Harbaugh 'never once cracked'

afc championship game ravens@steelers

Steady first-time coach's calm perseverance carries Ravens

January 18, 2009|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,childs.walker@baltsun.com

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.

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