In Unprecedented Times, John Harbaugh Adapts But Keeps the Same Mission


Not even a head coach as tested as John Harbaugh could have anticipated everything it has taken to prepare for the 2020 season.

It has been the summer of coronavirus and social unrest. No preseason games. Team meetings where justice and racial equality, not football, were the main topics of conversation.

Through it all, Harbaugh has adapted and prepared for his 13th season in Baltimore, which begins Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium against the Cleveland Browns. In a year where uncertainty has become the norm, one of Harbaugh's closest friends, Florida Atlantic Head Coach Willie Taggart, continues to marvel at Harbaugh's zest for attacking challenges. When 2020 ends, there will be time to reflect. But under Harbaugh, Taggart knows the Ravens won't retreat.

"If you know any of the Harbaughs, you know all of them are highly, highly, competitive," Taggart said. "I don't know any family that's more competitive. As a player, when you get around that, it inspires you.

"John keeps it real. And all the Harbaugh coaches genuinely care about their players, which is something you don't always find. To do that on the college level is one thing, but for John to be able to do it with professionals who make a whole lot of money? That's doing it on a whole different level. That's part of the reason why he's been successful for so long."

Many of Harbaugh's coaching philosophies were instilled by his 81-year-old father, Jack Harbaugh, who was a college head coach or assistant coach for more than 50 years. Good luck finding a family that is closer than the Harbaughs. Jack has been a frequent presence at Ravens practices and games through the years. Jim Harbaugh, head coach at the University of Michigan, is one of his brother's closest confidants.

The Harbaughs always have each other's backs, but the coaches are still their own men. Jack remembers the day that John said he wanted to become a coach. It was not a forgone conclusion that John would follow his dad into coaching. After John graduated from Miami of Ohio in 1984 with a degree in political science, going to law school was an option he considered. Meanwhile, Jim was already a starting quarterback at Michigan who went on to have a 14-year NFL career before he became a coach.

"Jim's whole thing was, I'm going to play football as long as I can, then I'm going to coach as long as I can, then I'm going to die," Jack said. "John was different. He could've done any number of things."

But John sat down at the kitchen table and told his father and mother (Jackie) that he wanted to start his career on his father's coaching staff at Western Kentucky. When Jack looks at his sons, he sees coaches who have adapted to the times, the kind of coaches their players will always remember.

Last month, Jack was moved watching John discuss a lengthy team meeting the Ravens held on Aug. 28 in the aftermath of Jacob Blake's shooting in Milwaukee. The Ravens' statement detailed steps the organization will take to combat racism and social injustice.

"Being part of a football team is a unique thing," Harbaugh said. "A football team comes from a lot of different places and spaces and religions, just many different perspectives. They have come together and stand together, even given their differences, to work together to find mutual understanding.

"We're not going to change the whole world overnight, but we can change our world. I think that's what our guys are trying to do."

After hearing his son talk about that meeting and reading the Ravens' statement, Jack sent his son a text message, congratulating him on handling a sensitive situation with inclusion, giving everyone a forum to express their views so openly.

"Really impressed with how you wove the 70s and today into discussion," Jack's text to John said in part. "I haven't thought about the similarities of the times. It seems we have come so far, yet much work to be done."

That Jack would pen such a text was not surprising, because the Harbaughs have lived a life of inclusion. Jack grew up in the 1940s and 50s in an integrated neighborhood in Crestline, Ohio, where children of all races went to school together, played sports together and developed bonds that lasted a lifetime. It wasn't like that everywhere in America at that time, and in some places it still isn't.

Taggart was Jack Harbaugh's starting quarterback at Western Kentucky from 1995-98, when there weren't nearly as many Black quarterbacks starting at non-HBCU schools as there are today. Taggart helped saved the football program at Western Kentucky, and Jim helped his dad recruit Taggart, who became part of the Harbaugh family. Taggart is so close to the Harbaughs that he named his youngest son Jackson after Jack, and Jim was the best man at Taggart's wedding.

"With the Harbaughs, you've got Jack, Jackie, John, Jim and their sister Joani," Taggart said. "With them it's got to be a J. My wife says they treat me like one of the sons, so she'll tease me and call me Jason.

"They've all helped me. I wouldn't make any professional decision without consulting them. I lost my dad three years ago, but with Jack, I feel like I've still got a Pops."

Yet, despite his bond to Taggart and many former players, Jack isn't naïve enough to think he can always anticipate how today's players will want to deal with the racial tension that remains part of America's fabric. After teams from various sports leagues decided not to play last month in protest of Blake's shooting, Ravens players arrived at practice the next day clearly disturbed by the situation. Hearing John's words after the meeting made Jack proud of his son for reasons that went beyond football.

"When I saw John talking about that meeting, I wasn't just thinking about what's happened this year in this county," Jack said. "It went deeper than that. I started thinking about my life, my years in coaching. I don't ever remember sitting down with a team the way John did.

"I played sandlot baseball with Gates Brown, who ended who playing for the Detroit Tigers. We never talked about race growing up. But, years later, we sat down and talked after Gates had been out of the major leagues. He talked about the segregation he went through in the South as a minor league baseball player, going to cities where he couldn't stay with the team, separate drinking fountains and separate restrooms, the abuse he took from fans. It sounded like a different world to me. Now when I look back and think about what he went through, sometimes I kick myself and I say, 'Why wasn't my voice louder?' That's why I'm proud of what John does with the Ravens, what Jim is doing at Michigan. They're having what I call unfettered conversations with their players, the kind of vulnerable conversations that can move people's thinking forward."

Moving forward is a typical Harbaugh approach. The Ravens are coming off a 14-2 season and are clearly legitimate Super Bowl contenders heading into the season. But Harbaugh knows success isn't guaranteed, and the coronavirus could bring more unexpected situations where teams will have to adjust quickly.

Yet, the Ravens are excited and confident about what lies ahead. Harbaugh has helped create a winning culture that is undeniable, part of what it means to "Play Like a Raven." Since being traded to the Ravens during the offseason, Pro Bowl defensive lineman Calais Campbell has gotten to know Harbaugh much better. Campbell entered the league in 2008, the same year Harbaugh became Baltimore's head coach. Unlike Harbaugh, Campbell does not have a Super Bowl ring. He wants one badly, and he has become quickly impressed with Harbaugh's approach.

"He's a great coach," Campbell said. "He's all about information, communication, he's passionate about the game of football and he listens to the players. I think the coolest thing is, we have our committee meetings, and [there's] a lot of real conversation going on. He's encouraging us to have ideas and where we can do things and help our team be better. The result is he wants to win football games, and I'm on the same page with him. I'm happy to be playing for him, and hopefully we'll go out there and start off with a bang this year."

When Jack looks at Harbaugh and MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson, it reminds him of the coach-player relationship he had with Taggart.


When Taggart watches the Ravens play and their aggressiveness going for it on fourth down, or the exuberance of players like running back Mark Ingram II, it reminds Taggart of the freedom and joy he felt playing for Jack.

This will be John's 37th straight year coaching football, and the moment he runs out of the tunnel Sunday and sees no fans in the stands, hears no loud echoes from the crowd, it will be another reminder that this year is going to be different. But the objective remains the same. The Harbaughs always play to win.

"Put something in front of the Harbaughs, and they'll find a way to work through it," Taggart said. "Jim wants to find a way to run through the wall. John will more likely find a way to run around it. But they'll both find a way to get to that other side of that wall."

Related Content