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Born for this

The Baltimore Sun

John Harbaugh can't say when he first realized his dad, Jack, was a football coach.

The old man never sat him down and explained what he did. Harbaugh just assumed all kids got stuffed into lockers by college stars or baby-sat for sideline legends.

"It was our life," the Ravens coach said. "How our team did, being around the players, seeing how much our dad cared about them, even after they graduated. We thought everybody's dad was a football coach."

To Baltimore fans, Harbaugh, 45 - who will make his regular-season head coaching debut tomorrow - might seem new. But in no way does that word describe his relationship with the game he loves. Though his face is unlined and his teeth gleam, Harbaugh's football roots run deep, to the hard-hitting Midwestern game of the 1950s.

Harbaugh was in fifth grade when his father took a job on Bo Schembechler's staff at Michigan and moved the family to Ann Arbor. Schembechler believed that if you could execute the simple plays properly, you would rarely need the complicated ones. The philosophy led to a Hall of Fame career for Schembechler, and it shaped the way Jack and John Harbaugh coached.

"I probably heard [Bo] give pre-game talks 100 times, and he never once failed to motivate me to the point where I had hairs standing up on my arm and neck," Jack Harbaugh recalled. "What drove you about Bo was that you knew how much he cared about the game and how much he cared about his players. You saw him and you wanted to work as hard as he worked, to believe how he believed. You worked so hard not to disappoint him."

John's mother, Jackie, saw her husband's passion and figured that if her boys were to know their father, they would have to join him at the practice field.

She mentioned this casually to Schembechler's wife, who spoke to the fiery coach. "Jack," Schembechler said the next day, "why don't you tell the kids to come on out here. They can lift a weight or kick the ball around. Just tell them to keep off my field."

Just like that, John Harbaugh and his younger brother, Jim, earned an invitation to one of the nation's great programs.

When John Harbaugh wanted Ravens employees to understand his philosophy, he distributed Schembechler's book on leadership as a guide. Throw yourself into something you love, know your values and stick to them, trust your people to set their own goals, practice how you intend to play, the legend said in his last statement to the world.

"You're going to model yourself after what you're familiar with," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "His dad ... is obviously the biggest influence on John, and he's very similar to what you read in the book about Schembechler. He's just a great coach, and he's himself. He's influenced by whom he's been around, and you can definitely see Bo in him."

But Harbaugh is about more than runs up the middle and bruising practices. He also worked with Hall of Fame coach Sid Gillman, father of the deep passing game, and put the finishing touches on his resume under Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, one of the most successful descendants of West Coast passing genius Bill Walsh.

His mentors believe he is positioned to succeed in the NFL because he has learned under a wide range of coaches and because he has worked with players on both sides of the ball.

"I knew John was going to be a head coach," Reid said. "I knew he was wired the right way for it."

Rick Minter saw the potential in Harbaugh and put the young coach in charge of recruiting and special teams at the University of Cincinnati.

"Every step along the way helped him become the man he is today," Minter said. "So you have a guy who may be inexperienced as a head coach, but you have a guy who is as prepared as any to tackle the job."

If Harbaugh really is a product of the men who taught him, this is the kind of coach he will be. He'll be optimistic and passionate but won't tolerate those who fail to meet his standards. He'll ask his team to hit hard and do basic things well, during the week and on Sunday. He'll have a purpose for every moment of practice and excel at communicating those purposes to players. He won't have much interest in explaining himself to reporters or other outsiders. He'll defer leadership to assistants and veterans but will remain the clear and final voice on every important decision.

"He has the ability to touch and challenge every guy he comes across," said Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who first met Harbaugh when he worked at Michigan football camps in the 1970s with Jack Harbaugh. "We talk about players having that 'it' factor, something you can't describe but you can just see. Well, John has that."

Football coaches are nearly as aware of pedigree as horse breeders. And as John Harbaugh climbed the ranks, everyone knew he had fallen from a maize-and-blue tree, seeded by a coaching giant.

Bo Schembechler was an old-fashioned Midwesterner who knew where he stood and figured if a player couldn't meet him there, the kid should play elsewhere. He yelled liberally and proclaimed that all his players should be treated the same - like dogs. He couldn't abide liars and dealt with problems as quickly and directly as possible.

As tough as he was, Schembechler loved people. He bent over backward never to fire a coach, insisted that his players call him "Bo" and let his seniors set goals for the team.

On the field, he believed his teams should practice as hard as they would play Saturday. Organization was a paramount. Even the smallest moment of a Tuesday practice in September had to further the team's goal of reaching the Rose Bowl in January.

He never cared to outscheme the other coach. He wanted his players to be tougher, better conditioned and sharper in their basic patterns than the opposition. He won 234 games and lost just 65 thinking that way.

In their passion, toughness and thoroughness, Harbaugh's dad and the great Schembechler were a lot alike. If Jack Harbaugh was his son's most direct coaching influence, Schembechler was his philosophical godfather. His passion for the game and his success were such that a football-obsessed boy growing up in Ann Arbor couldn't help but want to be like him.

"He was like Moses," John Harbaugh said. "An icon. He was Bo. If you know anything about Michigan football, you know what that means."

He grew up baby-sitting for the coach's son, Shemy, and hearing all the stories that would make up Bo's Lasting Lessons, the book Schembechler dictated as he neared death in 2006.

"When you take over a new operation, some people will tell you that you ought to lie low and look around before you do anything," Schembechler wrote. "But that's not me - because I just don't think it works. I say whatever your philosophy, whatever your standards, whatever your expectations, you establish those on Day One. Don't waste a second! Let them adjust to you, not the other way around."

