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John Harbaugh grew up in a football family. His father, Jack, is a 42-year coaching veteran (currently associate athletic director at Marquette University) and his brother, Jim, is the head football coach at Stanford, having played 14 seasons as an NFL quarterback. Last year John Harbaugh moved to Baltimore with his wife, Ingrid, and their 6-year-old daughter, Alison, to become the third head coach in Baltimore Ravens’ history, leading the team to an 11-5 record and to the AFC championship game. Harbaugh is direct, self-effacing and easygoing— qualities that have served him well in his 26-year coaching career, including 10 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. Now, as he prepares to lead the Ravens into the much-anticipated upcoming season, he sits down with us to talk about Baltimore, athletics and how not to chart a career path.
> Sports are a real natural youth activity, because kids like to play. Chances are if they’re active as a kid, they can continue to be active for the rest of their lives.
> The most important part of any activity is a sense of involvement for a child, a sense of being a part of something that includes them and says, ‘Hey, you’re important, you’re valuable, you’re part of this.’ That’s huge for any kid.
> Competitiveness is very important— a sense of urgency, sportsmanship, teamwork, a basic sense of belonging. The desire to be part of something bigger than yourself, if you can learn that at a young age… I think most kids want that.
> They tell you in college that you need to have a five-year plan, and I came to find out that that’s just baloney.
> I went up to Western Michigan, and my dad was coaching up there then— I got in graduate school there. In the meantime, my dad said, ‘Why don’t you come over and coach for a year, see what you think?’ and he made me the running backs coach. And I just ended up loving it and thinking, ‘Hey, this is kind of fun.’
> Things got stalled when I was coaching in Cincinnati; I was there for eight years and it was very humbling. The moment I decided not to chart that career path anymore was the minute when things started happening. The point is, don’t spend too much time mapping out your career.
> Being from the Midwest, the Big Ten is everything, and I always dreamed of being a Big Ten coach like my dad. I loved it and said, ‘It would take the best job ever to get us to leave here.’
> My goal had always been to be a head coach by the time I was 45.
> Conventional wisdom says to get to a goal you follow a straight line. But it’s not a straight line— it’s 360 degrees. It’s better to open up your mind and be open to possibilities. Mapping a path narrows your thinking.
> My first time on the field [as head coach] was memorable, because when you’re a position coach or a coordinator, you have a specific job and that’s your spot on the field and that’s what you do. As the head coach, you can get involved anywhere you want, in any way you want. So I really wasn’t sure where to go.
> We love Baltimore. We’ve fallen in love with the East Coast— first Philadelphia, then coming down to Baltimore. We were Midwest people and it was a little bit of a culture shock coming out here because everything’s faster and the mind-set’s a little different. The people are challenging and exciting.
> I’ve been here for a year, and you start learning about the issues in the city, and you start thinking ‘Maybe at some point in time I can get involved and help out in some small way.’
> Basically what we’re trying to establish here with the team is a worldview: it entails certain assumptions we make to have a worldview, and they can’t be comprised. We establish those things, and basically apply everything back to those principles.
> The other thing is to try to establish an identity for our team. ‘This is our identity and these are the type of people that we are, this is what we’re going to be.’ We bring out the best in each other and that’s what we’re going to be.
> The players try to teach me how the program should be run every day. I try to teach them that I’m not too interested in what they think about that.
> We can make fun of each other and laugh with each other on the team, and that’s OK. And when we get chewed out, or when we get beat, or when we get our butts whipped, that doesn’t define us.
> My relationship with Steve Bisciotti? There’s sort of a big brother relationship going on there. He’s really challenging in all kinds of good ways. We’re both trying to build something special. We’re both not afraid to say we’re trying to build a dynasty here.
> We’re trying to create something that the NFL’s never seen before. People are going to look back and say, ‘That’s the standard. We want to be what the Ravens were for that period of time.’
> What it means to be a good teammate is the same thing as what it means to be a good friend or a good family member. That’s really what sports are about.
> Sports aren’t important in and of themselves, apart from the application to real life. And they’re kind of fun, too.
—As told to Brian Michael Lawrence.