Chapter 1: Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss

January 12, 2018 | Nestor Aparicio

purple No. 4 Harbaugh jerseys floating around Baltimore from Ted Marchibroda’s final 5-11 campaign.

Both of the Harbaugh boys would owe their football lives and experiences to their dad, Jack, who was a lifer Midwestern coach mostly for Bo Schembechler at Michigan in the mid 1970’s and later as head coach at Western Kentucky and Western Michigan. Jack Harbaugh took his boys to practice frequently and showed them what life was like in the game. Jack Harbaugh coached every fall of his life from 1964 until 2006 and still got called out of retirement in Stanford in 2009 by his son Jim, who was the head coach in Palo Alto before becoming head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

The Harbaugh family is all about football – it’s all father Jack, and his boys Jim and John ever did in their adult work history. They all ate, slept and worked the football life. They knew of no other life.

John Harbaugh, who many believed was destined to get a head coaching job at a big-time college program, had just interviewed for the top UCLA post two weeks earlier and came from the Eagles coaching tree of Andy Reid that had seen a fantastic run of success. While in Philadelphia, Harbaugh had been coaching in January six out of the past eight years and involved in four NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl loss over 10 seasons.

But Harbaugh was not the sexy candidate to be the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens – far from it. He was a special teams coach. He was an outlier. Special teams coaches don’t usually get the keys to the big office in the NFL.

“I knew it was going to take a pretty special guy to hire me as a head coach in the NFL,” Harbaugh said. “It wasn’t a normal path. It would be hard for an owner or anyone in the NFL to think that way.”

He wasn’t a member of any of the three categories of usual suspects – hot coordinator, former NFL coach or college head coach. Like his boss, Reid, who came to Philadelphia in 1999 as a quarterback coach from the Green Bay Packers and had never been an offensive or defensive coordinator. He had never “called a play.”

Harbaugh’s only real entrée and introduction to Bisciotti had been at a symposium for NFL coaches two years earlier when he’d heard the Ravens owner speak and he’d met him briefly on the field before a preseason game in 2006 when his pal Frank Gansz Jr. was the special teams coach for the Ravens.

“Steve came up to me on the field and joked with me that the Ravens would be running fakes in the preseason,” Harbaugh laughed. “I knew then that he was in tune with the game and had a sense of humor.”

But it was the speech at the 2005 symposium that really caught Harbaugh’s attention and put Bisciotti on his radar as a candidate to be his boss.

“A lot of coaches didn’t like what he had to say,” Harbaugh said. “It was almost controversial. He was straightforward about it being a tough profession with long hours and total commitment. He talked about the short life span of football coaches in jobs and moving families and what he had witnessed and how different it was from his business outside of football. He said, ‘With opportunity comes risk and with risk comes opportunity.’ He basically said you can’t have opportunity and security at the same time in this profession. It was clear he had an appreciation for football coaches and what we did and what it was like for our families to move so much.”

Bisciotti’s message was so impressive to John Harbaugh that when he got back to Philadelphia that spring he sat at his desk and wrote Bisciotti a hand-written note and said that he learned a lot during the speech.

Harbaugh never heard back from Bisciotti.

“It’s strange because I remember thinking, ‘If I ever get a head coaching job in the NFL it’s going to have to be a guy like that because he’s the kind of risk taker who would hire a guy like me,” Harbaugh said.

So who was this guy John Harbaugh, besides being a long-time NFL special teams coordinator with a more famous brother who was just wrapping up his successful first season as the head coach at Stanford?

John Harbaugh spent most of his elementary school time as a nomadic coach’s kid going from Morehead State to Bowling Green to Iowa before Jack and Jackie Harbaugh settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1973, coaching the defensive backs for legendary Bo Schembechler at the University of Michigan. Schembechler was known for his fiery disposition and playing fundamentally sound, tough football.

Ask anyone in the state of Michigan and they’ll tell you that Bo Schembechler was a man’s man. “When my Dad got the call to take that job at Michigan our family was sky high,” Harbaugh said. “We were in awe. It was the top of the world.”

Harbaugh was 10 years old when he met Coach Schembechler and spent the rest of his childhood through high school graduation around the Michigan program. He and his brother became hooked on Big Blue football and saw the game through the eyes of their father.

“We’d sit in the coaches locker room all the time,” Harbaugh said. “We were around the players, the film room. Everywhere our Dad went we kinda went, too. We were in the middle of everything that was going on. And we loved it.”

By his own admission, he was never a great football player. He was an undersized but hardnosed defensive back and attended Miami of Ohio, where his idol Schembechler coached in