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On Bisciotti's Decision

Calculated risk

Hiring Harbaugh is bold move

Rick Maese

January 19, 2008

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Not when the veteran quarterback or hotshot running back was acquired.

Not when any offensive coordinator was fired or any defensive coordinator was hired.

Not even when one owner handed over controlling interest to another.

In recent years, no single day represents as much change to the Ravens organization as today, when John Harbaugh, a career assistant, will be introduced as the Ravens' third head coach, replacing Brian Billick, who was fired nearly three weeks ago after a nine-year run.

The sweeping changes take place on a pair of fronts. Obviously, on the field, a young, 45-year-old fresh face is in charge of a locker room of veterans and will try to get the most out of a group that's coming off a disappointing 5-11 season. But perhaps just as important, owner Steve Bisciotti has now firmly rubbed his fingerprints on one of the Ravens' last untouched surfaces.

Bisciotti took over ownership nearly four years ago but inherited many key components. He built his fortune via a staffing company - placing the right people in the right jobs. But no hire or placement he has ever made has been as important as Harbaugh's.

Because Harbaugh has never been an offensive or defensive coordinator - let alone a head coach - his appointment surely will be viewed by many as high risk. For many football fans, he has lived his football life in the shadow of a more successful father and a more well-known brother. But for the Ravens, it's a calculated gamble, a week in the making on the team's end and a lifetime in the making on Harbaugh's.

Forget the talk of inexperience; Harbaugh had been preparing himself for this job nearly his entire life. His father, Jack, was a longtime football coach, and his brother, Jim, was an NFL quarterback who's also now a coach. As for Harbaugh, he played defensive back at Miami (Ohio), where he majored in political science.

"He was going to be a lawyer and go into politics," his father told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1998. "When he told her he'd made up his mind and that he was going into coaching, his mother dropped her head onto the kitchen table and burst into tears as if she'd lost her son."

It wasn't long before everyone else started accepting that John Harbaugh would someday be a head coach. It just took a decision-maker like Bisciotti and the hiring committee he assembled to look beyond the short resume. Firing Billick might have been the tougher move, but hiring Harbaugh is certainly the bolder one.

Though Harbaugh spent this season as an Eagles assistant in charge of the secondary, much of his success has come from leading the special teams, which isn't as unlikely a starting point as it might seem. Coaches such as Bill Belichick, Bill Cowher and Mike Ditka all rose from special teams to eventual head coaching jobs.

Still, Harbaugh wasn't like a lot of other special teams coaches.

Back when the Eagles reached the Super Bowl in 2005, it was noted that while many teams might have a half-dozen kickoff-return schemes, Harbaugh carried a thicker playbook. He had 56 schemes and formations drawn up.

His style always seemed different, too. Players like him for a reason. Special teams players are often unheralded, unseasoned and unnoticed. Harbaugh created a chart for his unit, awarded gold stars for tackles, blocks and big plays. Every four games, he would hand out prizes, like an iPod. Subtle and simple, but effective.

Over the years, the praise from his players and fellow coaches has been consistent. It didn't matter who was doing the talking - Eagles head coach Andy Reid, Pro Bowl player Ike Reese or members of Harbaugh's large sports family - the coach's fate has felt predetermined, his path pointed in one clear direction.

Harbaugh reportedly blew away Ravens officials with enthusiasm, character and organization, but the Ravens' calculated risk is centered on the idea that the Eagles' special teams is a microcosm, that Harbaugh can transfer his success and methods to the larger locker room.

"I don't think it's a stretch to say the special teams coach has more head-coaching responsibilities because of the nature of the job, but it hasn't been viewed that way," Harbaugh told New Jersey's Courier-Post in 2000. "I'm hoping I'm the guy who breaks the barrier. I used to worry. I don't anymore. I use the word 'providence.' All that stuff about worrying, it's phony. If you work hard, do a good job, and you're loyal, providence takes you where you're supposed to go."

It's a new day at the Ravens' Owings Mills complex. Harbaugh inherits a Ravens team in need of change and direction. His toughest work is ahead of him.

As for the man in charge, the biggest task Bisciotti has faced as team owner is thankfully behind him. He's playing with his own chess pieces now, and today he'll show off a new king.

rick.maese@baltsun.com