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John Harbaugh: Still Evolving and Still Winning

Head Coach John Harbaugh
Head Coach John Harbaugh

When John Harbaugh was a rookie head coach in 2008, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were the cornerstones of the Ravens' defense.

Sixteen years later, Lewis and Reed are retired Hall of Famers who will be sitting in Owner Steve Bisciotti's suite watching the Ravens and Chiefs battle in the AFC championship game on Sunday.

Where will Harbaugh be? Exactly where he was 16 years ago – on the sidelines coaching the Ravens with an unmistakable confidence that energizes his team.

In a league where few coaches flourish this long, Harbaugh is the NFL's second-longest tenured coach and still thriving at age 61, and he doesn't seem inclined to slow down anytime soon.

He's had to adapt and adjust since he took the job, and many seasons haven't gone as smoothly as this one. But this team is talented and unified, and Harbaugh is energized about the opportunity to reach the Super Bowl for the second time as Baltimore's head coach.

"I'm more mature, so I think I'm better," Harbaugh said. "I hope so. I've learned from many things that have happened over the years.

"Yeah, I'm an old guy now. I was a young guy then, and that was a different team. What Steve needed his coach to do with that team, at that time, was very different than what's needed now. … Meeting players where they're at is one of the biggest challenges of this job. You've got to keep moving – changing strategy, forging relationships. You've got to adapt."

From left: Head Coach John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti

Harbaugh can still adapt, as evidenced by the team's 13-4 regular season record that earned them the No. 1 seed and the right to host the AFC Championship for the first time in franchise history.

Sunday will be an electric atmosphere at M&T Bank Stadium, an iconic moment that will be another highlight of Harbaugh's long career should the Ravens win.

This season has clearly been one of Harbaugh's best coaching jobs, and he is one of five finalists for the Associated Press Coach of the Year Award, an honor he won in 2019. Justin Tucker is the only player from the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl champions team who's still on the roster. Tucker has seen Harbaugh evolve, and marvels at how he manages to connect with so many different personalities from one season to the next.

"A football team isn't 15 or 20 guys like baseball or basketball," Tucker said. "You're talking a lot of guys trying to get on the same page. Harbs has always done a great job of relating to us, but putting it in the framework of 'The Team, The Team, The Team.' It's all over the building."

Running back Justice Hill has spent four seasons with Harbaugh and doesn't see any signs of him losing passion for the job. Asked how long he thought Harbaugh might coach, Hill smiled.

"I saw his dad at practice the other day, and he look pretty darn good," Hill said. "I saw Harbs dancing after the game the other day, and he looks like he's still got plenty of juice."

Head Coach John Harbaugh

Harbaugh vs. Reid

It's fitting that Andy Reid will be on the visiting sideline, the coach standing between Harbaugh and another trip to a Super Bowl. Reid is also one of the league's most-respected figures, making his sixth straight appearance in the conference championship game at age 65. He's one of the game's most innovative offensive minds, and still has a passion for dialing up trick plays, something the Ravens must be wary of.

The two coaches are friends who share mutual respect and worked together for eight seasons with the Eagles (1999-2007), when Reid was the head coach and Harbaugh was a rising star as a special teams coach.

Reid helped position Harbaugh to become a head coach in 2007, when he and Eagles General Manager Joe Banner moved Harbaugh from coaching special teams to coaching defensive backs. That gave Harbaugh valuable experience under the Eagles' late legendary Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson, and when Harbaugh interviewed with the Ravens in 2008, they were sold that he was ready.

From left: Head Coach John Harbaugh, Kansas City Chiefs Coach Andy Reid

When Reid arrived in Philadelphia, Harbaugh had only been special teams coach for one season. Reid could have brought in his own guy and fired Harbaugh. But Reid had great respect for Jack Harbaugh, John's 84-year-old father, who won 116 games as a college coach. Reid was quickly convinced that Jack's son had a bright future in the NFL.

"When I met John, I'm going, 'Man if you're half as good as your dad, you're on,' so it didn't take very long," Reid said.

Banner said a key for both Harbaugh and Reid is their knack for building great coaching staffs around them. Ravens Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald and Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken are finalists for the Associated Press Assistant Coach of the Year, and Harbaugh has often praised the entire staff's work this season.

"They're probably the two best coaches in the league at evaluating other coaches," Banner said. "When John and Andy lose people, they're able to replace them with outstanding coaches. That helps their longevity.

