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Coaches run similar pattern

January 02, 2009|By DAVID GINSBURG

Jack Harbaugh knew long ago that his son would make an excellent NFL coach. The only question was whether John Harbaugh would ever get the chance to prove his father right.

Jack Harbaugh was coaching at Western Michigan in the mid-1980s when John joined the staff as an assistant. Father and son would ride back and forth to work every day, and football was usually the main topic of conversation.

"You could see then that he had a love and a real passion for the game, not only the X's and O's, but he cared deeply about the players he coached," Jack Harbaugh recalled. "John had, and still has, tremendous character and integrity. With those qualities, you know that if you work your way through the ranks, hopefully good things will happen."

Harbaugh had 24 years of coaching experience when the Baltimore Ravens hired him last January to be their head coach, even though he had never served in the NFL as an offensive or defensive coordinator.

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And now the Ravens are in the playoffs, facing a Miami team Sunday that performed a similarly profound turnaround under first-year coach Tony Sparano.

Like Harbaugh, Sparano coached 24 years at the college and professional level before receiving his first head coaching job. He never worked as an offensive or defensive coordinator at the professional level, either.

The success of Harbaugh and Sparano, each of whom instantly turned last-place clubs into playoff teams, should be heeded by those NFL teams with coaching vacancies. Head coaching experience is nice, and serving as a high-level assistant can't hurt, but neither should be considered a necessity.

"I think it says something about two organizations and the jobs that the players did this year," Harbaugh said of the first-round playoff matchup. "It's two teams having good seasons and playing well and making the playoffs, more than anything else."

Perhaps, but these two teams combined for six wins last year.

"They hired him for a reason," Ravens receiver Derrick Mason said of Harbaugh. "Had he ever been a head coach? No. But there are some head coaches who have done it their whole life and couldn't get the job done. Our thing was, whatever he was trying to preach to buy into it, then some success is going to come out of it."

The 46-year-old Harbaugh won over the team with his enthusiasm, conviction and compassion for the players. He gave the veterans every third day off in training camp, eased the workload after Baltimore lost its bye week because of a hurricane and gave the entire team Christmas off, even though the Ravens were about to face a must-win game against Jacksonville.

"It's been a great transition. I'm happy for this team, but I'm happy for him," veteran defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "I don't know if everybody thought he could do it, but we bought in, and it's been great. He didn't blink once on what he was trying to do, but a lot of things he did we didn't want him to blink."

Pryce hadn't had Christmas off in 11 seasons, and didn't really expect to be home this year. But Harbaugh surprised him by putting it to a vote, then coming up with the most favorable solution of all.

"He asked, 'Well, what do you want to do?' We were arguing about whether it should be Christmas morning, after Christmas morning," Pryce said. "He said, 'Why don't we try this? And we said, 'Yeah, that's it.' That's the kind of guy he is. I think he's committed to winning, making his players go to battle for him."

Sparano, 47, brought a similar level of excitement to the job. Before long, that emotion spread to the locker room.

"His passion hasn't changed, it hasn't wavered," Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington said. "The season is so grueling, sometimes you can see in a coach, the season wearing on him a little bit. He hasn't changed one bit."

Miami offensive coordinator Dan Henning said, "Vince Lombardi used to call it, 'singleness of purpose.' Nothing gets in this guy's way. He is dead-on focused and relentless with it."

These are the kind of things Harbaugh and Sparano learned as NFL assistants or as head coaches or in the college ranks. After absorbing all that background for more than two decades, they've become a sum of the parts.

"What makes anyone successful in what they do is the combination of all the experiences," Jack Harbaugh said. "All those experiences are there, and you draw from all of them and make a decision. I think we're all a combination of our experiences in life; that file we have in the brain that pulls out the decision we make."

Asked what he's learned about himself this year, Sparano replied, "I guess I found out that I don't need a lot of sleep. When you get into these positions and you feel like you're ready, there is just something in the back of your mind that says, 'Are you ready?'

"Well, I feel like to myself, I've answered that question and that's all that really matters."

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AP Sports Writer Steve Wine contributed to this report.

Associated Press

The groundwork by Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, right, has made him the kind of coach the Ravens desparately needed.

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