They'll always be linked, not just by similar coaching pedigrees and shared experiences, but because of one January 2008 decision that helped shape two franchises for years to come.
After firing Brian Billick following the 2007 season, the Ravens selected Harbaugh as their next head coach, choosing him over a group of candidates that included Ryan, the team's defensive coordinator. It was an unconventional decision at the time, hiring a longtime special teams coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles over one of the architects of the Ravens' vaunted defense and the popular choice of the players.
Nearly six years later, Harbaugh has more than justified Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti's decision, while Ryan has rewarded the faith that the New York Jets have shown in him by steadying a team beset by turmoil last season. On Sunday afternoon, the two former coaching colleagues will again be competitors as the Ravens and Jets meet at M&T Bank Stadium in a game that could go a long way in deciding each team's postseason fate.
"I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't special," Ryan said when asked about his return to Baltimore, where he coached for 10 years, four of them as the defensive coordinator and one as the assistant head coach to Harbaugh. "There's no question it's special. So many guys that are still there in Baltimore meant a great deal to me. … It'll be special to see them. That doesn't mean that I don't want to go out there and win. Obviously, that's what I want to do. I want to kick their butts, just like they want to kick mine."
The Jets are 5-5 and tentatively hold the sixth and final playoff spot with six games to go. At 4-6, the Ravens are one of eight teams within 11/2 games of that spot. The magnitude of the game clearly surpasses any other familiar storyline.
"Everybody knows the love and respect I have for Rex, but he's not on my team anymore," Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We don't wear the same colors. If you're not a part of my team, then you're my enemy. I think he agrees and feels the same away."
Ryan, who once said he'd "always think it was [wrong]" that he didn't get the Ravens head coaching job in 2008, maintained last week that he had no animosity or jealousy toward his former employer. He said he was a "huge Ravens fan" during their Super Bowl run last year and other than the Jets, he roots for the Ravens and the New Orleans Saints, for whom his brother, Rob, is the defensive coordinator.
Harbaugh, meanwhile, praised Ryan last week. Their relationship goes back to the late 1980s, when Harbaugh was an assistant at Morehead State and Ryan was a graduate assistant at Eastern Kentucky. They coached together at the University of Cincinnati in 1996 and again in Baltimore in 2008, when Ryan agreed to stay on as Harbaugh's defensive coordinator after he was beaten out for the Ravens' head coaching job. A year later, Ryan was hired to coach the Jets, a job he's held for five seasons.
"If we are connected, that's a great thing and I feel great about that," said Harbaugh, who remembered comparing stories with Ryan about what it's like being from a coaching family. "When [John's brother] Jim and I see Rex and Rob, we have a great time. I think there is a mutual respect and there's also a mutual understanding of what it's like growing up as a coach's kid."
When the 2013 NFL season began, Harbaugh and Ryan occupied opposite ends of the NFL coaching spectrum. After making the playoffs in his first four seasons, Harbaugh's Ravens broke through last year, winning the franchise's second Super Bowl. Harbaugh was rewarded before this season with a four-year contract extension that made him one of the highest-paid coaches in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the prevailing belief around the league was that Ryan was coaching for his job. The Jets had a new general manager in John Idzik, they had a mess of a quarterback situation and they were coming off a brutal 6-10 campaign. But Ryan, who led the Jets to AFC championship game appearances in his first two seasons as their head coach, has quieted some of the talk by winning five games while dealing with rookie quarterback Geno Smith's growing pains.
"The first two years we end up a game short of the Super Bowl, but we have a nucleus here," Ryan said. "It's obviously a process that's not built overnight, but I certainly was hoping it would be. … I haven't been as successful as I'd like to be as a head coach, but again, my time is not over as head coach here."
By now, Bisciotti's reasons to go with Harbaugh over Ryan are well documented. The owner, who has had great success in the business world, wasn't just looking for a head coach but for a CEO for his organization, a polished and humble leader who could relate to players and coaches but also corporations and sponsors.
Ryan was beloved by his players, but his outspoken nature and bravado rubbed some people the wrong way. When he interviewed to replace Billick, he arrived at the team facility and parked his red pickup truck in the spot designated for the head coach.
Beyond that, Bisciotti was also concerned with the growing divide between an offense that lacked an identity and a Ryan-led defense that possessed a couple of the league's biggest stars.
"From a chemistry standpoint, we really liked John and we thought it was going to be tougher for Rex to bring the whole team together after him spending 10 years on one side of the ball that was the dominant side of the ball," Bisciotti said during a conference call with season-ticket holders in August 2011. "I will always be second-guessed. Some people will agree with me, and some people won't."
Bisciotti is obviously not being second-guessed any longer, even by former Ravens who had made it clear they wanted Ryan, not Harbaugh, as their head coach.
Former NFL linebacker Bart Scott played under Harbaugh in the 2008 season before following Ryan to the Jets as a free agent, a move several other players have made. It was no secret that the outspoken Scott didn't see always see eye-to-eye with Harbaugh. In 2010, he guaranteed "there's at least 15 other [Ravens] over there praying to God that they get released for a half a day, too, so they can come [to the Jets]."
Now an NFL analyst for CBS Sports, Scott praised the success that Harbaugh has had, saying: "I think Harbaugh has come out of his shadow from being first, a guy who fans didn't want. They wanted Rex to be the head coach. But he's been great for the city of Baltimore. He wasn't just a special teams coach. He's a guy that can lead men."