OREM — Brian Billick hadn’t been to Utah County in 20 years.
By the way he openly spoke with football players and their family members, coaches and even members of the media last week, it was hard to tell that he'd been gone so long. The former NFL coach and ex-Brigham Young University football tight end has a way of fitting in and getting people to open up to him.
Case in point? His sense of humor. When talking about Cougars second-year coach Kalani Sitake, he declared, "When I was at BYU, he wasn't even born. A lot of people would say that's nostalgic; basically I just feel old."
That gift of relatability was on display as Billick addressed members of the community during the 23rd annual banquet for the Utah Chapter of the National Football Foundation last Wednesday night at Utah Valley University’s UCCU Center, when 14 high school football players were recognized as scholar-leader athletes.
It became clear during Billick’s message that evening — he was honored with the Contribution to Amateur Football Award — that building relationships is paramount to his success. Billick, who coached the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl XXXV in 2001, is now an analyst for NFL Network.
He spoke about his time working as a head coach at the NFL Scouting Combine and being able to meet individually with athletes hoping to catch on with a pro team.
"The best thing about it, you get 15-minute interviews with the 60 athletes of your choice. As a head coach, that may be the only time I get to sit down and look eye to eye with a young man," he said.
Billick emphasized that in the NFL, that time was important to get to know someone who essentially was auditioning to become a business partner, someone he could trust.
"After doing that for countless years, you learn a lot about reading young people. I can tell you this, and it's a tribute to the parents in the room, it didn't take me but five minutes to know an athlete when he sits down and the way he presents himself," Billick said. "You could tell right away the people they were, the values they grew up with."
Earlier Wednesday, Billick also had the opportunity to speak to BYU players and share a message with them at his college stomping grounds. That included spending time with Sitake.
"I love visiting with coaches now," he told reporters before the banquet, on meeting with Sitake. "I said, 'I'm going to ask you the same question I come across any first-year coach: What do you know now that you didn’t know when you took the job?'
"You prepare your whole life professionally to get to that point and prepare how you’re going to interview and (assemble) your staff and get all your materials together. And then you get it, you sit down in that chair and you think, 'I've got no clue what I’m doing. What do I do now?'"
Sitake, in his first season, brought in several former BYU players — guys like Ty Detmer and Ed Lamb, among others — to fill out his staff. The first-year result was a 9-4 season with wins over teams from the Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC and a year capped with a bowl victory over Wyoming.
"He alluded to the fact that, yeah, it’s hard to fully appreciate all the moving parts that go in to being a head coach and he’s done a phenomenal job," Billick said.
The former BYU tight end also reminisced about his college coach, LaVell Edwards, who died in December. It was one-on-one interviews with Edwards that stood out to Billick, who not only played for the Hall of Fame coach but joined his staff briefly as a graduate assistant in 1978.
"LaVell had such compassion for the players," Billick said. "Occasionally you're called into the principal's office for one reason or another. Sometimes good, sometimes not so good."
His first meeting with Edwards left an indelible mark.
"I remember the first time I go in, LaVell always had a shoe-shine kit in his lower left-hand drawer. When he talked to you, he'd always pull that out and put up his shoe and buff it," Billick said. "The very first time I'm there and he opens up that drawer, I'm sitting and I'm thinking, 'LaVell, I love you, but I'm not shining your shoes. That's not in my job description.'"
He also remembers, later in his college career, being called in and given a specific request from Edwards.
"He said, 'Would you room with Todd Christensen on the road?'" Billick recalled, "'because I think you are the only one who can handle Todd,' who we just called 'The Rev' and we knew could get revved up pretty good. I said, 'Coach, I'm up for it. I think I can handle this.'"
That led to an enduring friendship.
"Todd and I would go back and forth pretty good," Billick said. "We both ended up with the Cowboys, which was great fun."
Billick's NFL stint was short-lived, as he lasted just one year in the NFL with both Dallas and San Francisco before moving on to coaching. In addition to one grad assistant year at BYU, he spent time at San Diego State, Utah State and Stanford before moving on to the NFL, where he was a member of the Minnesota Vikings' staff from 1992 to 1998 before being the Ravens head coach from 1999 to 2007.
Christensen, who died in November 2013, went on to a 10-year career in the NFL, starring with the Raiders after brief stints with the Cowboys and Giants. He was a five-time Pro Bowler as a tight end and won two Super Bowl titles with the Raiders before becoming a TV analyst.
Billick also left those in attendance Wednesday night with a powerful message: Not only are friendships forged through football, it's a way for the leaders of tomorrow to be refined.
"Every one of the young people here is going professional in something at some point," Billick said. "Not necessarily in professional athletics, but you're going to be professional in something. Corporate America is starving for you.
"They're looking for that individual that knows what it is to be a team member, to give themselves (wholly) over to the process, to risk going out in front of your peers and embarrassing yourselves possibly, of getting hurt, of getting knocked down and getting back up again. That is invaluable."