It seems like forever ago, but in many ways, it feels like yesterday. Or as Pro Football Hall of Famer Warren Sapp likes to say, “Days drag, years fly and decades zoom.” Another unknown philosopher once said, “Days are long, years are short.”
It was late November in 1979 and at the age of 28, I was in my second year at The Sporting News in St. Louis, having been originally hired to edit their statistical books. In the offseason, managing editor Lowell Reidenbaugh had allowed me to begin writing a weekly NFL column in the publication.
Surely, that was the defining moment of my career, and I’m forever grateful for the confidence he showed in me.
Meanwhile, at that time in 1979, Brian Billick (age 25) was in his first year as the assistant director of public relations for the San Francisco 49ers where Bill Walsh was in his first year as head coach. Walsh wanted Billick, who was hoping to get into coaching, to become familiar with that part of the organization.
Billick had played at BYU, was selected by the 49ers in the 11th round of the 1977 draft (295th overall), and was briefly with the 49ers and Cowboys in training camp before spending 1978 as a graduate assistant at BYU.
It was in his PR role that I received a call from Billick during the week of the 49ers’ Dec. 2 game in St. Louis against the Cardinals.
In those days, public relations personnel traveled to the road city as advance men during the week to advocate for stories on their team. It was a practice started by then-commissioner Pete Rozelle, who began his career in PR before becoming commissioner in 1960 at the age of 34.
During the call, Billick asked if there was anything I needed and I hatched a plan. That evening, for the first time, I was solo hosting a radio show on KSD 550, now KTRS. I suggested to Brian that he could come out and see The Sporting News and then come on my show as a guest.
After all, the approaching game was a battle of titans. Not really. The 49ers were 1-12, the Cardinals were 3-10 and had just fired head coach Bud Wilkinson earlier that week after refusing the organization’s demand that he bench quarterback Jim Hart and replace him with Steve Pisarkiewicz, an unlikely No. 1 pick in 1977 who the team later learned was blind in one eye.
That Sunday, with Pisarkiewicz under center, the Cardinals won 13-10 and then won one of their final two games. He had started one game in 1978, and those four starts turned out to be his only ones in the NFL.
Pisarkiewicz was 9-for-16 for 91 yards that day, while a rookie quarterback for the 49ers completed 5-of-12 passes for 36 yards. That player was Joe Montana, who started only one game that season.
As for my suggestion, Billick agreed, and my recollection was the discussion went well.
Fast forward 20 years. Billick had been a college coach for 11 seasons and a NFL assistant with the Minnesota Vikings for seven when he was named head coach of the Baltimore Ravens in January, 1999.
At the Super Bowl that year in Miami, less than two weeks after he was hired, the Ravens conducted a press conference so the national media could meet Billick.
I attended with the intention of saying hello afterward to see whether there was a longshot chance he might remember me.
As I started to introduce myself, Billick quickly interrupted and said, “Howard, good to see you. How’s your radio show?” or words to that effect.
I was floored. I had not talked to him in the ensuing two decades and yet, not only did he recall that night, he then remembered that another guest I had scheduled ghosted me and he ended up being on the show for the entire time.
We have joked about that on a few occasions since then.
Now that he will be assisting the Arizona State football staff, I’ll be asking him to come on my radio show again!