Twelve years before they went head-to-head for an NFL coaching job, John Harbaugh and Rex Ryan were on the same staff at Cincinnati.
In 1996, Harbaugh was the Bearcats’ assistant head coach and special teams coordinator. Ryan was their defensive coordinator.
“We had a great year together,” said Harbaugh, whose Ravens face Ryan’s New York Jets Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. “Actually, I was the assistant head coach on that staff, and he called and was interested in a job there. He called me and I was [like], ‘Wow, I remember you from Eastern Kentucky [where Ryan had served as a graduate assistant almost a decade earlier].’ He was kind of silent on the phone, but it was a pretty easy sell to the head coach, Rick Minter, at the time. Rex did a good job.”
Cincinnati finished 6-5 that year, good for third in Conference USA. Their roster included future Ravens like Brad Jackson, Robert Tate and Chris Hewitt, now the Ravens’ assistant special teams coach. Longtime NFL players Jason Fabini and Artrell Hawkins were also on the team.
But as it turned out, two of the team’s biggest names were on Minter’s coaching staff. Jeff Filkovski, now the head coach at North Carolina Wesleyan, was a graduate assistant on Cincinnati's staff in 1996. While he said it was impossible at the time to predict that Harbaugh and Ryan would go on to become highly successful NFL coaches, he saw the same attributes in the pair then that he still sees today.
“The passion for competing lives in both of them,” Filkovski said this week in a telephone interview. “Only being with Harbs for a year, but you see all the things that you see today: He’s stand-up, great guy, great individual, great family guy. Obviously, a great family background out of the both of them. Their lives are kind of parallel with their fathers being coaches and their family being involved in coaching. I guess that’s where most of the competitiveness comes out of them. They hate to lose.
“Harbs is disciplined and straight-laced. Rex wasn’t afraid to say how he’s going to do things, just like he is today. The personalities are great, coming from total different ends of the spectrum, if you will.”
Harbaugh left Cincinnati after eight seasons to coach defensive backs and special teams at Indiana in 1997. He spent one season in Bloomington before he was hired by the Philadelphia Eagles, with whom he stayed for 10 seasons.
Ryan left Cincinnati after two seasons, taking the defensive coordinator job first with Oklahoma in 1998 and then with Kansas State in 1999. The Ravens hired him in 1999 to coach the defensive line.
The Ravens ultimately chose Harbaugh over Ryan for their head coaching job in 2008. Because of his existing relationship with Harbaugh, Ryan stayed on as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for one season before he left to become the Jets' head coach in 2009.
“I don’t know if anybody could sit there and say, ‘Hey, this guy is going to be an NFL head coach' or anything like that, but certainly you could tell,” Filkovski said. “They were both sharp and on top of their profession. Cincinnati has produced a lot of those guys. [Pittsburgh Steelers coach] Mike Tomlin was part of the staff following them. [Florida State head coach] Jimbo Fisher is doing pretty well. Not only getting there but keeping the job is what’s most impressive. If you look at Rex and John and even Mike, it’s impressive what they’ve done in keeping their jobs. Obviously, they are worthy.”