When John Harbaugh walked on the football field at Miami University in the early 1980s, he was a hard-working defensive back that seldom cracked the lineup.
Now he has a statue outside Miami’s Yager Stadium.
Harbaugh has come a long way in 30 years.
He was immortalized with a bronze statue in his alma mater’s Cradle of Coaches Saturday, putting him in the company of coaching legends like Paul Brown, Bo Schembechler and Weeb Ewbank.
“There’s nothing like the Cradle of Coaches. I don’t think there’s a bigger honor in coaching,” Harbaugh said. “People may not understand that, but once you take a look at it, it means a lot.”
Miami’s Cradle of Coaches recognizes the school’s impressive tradition of coaches who have passed through the school and then gone on to win a championship at the NFL or collegiate level. The other alums with the life-size statues are Earl "Red" Blaik, Carm Cozza, Paul Dietzel, Ara Parseghian and John Pont.
The weekend of festivities was an opportunity for Harbaugh to reflect on the 30-year journey to the top of the coaching profession, and to thank many of the people who helped him along the way.
“I wasn’t a really good football player, but I was the best football player I could ever be,” Harbaugh said. “And there were a lot of challenges and a lot of difficult things. But then 10 years later, or 15 years later, or 30 years later, you have a chance to look back and you understand why you were there at that time with those people.”
He had support both personally and professionally, as more than 260 guests attended a dinner celebration Friday evening. Teammates from high school and college attended, along with family from across the country. Harbaugh mingled with the crowd throughout the weekend, swapping stories, taking photos and trying to connect with as many people as possible.
Both of his parents, two siblings, wife and daughter all made the trip to Oxford, Ohio. The cross-country visit from his brother Jim, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, was a surprise.
"There have been a lot of proud moments but I've never been more proud of him than I am today,” Jim said during his speech Friday night. “I always prided myself on being the tallest Harbaugh, but that all changed today when they unveiled that statue.”
The Ravens also had a strong contingency of support. General Manager Ozzie Newsome, President Dick Cass Sr. Vice President of Public and Community Relations Kevin Byrne, Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees, Special Teams Coordinator Jerry Rosburg, Offensive Line Coach Juan Castillo and area scout Jack Glowik all traveled to Ohio to support Harbaugh.
“I just feel overwhelmed and stunned a little bit with the fact that people would take the time to come on down,” Harbaugh said. “That this is something they would want to be part of means more than anything I could ever express.”
During his speech at the reception Friday evening, Harbaugh called the Ravens the “greatest organization in sports.” He also praised Newsome and Cass for being the greatest general manager and president in the NFL.
“You have an opportunity to work with men like this, who know how to put together something that is strong and lasting, that’s built on the kinds of principles that we can all be proud of. That’s what we’re all about,” Harbaugh said. “Our fans look at us and say, ‘That’s something I want to be associated with.’ That’s right. That’s good.”
The trip back to Southwest Ohio was one of the few times Harbaugh has been on campus since he graduated in 1984. He reminisced about the years he spent as a political science major, and used the weekend as one of the rare opportunities to look back rather than ahead.
“I don’t think you can even express what something like this means. I’ve been trying to figure it out,” he said. “The kids out there, they were us 30 years ago. There’s nothing like Miami. There’s nothing like being back here. Words can’t describe my gratitude for being part of this.”
Harbaugh’s statue lines the entrance to the stadium, and it is the first in the Cradle to face the patrons as they walk into the stands. The statue features Harbaugh wearing a headset, with his right arm reaching up in the air making a fist.
The sculptor, Kristin Visbal, called the image Harbaugh’s signature pose after searching through hundreds of photos.
“With all of these coaches, every one of them is in a very typical position for them,” Visbal said. “When we did a sketch of an image with the fist in the air, it was a resounding, ‘Yes.’”
Harbaugh’s statue is just a few feet away from Schembechler, whom he grew up idolizing while his father was an assistant coach on the Michigan staff.
Harbaugh struggled to put himself in the same category as Schembechler and the other iconic coaches in the Cradle – he said multiple times during the weekend that he wasn’t deserving of the honor – but his statue among the legends speaks for itself.
“There’s no such thing as equal footing with Bo. That would be impossible,” Harbaugh said. “The same goes for Earl Blaik, or John Pont, or Weeb Ewbank. It’s just neat to be included and be part of that, and to feel like you walked the same path as those guys at Miami University. That’s the neat thing.”