"Both coaches have a very clear chain of command. Both are very much in charge of what they do with clear philosophies and beliefs. You better get in line, you better follow and you better be the person who works hard, cares and has integrity. But if you do that, you'll get success back in spades."

Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes Both Love Their Head Coach

Having Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes at quarterback has been hugely instrumental in helping Harbaugh and Reid continue to stack winning seasons. Both superstar quarterbacks have only had one NFL head coach, and the bond they have formed is solid.

Mahomes said this week that Reid's influence has been crucial.

"The mindset that he comes in the building with every single day and the leadership that he has," Mahomes said. "He comes in and we're about ball and we're having our brothers back, going in there and doing whatever we can to win, but at the same time love each other and get the best we can out of each other every single day on and off the field. That's kind of the culture I got brought into, so I can't take claim to that."

Jackson shares Harbaugh's ferocious appetite for winning.

"Don't come here if you're not trying to win and if you don't want to work," Jackson said. "That's the coach ... a military mindset. He wants the best out of us, and he wants to win. I like to win, so I'm going to do whatever it takes to win. That's what you're getting out of your coach."

From left: Head Coach John Harbaugh, QB Lamar Jackson

Harbaugh was 45 years old before he got his first head coaching opportunity with the Ravens. He knew who he was, knew what kind of coach he wanted to be, and has never wavered from his basic tenants.

"You're a coach. Your job is to help other people," Harbaugh said. "Don't confuse that with thinking it's about you. It's about your players. It's like if you're a teacher, it's about your students. There's no need for a teacher without students.

"I see some younger guys now who have visions of grandeur. Sometimes they get frustrated when they're not moving up the ladder. They see other guys becoming head coaches in the NFL when they're 36 years old, and they're thinking, 'I'm not on that path. What do I have to do to get on that path?' God has a different plan for every single person. If that's the only reason you're in it, you're probably in it for the wrong reason."

Bonding With Players

Harbaugh often hugs players when he greets them. He's become a father figure to them, and while players come to him for advice, he can also feed off their energy.

Odell Beckham Jr., in his first season with Harbaugh, was asked about Harbaugh's ability to connect with players whether they're a starter or on the practice squad.

"Maybe it's a testament to his pops," Beckham said. "Certain people on this earth carry themselves a certain way, are raised a certain way. Any man who you can respect, have a real conversation with, that builds trust. That's Harbs. You can't not respect him. I think we all follow that."

Harbaugh has been very open about the role that his religious faith plays in his life, sometimes quoting scripture before he takes questions at his postgame press conferences. Banner believes embracing that aspect of his life has helped Harbaugh achieve a healthy balance.

"It helps keep things in the right perspective, which is hard to do for a long time in the NFL," Banner said.

Harbaugh is all about faith, family and football, and he's been surrounded by it recently. As his father was watching practice Thursday, Harbaugh asked someone to take a picture of his dad to capture the moment. Later in the day, Harbaugh said he and his dad would watch film together as he prepared for Sunday's game.

"I'm blessed to have my family so intimately involved in all of this," Harbaugh said. "It's pretty special."

Imagine being Jack Harbaugh, watching his son Jim Harbaugh win a national championship several weeks ago before being hired as the Chargers' new head coach. Now Jack is hanging out with his other son as he tries to guide the Ravens to a Super Bowl, and Jim is coming to Sunday's game as well.

Who has it better than Jack?

"I see so many similarities between the Michigan team and this Ravens team," Jack said. "You walk into the building and you can see the togetherness. Usually, that's when great things happen."

Jack's son seems to love coaching in Baltimore as much as he ever has. He'll love it even more if the Ravens win another Super Bowl, an accomplishment that would add even more luster to the Harbaugh legacy.

"He has great presence, he thinks about the game in a very broad way. It's something we all saw when he was with us in Philly," Banner said. "Maybe there should be more coaches with special teams backgrounds considered for head coaching positions, but I also understand that John is a unique person.

"I think he's already a Hall of Fame coach. I understand that winning a second Super Bowl would elevate him to that level in some people's eyes. But to me, he's already there."

Harbaugh won't be thinking about his legacy, or his long relationship with Reid, or any of the questions he's been asked by the media leading up to Sunday's game. All Harbaugh will be thinking about is winning, and he wants every player and coach to do the same.

“The key to longevity is being in the moment. The present conversation. The task at hand. Doing the job. It’s not about having the job, keeping the job, or getting the job. It’s about doing the job.” John Harbaugh

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