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For decisions, owner goes with gut instinct

Steve Bisciotti trusts his instincts.

He used them to find the relatively uncredentialed but talented young people who helped him build the country's largest private hiring firm. And the Ravens owner was comfortable relying on them to pick as his new head coach a man who has never run a professional offense or defense, much less a team.

John Harbaugh was not the most- experienced or the hottest name on the coaching market. But Bisciotti built a fortune by spotting people like him, and the owner seemed at ease with his choice as the Ravens introduced their new coach yesterday.

"Do I like a guy that has to earn his resume?" Bisciotti said. "Absolutely. I've made a living on guys with thin resumes for 25 years, and it's worked out well for me. You have to be willing to do things the masses would never do. That's how you separate yourself from the masses."

He described the hiring as a culmination of all his business experiences, all the impressions he has gleaned from other leaders and from past employees.

"You go with your instincts," Bisciotti, 47, said. "And I think I have pretty good instincts."

The hiring was Bisciotti's greatest test since becoming the Ravens' principal owner in 2004. Less than three weeks ago, he fired Brian Billick, the man who guided the franchise to its only Super Bowl championship. Bisciotti set for himself the goal of finding the next Hall of Fame coach.

It's tempting to view Bisciotti's past six weeks as a series of drastic swings. He went from believing the only coach he had ever employed would return for the 2008 season to firing him after the last game. He seemed to settle on a replacement in Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, only to be rejected.

But Bisciotti insisted he was not roiled by the process.

"I made a very difficult decision, but then I found my equilibrium," he said. "I may be an emotional person, but that's not about highs and lows."

His comfort with hiring helped. "This was fairly easy for me, because it's something I've done my whole life," he said.

Bisciotti did not look haggard from the process. He strolled into the news conference with a grin, dressed in jeans, a pink shirt with no tie and a checked blazer. Though the temperature outside was only a few degrees above freezing, he sported a deep tan and wore no socks. He could have been headed for cocktails on South Beach.

Bisciotti is an informal yet reserved figure who has never warmed to the spotlight that shines on many sports owners.

He appeared somber when he announced Billick's firing and called the decision the toughest of his life. He showed a public vulnerability that's rare for a man who won't discuss his team with reporters during the season. "The jury is out on me," Bisciotti said then, addressing the Ravens' fan base. "Brian's already got his Super Bowl. I'll try to make you all proud."

He didn't say much about how he planned to look for a coach. But his remarks suggested that he wanted to pan the river for an undiscovered gold nugget instead of buying a pre-manufactured bracelet off the shelf.

"I said to my wife [Dec. 30] that there's a Hall of Fame coach out there, and it's our job to find him," he said during the process.

He said yesterday that the comment did not signal an unwillingness to hire an experienced coach such as Marty Schottenheimer. He was not looking to put his stamp on the franchise, he added.

"If I thought Brian Billick was going to be the best coach, I would have brought him back and hired him," Bisciotti said. "If I thought [defensive coordinator] Rex Ryan was ready, I would've hired him. There's no statement underlying my decision."

Bisciotti relied on his football experts, led by general manager Ozzie Newsome, to sift through the potential coaches and narrow the list to six.

The owner did his best to enter the process without prejudices. Ryan, for example, carried the endorsements of many top players.

"Our job," Bisciotti said, "is to make sure that wouldn't help him."

After meeting with the six candidates, he believed any one could be a good head coach. "You've spent 25 years doing a million little things right to get the kinds of endorsements these guys had," he said.

But Garrett and Harbaugh led the list. They fit the owner's image of a leader, the type of guy he could see standing in front of his team and saying the right things.

He wanted a great communicator who, at the same time, wouldn't pretend to know everything and wouldn't fear self-deprecation.

"I want someone who understands that it can be very lonely at the top but that it doesn't have to be," he said.

The Ravens talked to Harbaugh twice, and Bisciotti spent about 15 hours with him, seeking that comfort level that would tell him he had found his man.

"You guys put me through such a grueling process," Harbaugh said, turning to Bisciotti. "It was about as detailed as it could've been. ... You made me think.

"Steve, you had the toughest questions," he added a moment later.

When asked later how Bisciotti struck him, Harbaugh said: "Energetic, powerful, strong, very creative. You've got to be an outside-the-box thinker. I tell you, I took notes. Anytime you have an opportunity to spend that much time with a guy like that, even if you don't get the job, you have to learn something."

After talking with Garrett and Harbaugh, Bisciotti popped in a tape that Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin sent to interviewers last year. Many of the qualities he observed in Tomlin he had just glimpsed in his top two candidates. He felt reassured.

Bisciotti was not devastated when Garrett decided to stay with the Cowboys. He had told the leading candidate before he left Tuesday that he was neck and neck with Harbaugh.

"I don't want you to think we feel jilted," Bisciotti said yesterday. "He was an honorable guy who was put in a difficult position."

As a "glass-half-full guy," the owner said he immediately felt comfortable with his alternative, Harbaugh.

"I don't know that I was my wife's first choice," Bisciotti joked.

As he looked back on the process, Bisciotti couldn't think of anything that surprised him. Not that it was as easy as decisions he used to make in corporate life.

"It's the toughest hire I've had to make because it's public, not because it was over my head intellectually or emotionally," he said.

When he was finished talking with reporters, Bisciotti turned to former Ravens owner Art Modell, 82, whom he credited with setting a hiring blueprint. He crouched low so he could look his wheelchair-bound mentor in the eye as they spoke. Before he was pulled away for a radio appearance, he kissed the old man on the cheek.

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