Harbaugh eager to get started

OWINGS MILLS -- As the Baltimore Ravens introduced unheralded career assistant John Harbaugh as their new head coach Saturday, team owner Steve Bisciotti was reminded of his remark nearly three weeks ago that he was embarking on a quest to find the next Hall of Fame football coach.

Bisciotti gave Harbaugh a friendly pat on the back and affirmed to him that was his goal when he fired coach Brian Billick and launched an exhaustive search that ended with the Ravens tabbing the Philadelphia Eagles' former secondary coach as the third head coach in franchise history.

High expectations aren't something that Harbaugh is known to shy away from.

"I'm a football coach, I've been a football coach for a long time," Harbaugh said in front of a packed auditorium with his smiling parents and wife, Ingrid, sitting in the front row. "I'm proud to be the football coach of the Baltimore Ravens. This is an opportunity of a career, and it's a dream of ours that we've had for a long time. We can't wait to get started."

Although hiring Harbaugh is regarded as a calculated risk because he has never been a head coach at any level, the Ravens are banking on their gut instincts and Harbaugh's dynamic personality, obsession with details and passionate leadership qualities to override any doubts about the 45-year-old Perrysburg, Ohio native.

Bisciotti drew parallels between Harbaugh, who was signed to a four-year contract with a salary ranging between $2 million and $2.5 million per season, and his proven business model of hiring untested young people at Aerotek, his highly-successful technical staffing firm that specializes in the aerospace and technology sectors.

That's partially why the Ravens opted for Harbaugh rather than 64-year-old veteran coach Marty Schottenheimer, who has a 200-126-1 record with just two losing campaigns in 21 seasons in the NFL, but would have been twice as expensive and likely would have wanted to command some power in personnel decisions.

"You have to take chances in life to be successful," Bisciotti said. "You have to be willing to do things that the masses wouldn't do or I don't think you're ever going to separate yourself from the masses. Is it a little bit more of a perceived chance? Yeah. I kind of made a living on hiring people with thin resumes and it's worked out pretty well for me in the last 25 years. I think that works to John's advantage.

"Yeah it's a risk, if you didn't spend the last 15 hours with John Harbaugh. But the time we spent with him gave me a comfort level that we hired the right guy. You go with your instincts, and I have pretty good instincts. The bottom line is I feel good about our choice and I like the fact that John gets to build his legend right here."

Harbaugh grew up in a football family as the son of veteran college coach Jack Harbaugh and the brother of former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh, the Stanford coach once known as "Captain Comeback." His brother-in-law is Marquette basketball coach Tom Crean.

While Harbaugh poked fun at his modest playing career as a defensive back at Miami (Ohio), joking that he might wear his varsity letterman's jacket to work at the Ravens' training complex, he turned serious when asked about his vision for leading the Ravens. Team officials were thrilled with Harbaugh's philosophy that rookies and decorated veterans will all be treated equally.

"There are three important things in putting together a football team: No. 1 is the team, the second-most important thing is the team and third-most important thing is the team," Harbaugh said. "We're going to stick with that through and through, beginning to end, and that's what it is all about."

That was music to Bisciotti's ears following an 18-day search process that started when Billick was dismissed following a 5-11 campaign that capped nine seasons and one Super Bowl championship in Baltimore.

Harbaugh, who was the sixth candidate to interview following Indianapolis Colts assistant head coach Jim Caldwell, Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, eventual new Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano, former Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who's under consideration to remain with the Ravens if he isn't hired as the Atlanta Falcons' head coach, and New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, wound up winning out when Garrett rebuffed the Ravens.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones persuaded Garrett to stay in Dallas with an unprecedented raise to $3 million and the title of assistant head coach.

Being the Ravens' second choice definitely didn't hurt Harbaugh's feelings, especially not with the outcome.

"Being perceived as a second choice or first choice, that's irrelevant to me," Harbaugh said. "I never thought about it in that term and never would. It's an opportunity to go forward. You feel fortunate to be the guy that's going to get the shot."

Bisciotti said he was never concerned about finding the right coach, not even when Garrett turned him down. And he had no apparent reservations about Harbaugh not being a big name in NFL circles.

"I was never nervous," Bisciotti said. "I was always calm because I was always in front of guys of great integrity that were being delivered to me from my football guys, saying, ‘These are good football coaches.'

"I was looking for the right kind of guy. I was looking for a leader that I could look at and say I can see him standing up there in front of my team."

