Harbaugh primed to take on old team

OWINGS MILLS -- John Harbaugh has brought an even harder edge to the swaggering Baltimore Ravens with his unflinching, tough-love approach. It's a hard-nosed, stiff-jawed and uncompromising philosophy toward football that Harbaugh blends with a wry sense of humor and friendly personality.

The Ravens' first-year coach combines an unassuming Midwestern nature and family-oriented Catholic values with a loud voice and a strong, unbending aversion to anything less than perfection.

Gritted teeth, a booming voice and angry, glaring eyes typify his sideline persona when something goes awry, balanced by enthusiastic back-slapping, hugging and high-fives when a player or assistant coach deserves praise.

He's not wearing an all-business game face every minute of the day, breaking more than a few smiles here and there.

Harbaugh's seriousness and thick skin were shaped in part over the last decade when he worked for the Philadelphia Eagles, including nine years under coach Andy Reid spending the first eight as a special teams and last season as a secondary assistant.

As the Ravens (6-4) take on the Eagles (5-4-1) today at M&T Bank Stadium, it's expected to be an emotional day for Harbaugh as he faces off with Reid, one of his primary mentors besides his father, Jack Harbaugh.

"He doesn't care about your personality, and he doesn't care what you think about him," Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown told Philadelphia reporters. "He cares about winning, success: 'You either can help me or you can't.'

"That's how he is, and he'll let you know. He'll tell you in a minute that stuff 'rolls downhill, so if I'm getting it, you're getting it.' At least he's honest."

Harbaugh's honesty and blunt nature have followed him to Baltimore, where his emphasis on "team, team, team" is emblazoned on signs that dot the Ravens' training complex.

He's focused solely on one goal: winning.

"We all mend," Harbaugh said. "You've got to have tough skin."

Toward that end, Harbaugh's means have included instituting a more demanding training camp and offseason regimen, stricter rules governing curfews and behavior and mixing up the locker room stalls to promote camaraderie.

So far, Harbaugh's contrasting style from a more lax atmosphere under former coach Brian Billick has paid major dividends.

The Ravens are one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North and would make the playoffs as a wild-card entry if the regular season was already completed.

"He's been great, he's managed the team really well," linebacker Jarret Johnson. "He challenges us, but he takes care of us, too. He knows how to handle a football team.

"I think more than his personality changing us, really he just fits in with us with the way we already are. He's a very tough guy, very hard-nosed and hard-working. He has made this a more physical team. We're built to play this time of year."

This was Harbaugh's vision, one built through his lengthy stint in Philadelphia under Reid and in prior stops at Indiana University, University of Cincinnati, Morehead State (Ky.), University of Pittsburgh and Western Michigan.

Harbaugh, 46, always aspired to be a head coach, but never got the opportunity at any level until Jan. 19 when he replaced Billick and became the third coach in Baltimore franchise history.

Harbaugh arrived in Baltimore for two job interviews with the team's search committee carrying a thick binder he named after Andy Reid. It's a primer on his teacher's fundamental beliefs that has defined his inaugural season in Baltimore

"Pretty much everything we do here as far as structure is coach Reid's," Harbaugh said. "The other thing is the steadiness, the ability to stand up to the ups and downs, the storms, the good things and just stay even."

In the wake of a 5-11 season that included a nine-game losing streak that cost Billick his job, Harbaugh has engineered a dramatic resurgence.

He has regularly delegated authority to experienced defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, concerning himself with the big picture while remaining heavily involved in the details of every practice and game-planning session.

"I don't think he has forced his personality, so what you see is what he's about," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We're a hard-working team and he's a hard-working coach. We play tough, we play rough.

"He understands that it takes more than one person to get the job done. He has the title and respect as a head coach, but he realizes it's not all about him. It's about the team."

Fostering a team-first, unselfish approach over the star system that dominated the locker room for years has been the most dramatic change surrounding the Ravens. Longer hours and more strenuous practices, many of them held outdoors in a departure from the past, have become the standard.

Playing for Harbaugh isn't all drudgery, though, according to his players.

"He will joke with us in certain situations," Mason said. "He's a person. It's not just a straight-line focus. He shows us his personality. He has a human side and it shows every day whether it's with his smile or whatever.

"We understand what the job entails and the demands it has on him. If he's having one of those days where he's screaming at people, we look past it and move on. But he can joke and laugh with us, too."

Of course, the record is the thing that has mattered most in terms of winning over the team.

"It may give credibility in the players' minds to say, 'OK, some of it is paying off,'" Harbaugh said. "So, I guess they are somewhat pleased with the progress we've made, but every day is a new day and we have a long way to go."

That single-minded unwillingness to concentrate on anything other than the next game took a slight detour when the schedule was released this spring and Harbaugh learned that Baltimore would be playing his old team one week before Thanksgiving.

"I just remember the date, for whatever reason," Harbaugh said. "November 23, is that right? That got stuck in my mind a little bit. That might be the only one I remember the exact date on."

Of course, that's because of the influence Reid had on Harbaugh's development as a coach. Reid inherited Harbaugh from former coach Ray Rhodes' staff, but was thrilled to retain him when he took over in Philadelphia in 1999.

Harbaugh and Reid followed similar paths to become a head coach. Reid was the Green Bay Packers' quarterbacks coach under Mike Holmgren when he got the nod from Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. And Harbaugh hadn't been a coordinator in the NFL when he was tabbed by Ravens team owner Steve Bisciotti to succeed Billick, a Super Bowl-winning coach.

"He's a great football coach," Reid said regarding Harbaugh. "He could coach any position on the football field and have success with it. I'm very proud of him, but he and I aren't going to be playing against each other."

Despite having an NFL-high 16 players on injured reserve, including cornerback Chris McAlister, nose guard Kelly Gregg, strong safety Dawan Landry and offensive guard Marshal Yanda, the Ravens have stayed in the AFC playoff hunt.

Harbaugh credits a lot of his development as a coach to his time spent observing how Reid handled the mundane routine as well as high-profile crises, including combustible, divisive wide receiver Terrell Owens and trying personal challenges like Reid's sons' drug and legal problems.

Reid's counsel remains a valuable asset to Harbaugh, although conversations are understandably guarded and short on details when it comes to X's and O's this week.

"He's been obviously a huge part of my growth as a football coach, I'm proud to call him a friend," Harbaugh said. "We laugh a lot and talk about different things. And he's had some impact. I've called him up when some things have come up and ask him what he thinks."

Although Harbaugh's roots are a few hours drive up I-95, his loyalty now lies in Baltimore. And he would love to gain some bragging rights today.

"The Ravens are my football team," he said. "The guys in this room that just had this team meeting in here, these are my guys and I'm proud to be their coach. Competitively, you're going against your brothers. It means something, it's exciting.

"There's a little bit of something at stake and it will be fun before the game. It wouldn't be much of a showdown between me and coach Reid out there. I think I'd be able to cover him, and he'd probably be able to block me."

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