Why Can’t That Be Us?
John Harbaugh sat across the table from Ravens’ team executives and laid out a vision for the organization.
Harbaugh, then a little-known position coach and former special teams coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, talked about culture, and respect, and family and tradition. He discussed the values he wanted in his team, and shared the process it would take to get there.
In the meeting, he delivered a message that resonated with those in charge of the franchise. He talked directly and openly about winning championships. Multiple championships. Then he leaned forward and smiled.
“Why can’t we be a championship team?” Harbaugh asked during his interview in 2008. “Why can’t that be us? With all the talents you have here, we can do it together. I would love to be part of that.”
Five years later, Harbaugh, 50, is well on his way to carrying out that vision. His mind has been fixed on building a champion since that first interview – probably even long before then. Almost six months since hoisting his first Lombardi Trophy, the Ravens head coach is as driven as ever to keep his team on the summit.
“Now we are legitimately a step closer to building what we’re talking about building,” he said. “That’s always been the idea. The idea is to build that dynasty. That’s always been what we’ve said we’re trying to accomplish here and that was the ultimate mission.”
Harbaugh has fit perfectly with the Ravens, which makes it easy to forget that the decision to hire him went against some conventional wisdom. Baltimore was his first head coaching job at any level, and he had not been an NFL offensive or defensive coordinator. Owner Steve Bisciotti said at the time that “you have to take chances in life to be successful” and that he liked a coach who had to “earn his resume.”
His hiring of Harbaugh has proved brilliant.
He has guided the Ravens to five straight playoff appearances, three AFC championship games and a Super Bowl title. The team has won at least one playoff game in each of those seasons, and Harbaugh’s 63 total wins over that stretch is tied for the best mark in the league.
Harbaugh has established himself as one of the top coaches in the NFL, and he still has bigger goals to accomplish – namely bringing more championships to Baltimore.
“It’s entered my mind since the first day of getting hired here,” Harbaugh said about the idea of winning multiple Super Bowls. “It’s constantly on your mind. It’s always been on my mind.”
Earning His Respect
Harbaugh’s path to the NFL was far from glamorous. He held a variety of position jobs in the college ranks, working his way up from Western Michigan, to Pittsburgh, to Morehead State, to Cincinnati, to Indiana, and then to the NFL. He bounced around the country, moving about every two years, and worked long hours for little money before breaking into the professional game.
“He paid his dues,” his father Jack Harbaugh said.
When Harbaugh arrived in Baltimore, he inherited a veteran roster with proven leaders and strong personalities. At the top of the pecking order was a pair of future, first ballot Hall of Famers in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. They were the foundation of the team and icons in the locker room.
For Harbaugh to win over the team, he first had to earn the respect of those two stars.
“If you’re going to be successful, you have to develop your relationships with your top players, and your leaders and veterans especially,” Harbaugh said. “You have to have the ability to share and partner with your top players in the process of becoming a great team. If you don’t have that, there’s no way you can be successful.”
The cultural change Harbaugh brought to the program – a “change of character and integrity,” Lewis said in 2008 – was stark and recognizable. The immediate, most striking change for the players was the practice routine. Training camp practices were long and physical, and privately some of the veterans had reservations about the new system.
Former Raven Matt Stover, an 18-year veteran in 2008, recalls going to Harbaugh to express some of the team’s concerns.
“You’re going to have to trust me,” Stover remembers Harbaugh telling him.
Stover relayed that message to the locker room and Harbaugh remained consistent in his approach, and over the next few weeks the team got on board with their new coach.
“We bought in,” Stover said. “And we made it to the AFC championship that year.”
Lewis and Reed were two of those veterans who supported Harbaugh.
“The guys in that organization embraced John when he came,” father Jack Harbaugh said. “Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were two guys who embraced John and what he was doing.”
Life Without Lewis, Reed
John Harbaugh grew close with Reed and Lewis over their five years together. He leaned on them for leadership, and praised them loudly and publicly even in the face of some criticism. The three enjoyed tremendous success together and Harbaugh considers them life-long friends.
When this offseason came, Lewis retired and Reed signed with the Houston Texans. Their departures ushered in a new era in the franchise’s 17-year history. The icons Harbaugh inherited are now gone, leaving him and the players he’s brought to Baltimore to continue the legacy.
“It all comes to an end,” Harbaugh said. “That’s just the nature of it, in life, and professionally, and in football. It’s an experience that we all have, all the time, in every area of our life. And you move onto the next thing.”
