The more Antone’ Sewell watched Ravens coaches from an intimate vantage, the more he was struck by the similarities between their work and the work he and his colleagues do leading Morgan State’s football program.
It was an educational experience, but also an affirming one.
“Some of it was getting new ideas and some of it was confirming things we already do,” said Sewell, Morgan’s assistant head coach and defensive coordinator. “Being around coach [John] Harbaugh, you expect things to be different when you’re talking about being around professional players, but he treats his guys, both coaches and players, like he genuinely cares for them.
“I expected it to be strictly business. Every day, he’s sharing nuggets and giving guys information that can help you be a better football player but also just be a better man. That’s refreshing, because it’s also something that [Morgan State head] coach [Damon] Wilson has always been about.”
Coaches from Morgan State and Bowie State spent a full day shadowing their Ravens counterparts during offseason training activities. Sewell will be with the Ravens through next week’s mandatory minicamp as a recipient of the NFL’s Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship.
Ravens director of football research Scott Cohen reached out with the invitation to the staffs from the historically Black universities.
“They came early in the morning, and they’ve been shadowing our coaches [in] all the position meetings, rookie meetings, special teams meetings,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve been involved in everything … so [it’s] a great opportunity to get to know those guys, great opportunity just to kind of give back from a football perspective. And I know, coaches, we like talking ball, so it’s good having those guys here.”
The NFL’s executive vice president for football operations, Troy Vincent, who has worked to build connections between the league and HBCUs, applauded the coaching interaction on Twitter.
“It was a great opportunity to get to see how those guys operate on a day-to-day basis,” said Bowie State offensive line coach Maurice Paulk, who shadowed his Ravens counterpart, Joe D’Alessandris. “Everything there is based off time. Those guys got in on time and prepared on time, and that’s one of the biggest things in this profession.”
He chatted with Ravens right tackle Morgan Moses, saw drills and blocking schemes he might incorporate for the Bulldogs, but Paulk came away most impressed with the overall culture of precision.
“That was my first opportunity to see it that close,” the 14-year coaching veteran said. “You’re always learning in this profession. Without a shadow of a doubt, if invited, I would go back.”
HBCU football has been in the news over the last year, with former Ravens greats Ed Reed and Deion Sanders among the prominent voices decrying a lack of administrative and financial support for programs with rich histories of producing future pros. Reed was set to become head coach at Bethune-Cookman earlier this year, but he and university administrators could not agree on final terms for what had been an agreement in principle. Sanders built a successful program at Jackson State before leaving to become head coach at Colorado in December.
Though Sewell and Paulk said they appreciate the interest, both expressed frustration at commentators lumping all HBCU programs in the same basket.
“Every coach runs their program differently,” Sewell said. “I think it’s a little unfair that when people talk HBCU football and group us together, it’s always in a negative light. … Each HBCU is unique, just like every other university in the country.”
“I don’t want to be considered just an HBCU football coach,” Paulk said. “It’s great, because I went to an HBCU. There’s a lot of talent — you can see the NFL is taking heed to it — and just being able to give back is a great deal. But I just want to be the best coach I can be.”
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Sewell played free safety at Bowie State and has built his 20-year coaching career at historically Black universities but “it was never a situation where I set out and said, ‘I only want to coach at HBCUs.’ Like everyone else in the world, I would love to test my ability and prowess against some of the best of college football, the NFL, whatever the case might be.”
He has spent most of his time with the Ravens observing and collaborating with defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald and inside linebackers coach Zachary Orr.
He’s struck by Orr’s unrelenting exuberance and openness to “really just chopping it up and comparing notes.” He identifies with Macdonald’s democratic instinct to incorporate suggestions from all his defensive coaches.
“From a tangible standpoint, it’s been about getting some new ideas — some fresh ideas to implement defensively as well as taking notes on some things I can share with coach Wilson and our staff in terms of how we can possibly operate more efficiently on a day-to-day basis,” Sewell said.
He added that Ravens coaches have urged him to reach out if he ever wants to come back or ask a detail question.
Will we see anything specific from the Ravens in the Bears’ playbook for next season?
“Yeah,” Sewell said, laughing. “But I don’t know if our competitors read the newspaper or not, so I can’t necessarily say.”