PALM BEACH, Fla. -- He could have toiled the last few years full of envy as he watched his father rise and his brother soar. John Harbaugh is real and he is honest about this. Real about his football family that has left distinguished imprints across the country while he labored in relative coaching anonymity. Honest about feeling a touch of envy.
But Harbaugh ultimately chose the route that helps define him -- humility. He joined in ensuring the Harbaughs had each others' backs.
His father, Jack, is Marquette's associate athletic director. Jack coached football for 41 years in high school and college and won the 2002 Division I-AA national championship at Western Kentucky, riding off an enchanting victor in his final game.
The Ravens' new head coach, John Harbaugh, was bred to lead football teams. His father, Jack, coached for 41 years and his brother, Jim, played in the NFL for 14 seasons and now is in charge at Stanford. John made his name as the Eagles' special teams coordinator, but his career began much earlier. Track his path to Baltimore:
His brother, Jim, was a star quarterback at Michigan, played 14 NFL seasons and is currently Stanford's head coach, fresh off an initial season that included a fabulous 24-23 upset victory last October at USC.
"It's a great motivator," the Ravens' new coach said here at the NFL annual meeting as he reflected on their success. "Of course, I was really proud of them, but I always felt like I wanted to catch up. Jim was a way better football player than me and then he goes to Stanford and makes a huge impact right away and I'm thinking, 'Gee, he's pulled ahead of me in coaching, too.' "
John Harbaugh had worked with the Eagles for the past 10 seasons, nine as special teams coach and last season as defensive backs coach. Certainly, nothing shabby about that. But when the Ravens plucked him from the Eagles last January and made him the successor to Brian Billick, Harbaugh's high-profile football opportunity had finally come.
And here he is this week sharing notes with NFL coaching luminaries, soaking up the unique glare that only 32 football coaches can. He has reached the apex of the coaching fraternity.
"My wife (Ingrid) and I were hanging around the lobby here the other night and we thought we were going to get kicked out," he said, laughing.
No. The NFL has his back.
He will throw out the first pitch at a Yankees-Orioles game in Baltimore on April 20, six days before the NFL Draft commences. He will make his pitch to his players soon in minicamps, preaching that they will play good, clean, hard, disciplined football.
That they will have each others' backs.
"Ozzie (Newsome, the Ravens' general manager and executive vice president) and the entire group built this thing from the ground up and they speak the same language," Harbaugh, 45, said. "They ask the question when looking at a prospective player, 'Does he play like a Raven?' To me, that is with loyalty and discipline. It's with a spirit and a determination. A focus."
He learned fierce loyalty from his mother, Jackie. Jack taught him firm principles.
Harbaugh will focus on those traits with his players and emphasize relationships all around. He will show them backbone, he said.
Rex Ryan returns as his defensive coordinator with the added title of assistant head coach. Cam Cameron is in from Miami as his offensive coordinator.
"John won it with his instincts -- they are really good," Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said. "He has the ability to know when to ask for direction and offer exactly what he wants in other instances in a direct, precise way."
In that manner, Harbaugh is a natural. You hear that often when others describe him. Natural leader. Natural charisma. Natural communicator.
A guy who knows how to have your back.
His peers and general managers around the league are not certain what to expect from this fresh head coach. They will wait and see. The package sure looks and sounds good, one general manager in the Ravens' division said. But let's just see how he pulls it off, how he reacts when the bullets fly, that GM said.
For he has never been a head coach on any level. Never been an NFL coordinator. His Eagles special teams were routinely special.
But can he build and lead a team that will justly have his back?
"I have a lot of emotion, a lot of passion, and I've told our guys they may have to grab me and hold me back in games," Harbaugh said. "I want to live up to the expectations of my family, our players, our organization, our fans. I've got to make people right, prove Steve right. Prove Ozzie right. I want to make 'em all right."
He used to be that assistant coach who walked down the hallway with something in mind that he felt was important to share, but he would check with the secretary to make sure his head coach was in a good mood. Now, he sees his coaches stroll down and peek in and give him that look, that look that what they have to say means the world and the one that says, "Is the timing right? Can I get a minute?" He chuckles and waves them in.
But he has already learned that sometimes the door must remain closed.
There is work to do. A team to build and lead.
He has always shared football tapes and X's and O's with Jack and with Jim and gained their feedback, as they have always done with him. That will not change.
His father says he taught his son to be his very best. He said the Ravens have a man of trust. One of honesty and football passion.
One whose sister, Joani, is married to new Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean and, thus, who has been pushed into her own unique sports spotlight.
This is a coach who humbly waited for his turn.
One who knows the value of a family that has his back.
And one who knows, always, how to give that.