When Harbaugh steps in front of his team to open training camp next week, it will be the first time in his tenure he’ll address the full group without Lewis or Reed looking back at him. Outsiders will wonder whether he can maintain the same level of success without his two future Hall of Famers.
“It’s different,” Harbaugh said. “But it’s always different. Every year is different.”
The personnel has changed, as the Ravens are replacing nine Super Bowl starters, but the objective remains firmly intact. The Ravens have clear goals to repeat, and Harbaugh is maintaining the same approach to this season that he put into place Day 1.
On Jan. 19, 2008, Harbaugh sat next to Bisciotti, General Manager Ozzie Newsome and President Dick Cass as he was introduced as the new head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. His parents, wife and daughter all watched from the front row of the auditorium.
The first question a reporter asked him was about his vision for the Ravens.
“There are three important things to putting together a football team,” Harbaugh said. “No. 1: the team. The second most important thing is the team. And the third most important thing is the team. We’ll stick with that through and through.”
Harbaugh has not wavered from that approach, which he learned from legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler when his dad was on Michigan’s staff. The Ravens have “The Team, The Team, The Team,” hanging up in the hallway just outside the indoor practice facility, and those words were inscribed on the inside of the Super Bowl XLVII rings.
When Harbaugh first took over in Baltimore, he made it a priority to learn the names and jobs of every Ravens employee in the organization. Today he routinely refers to most everyone in the building by their first names. At the Super Bowl, he invited the entire staff to get in the team photo at media day.
His message has been consistent since the first day on the job.
“I really believe that in Year 5, he’s just as committed to [the team mantra] today as the day when he walked into the building,” Jack said. “Constantly, every day, he’s focused on earning that trust.”
Harbaugh has a unique ability to connect with players. He talks with them about their children and wives, and spends time with the practice squad just like the stars. He’ll challenge them with a grueling practice, but then he’ll walk off the field with his arm around a player’s shoulder. Harbaugh will take feedback and has an open-door policy with everyone on the roster.
He is stern and direct, but will also occasionally pause a conversation with a player to say, “Have I told you that I love you?”
Like most coaches, Harbaugh has gone through tense moments with his team. There have been blow-ups and arguments. The difference between Harbaugh and most head coaches, Stover said, is that he’ll make amends.
“Most coaches will blow up and they won’t apologize for anything,” Stover said. “John understands it. He’s not too prideful. That’s a real man.”
Competitive Fire Burning Bright As Ever
The Ravens were just days removed from winning Super Bowl XLVII. Harbaugh had taken down his younger brother and was one of the biggest stars in the sports world. He was flooded with requests for interviews, speaking engagements and late-night talk show gigs.
But the coach was more interested in getting back to work, preparing for the scouting combine. The draft was just a few months away. As much as possible, Harbaugh wanted to stick to his routine.
“I don’t think anything changes,” he said.
That singular focus has kept Harbaugh from getting caught up in the spoils of victory and pressure of his own success. Some coaches talk about the weight of success – and stress to sustain it – bearing down on them year after year.
Harbaugh doesn’t see it that way.
“I never give pressure much thought,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve never thought about pressure, per se. I don’t even know what that really means.”
“I don’t think pressure is a word that he has in his vocabulary,” his father added.
It’s not just pressure that can get to a coach. Part of the challenge with staying on top of the sport is the trap of complacency. Coaches and players can become victims of their own success, and start to believe all the praise they garner.
After winning a Super Bowl, Harbaugh’s competitive fire is still burning bright as ever.
“No question about it,” Jack said. “He’s someone that wants to be the best.”
Harbaugh commonly talks about not trying to make any situation or moment bigger than it is – even repeating as Super Bowl champions or replacing legends like Lewis and Reed. Messages like “Win Today” and “What’s Important Now” are well-known around the team’s facility, and Harbaugh constantly emphasizes to his players to get “one percent better each day.”
Harbaugh is now heading into his sixth training camp in Baltimore with the same mindset and approach that he’s always embraced. He is still carrying out the vision he laid out in that very first job interview. And he still has his eyes set on more Lombardi Trophies.
“I love it as much now as I did five years ago, maybe even more,” Harbaugh said. “Every day is so valuable and every single day has such an impact. That’s what makes it so exciting.
“It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a cool challenge.”