January 20, 2008
On the first day of the John Harbaugh era, there was barely time for a handshake and a "Pleased to meet ya."
Not surprisingly, no concrete plans were laid out. The starting quarterback for Week 1 wasn't named. The candidates to fill out the new coaching staff weren't paraded about the building. And the offensive and defensive schemes weren't drawn out on a blackboard.
What we did learn at yesterday's news conference, in which Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti introduced his new coach, is that the broad strokes already on display lead us to believe that there will be plenty of change ahead. Put simply: We met the new boss; he wasn't the same as the old boss.
Like everyone else, Brian Billick had faults and foibles as an NFL coach. We know this because they were repeatedly dragged over the hot coals of public opinion the final two months of the 2007 season. But Billick certainly had his strengths. He was a lot of things - leader, communicator, organizer, motivator.
But there was one thing that he didn't sell quite as well in his nine years as coach - or at least maybe not as well as Harbaugh did in his first afternoon. The new coach is clearly a football guy.
Sure, by all accounts, Harbaugh has the people skills, and he can inspire and motivate players, and probably charm fans and corporate sponsors alike. But at the root of it all is a kid who grew up around the game and did nothing but eat, breathe and sleep the game his entire life.
His father, Jack, played football at Bowling Green State, was drafted by the American Football League's Buffalo Bills and then coached the game for 42 years, groomed under Bo Schembechler at Michigan. His brother, Jim, was a first-round pick out of Michigan and played quarterback for four NFL teams, including the Ravens. Jim couldn't just retire from the game, so he went into coaching and now holds the reins to the Stanford program. Even Harbaugh's sister, Joani, is involved in coaching - she's married to Marquette basketball coach Tom Crean.
You don't grow up in a coaching family without picking up a few things - about X's and O's, yes, but also about people and players and teams. "You can't have a better childhood," Harbaugh said.
Jack Harbaugh likes to tell the story of a game between Western Michigan and Miami of Ohio. Jack was the coach at Western Michigan and John was a player for Miami. John was playing special teams and lined up near Western Michigan's sideline, his back turned toward his dad.
"John, we got something set up for you," the dad barked. "We're coming after you!"
"Bring it!" the son said.
That's a pair of competitors, a pair of football men.
Jack, whose coaching career began in Canton, Ohio, of all places, didn't have a lot of hobbies. His life consisted of family and football, and once his boys started growing up, it was difficult to see where one stopped and the other began. Looking back, it's easy for Jack to see why John loves the game so much. At a young age, John was receiving a football education at the same time he was honing a competitive spirit.
Much of John's childhood was spent in Ann Arbor, Mich,, where his father was an assistant coach. John and Jim, separated by just 15 months, shared a bedroom.
"All you heard was 'boom, boom, boom!' " Jack said. "They were always bouncing off the walls and floor. 'Hey, I'm coming up there if you don't behave yourselves.' Finally you send them outside, and they'd just wrestle some more out there.
"They competed about everything. That's where [John] gets his competitive spirit from. With the two of them being so close, they really nudged each other up the ladder. It wasn't just football. It was everything they did."
Certainly, the Ravens' search committee did not seek out the anti-Billick. It just so happens that Harbaugh seems to embody many of the characteristics that Billick seemed to lack. Bisciotti is the one who pointed them out.
Though he probably didn't intend it this way, as he listed his new coach's strengths, Bisciotti was pointing out his old coach's weaknesses. In Harbaugh, he chose someone who will listen to those above him and below him, someone who's not set in his ways, someone who will surround himself by smart people and solicit feedback and advice.
And, of course, someone who's a football man through and through.
The Ravens' last coach is a smart man with a lot of options - writing, the speaking circuit, a television analyst.
The new coach has just one focus, and it's the only thing he has ever known - football.
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