Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
While his pedigree tells you something about John Harbaugh, his route to head coaching status in the National Football League for the Baltimore Ravens would not be the formula most experts would recommend as the way to go.
His father, Jack, was a career coach and his brother, Jim, is the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, but John, who played without starring at Miami of Ohio — commonly referred to as the cradle of coaches — had never been a coordinator when the Ravens’ perceptive 51-year-old owner, Steve Bisciotti, hired the then 46-year-old Harbaugh in 2008, making him one of the youngest coaches in the league.
When you talk with him, his message is like playing a familiar song again and again as he explains what he is trying to do with the Ravens: Run a Big-Ten-type program with an emphasis on fundamentals, running the ball, stopping the run, no turnovers, proficiency in all phases of special teams and the team comes first. Always.
The Big Ten concept became ingrained in Harbaugh when he was growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his dad coached for Bo Schembechler at the University of Michigan. John grew up talking football, learning to splice film and hearing daily preachments about the importance of fundamentals. He could hear Schembechler in his sleep barking about the basics of blocking and tackling and the run and stop-the-run philosophy that brought the Wolverine coach preeminent Big Ten success.
When John was hired by the Ravens without experience as a coordinator, there was immediate second-guessing, but this year marks the fourth year in a row the Ravens have made the playoffs. His background reflects a “well-rounded” experience to support the fundamental philosophy of the cerebral Harbaugh. In addition to the “osmosis” coaching experience at Michigan as a kid, he began his career as a graduate assistant at Western Kentucky. He knows the life of getting coffee, running errands and the on-call duty to accommodate the needs and whims of a coaching staff. Harbaugh has coached all phases of special teams, defensive backs and was the tight ends coach at Pitt in 1987. At Pitt, he got to spend time with one of the great minds of the games — Sid Gillman. He couldn’t soak up enough football talk with a man considered to be an offensive genius.
At every opportunity, he was asking Gillman questions. Gillman would sit down with a projector and explain what he saw with the defense. He could see the holes and the alignments that would be vulnerable to certain passing schemes.
“He would devise routes to fill those holes,” Harbaugh said recently.
It was a coaching clinic for Harbaugh — both offensively and defensively. He was learning from a master of offense and at the same time developed ideas on how to counter with a defensive strategy.
“That was a valuable experience,” Harbaugh says. “Sid Gillman is the father of the modern passing game.”
Any conversation reverts to a measured and enthusiastic tribute to what he learned under his father Jack, who won a Division 1-AA national title at Western Kentucky in 2002.
“Jim and I learned a lot from our father, including how to treat players and how to build relationships which gets priority here,” he said.
Each son invites the father to spend two weeks during their respective training camps to critique what they are doing. There is one other coach who counsels with the senior Harbaugh — Tom Crean, the basketball coach at Indiana, who also happens to be Jack Harbaugh’s son-in-law.
It is possible that the sons could meet in the Super Bowl. Fiercely competitive since their boyhood days, they have already had a preview of what it would be like. On Thanksgiving night, the Ravens defeated the 49ers in Baltimore, 16-6. After the game when John finished with the media, he went outside and saw that he 49ers’ team busses were still in the tunnel.
He raced up to the lead bus to speak with his brother, who had just said goodbye to their dad, Jack, and mom, Jackie. The brothers chatted briefly and embraced. Soon, the team’s busses were roaring away to the airport.
“For a few brief seconds,” John began, “I felt that I had lost the game.”
As the two brothers prepare for the playoffs, the possibility of a rematch looms on the horizon.