Harbaugh's road to joining the elite fraternity of 32 NFL head coaches was a winding one that took him from college towns like Kalamazoo, Mich., where he began his coaching career at Western Michigan working for his father or Morehead, Ky., prior to breaking into the NFL in 1998 in Philadelphia as Ray Rhodes' special-teams coordinator.

"It didn't come easily for him," Jack Harbaugh said. "He had to pay his dues. That's why this is even more special."

The kicking game is where Harbaugh began building his reputation as a former NFL Special Teams Coach of the Year whose profile kept growing with interviews for the Dolphins' top job along with UCLA, Cincinnati and Boston College in the past few years.

"There's a lot of ways to prepare to be a head coach, I'm proud of the path I took," Harbaugh said. "I don't think you control your path. You pay attention to detail, you do the best job you can, and good things happen."

Harbaugh's ascension mirrors past coaches who began their careers on special teams, including Bill Belichick, Marv Levy, Mike Ditka, Dick Vermeil and Bill Cowher.

"The thing about special teams that a lot of people don't realize is you are handling the entire team every single day," Harbaugh said. "You're dealing with offensive linemen, you're dealing with the defensive backs, the wide receivers, they're all a little bit different.

"You also get a chance to work with the young guys. That's where you develop the young part of your football team, and that's thrilling as a coach because you build a foundation for your football team with those young guys. I think that's probably the greatest part of coaching special teams. It's the most fun part."

Harbaugh is under no illusions about the challenges that he'll face immediately in Baltimore as he tries to revitalize an offense that has ranked in the bottom half of the league for all but one year in the past decade. That's why finding an offensive coordinator, which is likely to be either former Dolphins coach Cam Cameron or Eagles quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur is so pivotal.

"I can say this about our offense: We're going to be tough, we're going to be physical, we're going to be disciplined and we're going to play really hard," Harbaugh said. "If we do those things, we'll be just fine."

Unlike the Eagles, who have enjoyed the luxury of Donovan McNabb under center, the Ravens' quarterback outlook is uncertain.

Four-time Pro Bowl quarterback Steve McNair's game is declining rapidly due to injuries and age. Former first-round draft pick Kyle Boller remains erratic. And former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith had a few promising games, but lacks experience and height.

"It does start with the quarterback in the NFL," Harbaugh said. "We have a good quarterback in Philadelphia, and that's a big part of the success up there. Whether it's someone on the roster right now that can be developed or whether it's someone we have to go out and get, I know we're shoulder-deep in that evaluation already before I even get here. I'm ready to jump in and get to work on that."

Toward the end of a second-round interview Friday that lasted nearly eight hours, Harbaugh made a case for himself prior to knowing if he was actually going to be offered the position.

Unprompted, Harbaugh told a search committee consisting of Bisciotti, team president Dick Cass, general manager Ozzie Newsome, vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty, director of college scouting Eric DeCosta, director of pro personnel George Kokinis, assistant director of pro personnel Vince Newsome and senior vice president of public and community relations Kevin Byrne, "I don't have all the answers, but I think I can be your head coach. And I think with the people here, I can be a great head coach." And Bisciotti immediately replied, "In that case, you're the next head football coach of the Baltimore Ravens."

A short time later, Harbaugh called his father to give him the good news.

"It was thrilling," Harbaugh said. "There was a lot of screaming going on on the other side of the line. It was one of those snapshot moments in life."

Jim Harbaugh, who was the Ravens' quarterback in 1998, got the news next while he was on a recruiting trip to Grand Rapids, Mich.

"He was fired up," Harbaugh said. "He was in the car and he was screaming and excited. It was pretty neat."

Former majority owner Art Modell, who attended the news conference, imparted a piece of advice to the Ravens' new leader.

"Mr. Modell said to bring good people in," Harbaugh said. "You said that's the No. 1 thing. You've been doing it since 1961. You've put good people around you. That pays off and I will not forget that."

Now, Harbaugh is in the same position previously held by Ted Marchibroda and Billick, arriving with big dreams and equally big challenges ahead of him.

As a protégé of Eagles coach Andy Reid, who was once an unknown Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach, Harbaugh is hoping for similar success as a first-time head coach.

"I don't think it can be any worse than standing there on the sideline of the Super Bowl for the opening kickoff and watching your guys run down the field, watching all those blinking lights go off, wondering what's going to happen for the next 60 minutes," Harbaugh said. "That's good preparation.

"Now when the time comes and you're standing there as a head coach for the first time, we'll see what that's like. You're not going to know until you get there, but it's been a pretty good preparation the last 10 years."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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