Harbaugh had those thoughts in mind as he met his Ravens players for the first time. He wanted no lingering questions about his authority or his expectation that players treat every moment of practice and meetings as a vital step toward the Super Bowl.

"That's the responsibility of the position," he said. "If you didn't do that, you'd be negligent."

Cameron couldn't help but think of Schembechler as he watched Harbaugh interact with his players the night before the Ravens' final preseason game.

"There he was challenging each one of them, but at the same time, he was not taking himself too seriously," he said. "That combination of humor and toughness, that was Bo."

Unlike his brother, John Harbaugh wasn't good enough to play for Schembechler at Michigan. Instead, he played defensive back and earned one letter at Miami University of Ohio in 1983. His mother thought the political science major was headed for law school. His father, by then the coach at Western Michigan, suspected otherwise.

"He would say: 'A little problem came up on the team. What do you think? How would you handle it?' " Jack remembered. "I could see that it was more than just personal. He was starting to put heavy thinking into coaching."

After Harbaugh said he would, in fact, pursue the family trade, Jack hired him as a graduate assistant at Western Michigan. Harbaugh lived at home and commuted to and from work with his father.

"Those were maybe the most special times for me," Jack said. "Because we were talking on the same level, just about the team, the day ahead, little things."

He recognized great potential in his son.

"He saw things through the big picture," Jack said. "A lot of young coaches see things through a very tight lens. ... Some guys can't grasp the total picture, but he saw it all."

Harbaugh stayed with his father for three years.

His next boss, University of Pittsburgh coach Mike Gottfried, was Jack's first cousin. John Harbaugh figured he was a sympathy hire.

Not so, according to Gottfried. He had a standard for graduate assistants. If they completed an assigned task, did they rest or immediately seek something else to do?

"John would always look for something else," Gottfried said.

He put Harbaugh in charge of his tight ends and of recruiting northeast Ohio. The 24-year-old felt prepared for neither, but Gottfried had no reservations about sending him to speak at a booster dinner or meet a high school player's family.

"You didn't have to worry about him," Gottfried said. "He always presented himself so well."

On the field, Harbaugh received wisdom from a man three times his age. Gillman had already entered the Hall of Fame and was supposed to visit Pitt for only a few days to offer tips. But he took an interest in Harbaugh and stayed for several months, teaching him many fine points of offensive football.

"I learned from Sid how to make things work on the field," Harbaugh said.

Gillman, who died in 2003, was a pioneer in studying game film. He gave Harbaugh two reels of 16 mm film he had accumulated just on tight end play.

"He really helped me see how the pieces fit together," Harbaugh said. "The physiology of the game."

Harbaugh's longest college stop, eight seasons, was at Cincinnati under coaches Tim Murphy and Minter.

Minter, confident that Harbaugh could sell the essence of his program, put him in charge of recruiting in addition to special teams.

"I got that from Coach Minter," Harbaugh said after a recent practice, pointing to a banner above the end zone that reads, "W.I.N."

The acronym stands for "What's Important Now?"

It's a cliche but a deep truth that great athletes excel at blocking out the big picture in favor of doing their best in the moment. "If you want to win, take care of what's important now," Harbaugh summarized.

From Cincinnati, he moved to Indiana. It was a big leap for his career to go from a mid-major to the Big Ten. Beyond that, Harbaugh got to observe his future offensive coordinator, Cameron, then coach of the Hoosiers.

"He was so precise, so detailed, very black and white," Harbaugh said. "He gives players a place to be. And they can hang their hats on what he says."

At the end of the 1997 season, the Eagles called Cameron. "Right now, I've got one guy on my staff who's ready for the National Football League," Cameron told them. "And you guys just found him."

Harbaugh had a pretty good idea of his identity as a coach after 14 years in the college ranks. But as an assistant with the Eagles, he learned what it took to run a pro team and to communicate his ideas to the best players in the world.

"I think he watched Andy Reid and thought, 'This is what a head coach is,' " Jack Harbaugh said. "What Bo was to me, I think Andy was to John."

Some things you can pick up only by coaching in the NFL, said Reid, who like Harbaugh bounced from college to college before apprenticing himself to a successful pro coach.

"The organizational part of it, the big picture, how to deal with all the different areas of the office and make sure everybody is on the same page," Reid explained, when asked what he had gleaned from Mike Holmgren and passed on to Harbaugh. "You're the person out front and foremost in the public eye. So you have to make sure you're well educated in every aspect of the business."

Harbaugh also got to see just how much scrutiny an NFL head coach endures. The daily questions from reporters, the talk-radio debates picking apart every key move, the drama created when one superstar player feuded with another. Harbaugh had never seen anything like it at his previous stops, and Reid had to give the team's final word on every matter.

"His poise in a storm," Harbaugh said when asked what struck him most about his last boss. "His determination and his persistence in the face of all of that. That guy's a rock. I remember thinking, 'I want to be like that.' "

Jack Harbaugh got to sit in on a few of his son's meetings in Philadelphia. He watched him hold the attention of veteran Pro Bowl players such as Brian Dawkins and Lito Sheppard.

"Their eyes were right on him," the veteran coach noted. "He had a command. There are a lot of coaches who know a lot of football, but they don't have that. I can only call it a presence."

That impression only deepened after Jack watched his son coach at two Ravens minicamps. "I saw John out there," he said. "And I thought, this is what he's born to do."

Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.

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