step may be virtual reality. He pointed out that every practice session is an opportunity for injury to an athlete worth tens of millions of dollars to the team. And so every chance to teach while avoiding that risk becomes a golden opportunity.
"The biggest frustration that coaches have with digital imagery is that it's either the sideline view or the end-zone view, and neither is how the game is played; the game is played at eye level," he said. "There is no question that we will get to the point that players will come into a meeting, put on the goggles and be taught in virtual reality."
To that end, he said, the Ravens are already working with a team of programmers. For Billick, it's all about going wherever it takes to wring the smallest of winning edges from his organization.
"Look, I'm not Al Gore inventing the Internet," he said. "I'm just a working stiff that found something that gave me a competitive edge. You're not going to outwork anyone in this profession. Everyone works hard. And if you think you're going to get ahead because you're more intelligent, that's not going to work.
"Someone will always come along who's more intelligent than you. But you can work smarter if you can determine the most effective use of your time and resources. Technology is a part of that, and it works."
A periodic look at technology's impact on the work (and play) of leaders in many fields.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company