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From the same cloth: Harbaugh and Spagnuolo share special bond

It's hard to find a quiet moment when you're a head coach in the NFL.

Your time, especially during the season, feels scripted, almost down to the minute. There are meetings and phone calls to conduct, practices and drills to oversee, video to analyze and egos to assuage. If you're a details man, there are hourly fires to put out, and if your fan base is restless, the tension can feel suffocating.

When John Harbaugh and Steve Spagnuolo take the field for Sunday's game between the Baltimore Ravens and St. Louis Rams, it will represent the culmination of a frantic and stressful week.

In the midst of an already hectic season, with both teams needing a victory to keep the mounting pressure at bay, there won't be much time for two old friends to privately reflect. There is simply too much at stake. Both men, though, will carry the memory of a moment they shared the last time these teams met. It's a moment that speaks to their bond, and an example of why they view one another — after more than a decade of friendship — as surrogate family.

In 2010, the Ravens and Rams met the first week of September in St. Louis for their final preseason game. Kickoff wasn't until the 8 p.m., so the two jumped at the chance to spend the morning together.

Spagnuolo, who was about to begin his first year as the Rams' head coach, picked up Harbaugh from the Ravens hotel, and they drove to Spagnuolo's new house. It was a chance to catch up, to confide in one another, to talk about family and joke about their days as young, hungry assistants with the Philadelphia Eagles. They spent some time with Spagnuolo's wife, Maria, laughed and reminisced about battles won and lost, and then they climbed back in the car and kept talking as they weaved through the city.

At some point, on a nondescript street neither man remembers much about, Spagnuolo pulled over. The two coaches — both life-long Catholics — lowered their heads in prayer.

"That's the kind of stuff you don't forget," Harbaugh said. "You feel a lot of responsibility for people as a head coach. There are a lot of people whose future is in your hands, and when you think about it, there is really a ripple affect on people depending on if you can be successful or not. You just ask for the strength to be able to handle all that stuff."

Football and faith, Spagnuolo said, have been the twin pillars of their friendship for as long as they've known each another.

"I consider John family, so to me, it was nice," Spagnuolo said. "It was a nice one-hour getaway for the two of us, where you get back to reality with someone you care about and love, and you talk about things other than football."

Early years

The bond that Harbaugh and Spagnuolo share was forged in the weekly fires of NFC East football, and the hours they spent working late into the night as member's of Andy Reid's coaching staff with the Eagles.

From 2000 to 2004, Philadelphia made the playoffs five consecutive years and went to four straight NFC championships. Working under Reid was also a bit like attending an academy for aspiring head coaches. In addition to Harbaugh (who coached special teams) and Spagnuolo (who coached defensive backs and linebackers), the staff included future NFL head coaches Brad Childress, Leslie Frazier, Ron Rivera and Pat Shurmur.

"You could tell they were both going to be head coaches someday," said Ike Reese, a linebacker who played for the Eagles from 1998 to 2004 and made the Pro Bowl as a special teams selection. "You could tell just by their preparation and by the way they attacked their day-to-day work. They paid attention to every little detail. I remember Harbaugh suggested we form a Special Teams Breakfast Club, and so I'd get the guys together 45 minutes before a meeting just to go over stuff alone, without the coaches. He was able to convince all of us to put in extra work just because of his passion for the job."

Reid's assistants, Harbaugh said, tried to be sponges when it came to soaking up a fellow coach's area of expertise. Some nights, Harbaugh would sit in Spagnuolo's office, picking his brain about pass coverage. Other nights, Harbaugh would give an impromptu lecture on punt protection. They shared meals and family histories and dreamed of the day they'd have a team of their own to run.

"We all just wanted to learn and learn from each other," Harbaugh said. "We understood we could teach each other a lot. But really more than anything, it was just the time we spent together. The experiences, the championship games, the heartbreaking losses. I think that stuff just forges a relationship. It's not even words. You just see a person that you've got all this history with, and it's like, 'Hey man!' We're guys, so we don't say much about our emotions. But you know it's there. You don't have to even talk about it."

Harbaugh and Spagnuolo grew particularly close, and when they weren't talking about football, they were running together, eating together or attending Bible study together. Harbaugh's wife, Ingrid, and Spagnuolo's wife became close friends, and the two of them frequently went on trips together. Plenty of nights, though, Spagnuolo said he and his wife would simply drive over to the Harbaughs' house to share a meal or story.

"I think the both of us enjoy being head coaches," Spagnuolo said, "but I do miss that day-to-day interaction with John and his insight and wisdom."

Realizing the dream

It was a bit of a surprise, even to their players, when Harbaugh was named the Ravens' head coach.

"I always thought Spags would be the first, to be honest," said Quintin Mikell, a former Eagles safety who now plays for the Rams. "You just didn't see many special teams coaches become head coaches. But as soon as coach Harbaugh got the job, I knew he'd be a very good coach."

When Spagnuolo was named the Rams' head coach after spending two seasons as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator, one of his first calls came from Harbaugh.

"The basic thing I told him is: 'Don't have any doubts you can do this,' " Harbaugh said. "We talk all the time during the offseason. It's nice, because when you get into this position, you understand each other and what you're going through. You can vent a little bit sometimes too, or just ask for advice. And that's a good thing."

It's not easy to face a close friend in a game where it feels like so much is already at stake. Spagnuolo, according to a report by the New York Post, had to meet with Rams owner Stan Kroenke for nearly 15 minutes immediately after St. Louis (0-2) lost to the Giants on Monday night. And Harbaugh, who was the toast of the town after a Week 1 victory over Pittsburgh, is once again getting heat from fans because the Ravens (1-1) looked lifeless in a Week 2 loss to theTennesseeTitans.

But regardless of what happens Sunday, the two men will walk to midfield and embrace when it's over.

Spagnuolo still has a pocket Bible from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes that Harbaugh gave him when he first joined the Eagles' staff, more than a decade ago.

"I made him sign it, so I have his autograph," Spagnuolo said. "I don't know if he has mine, but I have his. I'll never forget that day."

Spagnuolo carries that Bible in his briefcase, as a symbol of faith and friendship. Football games are won and lost, and the pressure of next week always looms.

But some things endure.

kvanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kvanvalkenburg

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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