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For Ravens' Harbaugh, father always knows best

A huge portion of Tony Dungy's new march is serving as a role model, a surrogate father of sorts to troubled young men in Tampa, Fla., and beyond. Of course, Dungy has done this throughout his coaching career with athletes, especially in the NFL.

Over the years Dungy and I had discussions on the large number of NFL players who grew up without fathers, the void that left and how Dungy tried to help fill it not only with his coaching but also with his lifestyle examples and with fatherly-type counsel. Fathers missing in homes, single mothers forced to raise their children, and grandparents forced to become front-line parents once again has been a troublesome phenomenon of this generation. It is not an issue solely of the African-American community, but that is often where the sting is most focused. Little can replace the love, the support, the listening ear of a father to a boy, a young man. President-elect Barak Obama made this theme a central one in his campaign and Dungy has witnessed the challenge firsthand in the NFL.

I was struck by those conversations with Dungy, reminded about the integral role of fathers when the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Tennessee Titans on Saturday in Nashville. Once the game was in hand, Ravens coach John Harbaugh found his father, Jack, on the sidelines and in the wicked cold offered a warm embrace.

Later they were outside the Ravens locker room long after most of the players had left to board the team buses. John and Jack, milling around with friends and the Ravens family, every now and then catching each other's eyes in a knowing and revealing way. Like the son, the father spent most of his life as a football coach. Like the father, the son has also risen in the profession.

John Harbaugh is the only rookie coach left standing in this weekend's conference championship games. He has guided a 5-11 team to a 13-5 season and a victory shy of reaching Super Bowl XLIII.

Throughout this season, he has shared football tapes and X's and O's with his father. They talk style, they talk substance. They discuss do's and don'ts as a leader, motivation, conviction, dedication. Jack coached football for 41 years on the high school and collegiate levels. His last game was in the 2002 Division I-AA championship, which he won guiding Western Kentucky.

John Harbaugh, after his team won at Dallas in a huge step on the way to its current lot, opened his Dec. 22 news conference this way: "I want to welcome everybody here and welcome my dad here. I'd like to thank my dad, Jack Harbaugh, for all his great coaching advice and inspiration over the years that we've been able to apply to this football team. You guys may not know it, but my dad spoke to the team earlier in the year and has been around on and off and has a great relationship with the players and coaches. I think in his own way he's had a tremendous impact on whatever success this team had this year. So, dad, thank you. I appreciate it."

John Harbaugh has said that he always wanted to "catch up" to his dad and to his brother Jim, the Stanford University football coach. As an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Eagles for 10 seasons before joining the Ravens, in many ways he already had.

But at age 46, as a rookie head coach with a rookie quarterback and this close to the NFL's ultimate game, Harbaugh has truly "caught up." And Jack Harbaugh, 69, stands with him.

"John and his team and his organization deserve the credit for where they are," Jack Harbaugh said. "I have tried to be what any good father would be, just there for my son. It is not always about me offering this or that thought.

"Sometimes John calls and we talk football and his team endlessly. Sometimes he calls, I listen. He talks for 15 minutes. I don't say a word. My wife, Jackie, asks afterward how did the conversation go? I say great, I think, but it wasn't a conversation. Sometimes, especially as a young coach, you need that. You need that ear that you trust that has no agenda. You need that ear to confirm what you believe in is really true, truly real."

All young men need that.

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John Harbaugh realizes how fortunate he is to have it.

John and Jack and Jim all were greatly influenced by deceased Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, for whom Jack coached and Jim played. So was the Ravens' offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, also a former Michigan assistant. Through Bo and his father, John realizes that "the team" is first and foremost and one -- a Schembechler trademark.

The Ravens players say they see and feel the honesty and integrity of their coach. And especially for the younger players he has served as more than a coach, almost father-like in his approach.

John Harbaugh has helped create the strong bond that is the Ravens.

And his father helped propel him along throughout his first NFL head-coaching shot.

Their mutual respect and love was evident as they walked toward the bus to depart from the stadium last Saturday and head for the Ravens' plane ride back to Baltimore. But John's mother, Jackie, who also has been a rock of support for John, was not there.


"She was busy at home," Jack said. "She had a special treat -– her 93-year-old father had come to visit."

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