Harbaugh 'never once cracked'

The Baltimore Sun

Did John Harbaugh ever get discouraged in more than 20 years as an assistant football coach?

"He never once cracked," said his father, Jack, admiration flooding his face. "He never once blinked."

Fortitude, an unwavering belief in a plan and in himself, a calm when others might panic - these are the traits players, coaches and family mention when asked why Harbaugh has succeeded. They helped him first become a head coach, then lead the Ravens to a surprise appearance in today's AFC Championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"What you see with John is who he is," said Cam Cameron, who hired Harbaugh as an assistant at Indiana University and is now his offensive coordinator. "He isn't afraid in any situation to be who he is, and I think that's why we all respond to him so well."

Harbaugh's parents wondered sometimes, given his insignificant playing career at Miami University of Ohio and his largely anonymous work as an assistant coach for six college and pro teams. Did he compare himself to his younger brother, Jim, of the All-American career at the University of Michigan, 14-year NFL career and near-instant ascent to a college head coaching job?

"At some point in time, he just had to say, 'Look, this is crazy. Why not me?' " Jack Harbaugh said last week at the Ravens training complex in Owings Mills.

But if Harbaugh had such doubts, he never showed them. His brother described him as a longtime rock for family and friends alike. "If I have a problem, I give John a call and see what he says," said Jim, Stanford's head coach. "He usually has the answer in 30 seconds."

Just don't ask Harbaugh, 46, to probe his soul. Even now, on the cusp of a championship game appearance that no one predicted, his veneer of calm never cracks.

"You feel really pleased for and proud of the people in the building - our players and our coaches and everyone else - that you have a chance to compete in a game like this," he said Monday when asked about his emotional state. "As a head coach, you feel like, 'You know what? We have a chance to do something and compete in a real special football game.' Other than that, it is the next football game up, and that's the one we're getting ready to play."

Such a response might elicit eye-rolls from some observers, who figure the rookie coach's guts must be roiling at the prospect of his first game on such a big stage.

But no, said his father, his brother and the players who know him. That's just Harbaugh.

"It's one week at a time, and things will fall into place," Jack Harbaugh said of his son's outlook. "We play this week, I'll go home and get three or four hours' sleep and now, we're presented with another situation."

The same perseverance and sense of self that helped Harbaugh climb the coaching ranks have impressed players during the Ravens' rebound from a 5-11 record in 2007.

"Unflinching," defensive tackle Trevor Pryce said when asked to describe Harbaugh's style. "He's very confident, and that's a good thing. That's the one thing you want in a coach. Sometimes, coaches give you lip service. But when he talks, you believe that he believes what he's saying."

"I haven't seen him blink an eye," said kicker Matt Stover, a veteran of 18 seasons who has spoken with Harbaugh about leadership. "Of course, he has to be like, 'Wow,' at where we are. But he knew coming in that this was the toughest job but the best, too, because he would have a chance to win right away."

When the Ravens hired Harbaugh, he had coached for 24 years at various colleges and as an assistant for the Philadelphia Eagles. Before that, he had grown up at the knee of his father, a longtime high school and college coach.

Despite his lifelong bond with the game, Harbaugh had never been a head coach at any level. So early doubts from fans and reporters were unavoidable. His brother had none. During Jim's stint as an assistant with the Oakland Raiders, opposing players jogged up every week and said, "I played for your brother in Philadelphia. That guy's the best."

"I didn't know how good he was until I started coaching myself," Jim Harbaugh said. "When I kept hearing from these guys that he was the best coach they'd ever had, I knew he was going to be a head coach in the NFL."

The new guy said he took his coaching philosophy from his dad and from Jack's old Michigan boss, Bo Schembechler. He went so far as to hand out copies of Schembechler's book to Ravens staffers who wanted to know what their new coach was all about.

It was a telling move, because many of the traits Harbaugh's players praised come straight from the pages of Bo's Lasting Lessons.

Have a plan - every practice and meeting should be clearly tied to your ultimate goal. Insist that the people around you meet your standards rather than adjusting to meet theirs. Never be afraid to tell a player or assistant coach where he stands.

These were Schembechler's tenets, and Harbaugh's approach is quite similar.

In training camp, the Ravens hit harder and more often than they had under Brian Billick, the former Ravens coach who was fired Dec. 31, 2007. If this led to wariness and grumbling among some veterans, well, Harbaugh wasn't backing off.

Impressed by the rookie coach's conviction and organization, Stover urged teammates to buy into Harbaugh's program during those long summer practices. He wasn't the only veteran to be won over quickly.

"The team could tell quickly that [Harbaugh] knew what he was doing," said offensive tackle Willie Anderson, a veteran of 13 seasons. "He was doing things his way, and he wasn't going to change. We had some really tough practices, early on, just pounding and pounding, but he had a plan."

Harbaugh did his best work, Anderson said, after the Ravens fell to 2-3 with a blowout loss against the Indianapolis Colts. He didn't call special meetings or deliver any fiery words.

"The biggest thing was that he never changed up," Anderson said. "Guys never saw him panic."

Anderson, who has played for his share of unprepared and overwhelmed coaches, called Harbaugh "probably the best motivator I've ever seen."

Before the season, some observers wondered if the strong-willed new coach would clash with the team's biggest star, the equally strong-willed Ray Lewis. Not at all, the Pro Bowl linebacker said, when asked to reflect on his year with Harbaugh.

"I think he's the ultimate players' coach," Lewis said. "John is one of us. During the week, on game day, all of that, he relates to his players very well."

Every person Harbaugh runs into at the Ravens complex gets a smile, a look in the eye and patient attention. He works with great focus but doesn't linger at the office when he feels the day's goals have been met. Like his parents did with him and his siblings at Michigan, he brings his 6-year-old daughter, Alison, to work so she's never left out of his busy existence.

Jim Harbaugh said that when he gets home, his wife often says that his head is still in "football land."

"But not John," he said. "When he's at home around his daughter and his wife, it's all about them. I think that comes back to ability. Some coaches have to work around the clock, because they're just not as productive as John."

Harbaugh likes to have family around. He shared an embrace with his father and a few private words on the sideline after the Ravens won at Tennessee last weekend.

He also experienced Baltimore's warm embrace when the team's plane and buses were greeted by thousands of fans after the Ravens arrived home. His face was smudged with purple when he got home because he had hugged a fan who was masked in paint.

"It was emotional, you know?" Harbaugh said two days later. "The fans really touched us. They really did. That's something I'll never forget, and I don't think our players will, either."

Today's championship game will be a new experience for Harbaugh as a head coach, but the Philadelphia Eagles made it that far four times during his tenure on Andy Reid's staff.

"We've been through it, we've seen how we've practiced, what it takes to win, what costs you games," Harbaugh said. "Maybe that's something that you apply. It's not direct application, because everything is different, every year is different, every group of guys is different. But you take what you've learned, and you try to apply it the best you can to the situation that presents."

Pryce, who played in the Super Bowl for the Denver Broncos, said the Ravens must not approach today's game differently from the 18 before it. Harbaugh hasn't had to tell them that, the veteran tackle said, because everything about the coach conveys steadiness.

"There isn't going to be any change planned," Pryce said. "He's the same, and that's the one thing you appreciate about him - he's always the same."

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