Following a disappointing 8-8 season in 2013, Super Bowl XLVII champion coach John Harbaugh took some time off to recuperate. Then he was back in action.
The 51-year-old Midwest native took a trip in early February to visit the American Armed Forces in Afghanistan. Not long afterward, he was at the annual NFL Combine in Indianapolis, where he and several other Catholic NFL coaches, scouts and administrators participated in a Mass and dinner organized by Catholic Athletes for Christ.
Harbaugh took what he learned at the combine to prepare for the NFL Draft, which takes place Thursday through Saturday. He is also working with the team’s general manager on re-signing the right players through free agency. He is keenly aware of the fact that the outcomes of games next season will be determined in part by the decisions he makes in the off-season. This is expressed in a favorite acronym of his, W.I.N., which stands for “What’s Important Now.”
Harbaugh, whose younger brother Jim coaches the San Francisco 49ers, spoke about his off-season exploits in the context of his Catholic faith with Register correspondent Trent Beattie.
In early February, you were in Afghanistan with the troops. Why is it important for you to show your support for them in such an up-close way?
We’re blessed with a lot of things in our country, so we need to make the connection between those blessings and how they were and are won for us. They are due to the sacrifices made by our military. Our rights and freedoms are God-given, but we have to be stewards of those blessings for them to be passed on to the next generation. No one knows this better than a soldier, who dedicates his life to winning battles so that freedom will triumph.
I enjoyed the opportunity, which I got through Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, to go over and speak with some of the courageous members of our military. I got more out of it than they did, because the whole atmosphere puts what you do as a civilian in perspective. It’s humbling to meet people who have given more of themselves than you have, but that also allows you to draw from their courage and dedication.
After you got back from Afghanistan, you went to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Is the combine really necessary? Do you get to learn things about players that you didn’t already know?
At the combine, the scouts are mostly rounding out their knowledge of players they’ve already studied a lot. However, coaches are a different story, since we are just beginning the evaluation process on this draft class. Coaches can learn a great deal by seeing the players up close at the combine. We start with that information and build on it up until the draft in May.
You didn’t need to look for any kickers, did you?
No, certainly not. Justin Tucker is a tremendous kicker and young man. He exemplifies what we look for in players. There’s the obvious necessity of physical strength and skills, but above and beyond those, we look for mental characteristics. Those can make or break a draft pick. Work ethic, decision-making skills and interest in team unity are some of the things that go to make up what we call that “football intelligence.” This outweighs physical qualities 3 to 1.
Your father, Jack Harbaugh, was a college football coach, so you moved a lot as a youngster. Did you learn any lessons from moving repeatedly?
Every time my dad got a new coaching job, we saw the moves as exciting. Each move meant a new and better position, so we looked forward to what was ahead. Plus, we were able to spend seven straight years in Ann Arbor, when my dad was the defensive backs coach for the University of Michigan. That let me finish out my high-school days at the same place, so there was consistency there.
My brother Jim and I were always a part of our dad’s teams, in one way or another, so we learned plenty of things from that. We knew a lot of the players and coaches wherever we lived, and we would oftentimes have them over for dinner. Our lives were centered on the team, and the team was kind of an extension of our family. We were a close unit.
One of the major things Jim and I learned from our dad was to “attack the day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” That’s something you can take with you, not only on the field, but in the office as well, even during the off-season. The decisions we make now will affect the outcome of games next season.
That’s what the acronym “W.I.N.” is all about. It stands for “What’s Important Now.” In other words, you can’t change the past or the future, but you do have the power to change what is happening now. That, in turn, will affect what happens in the future. So, basically, you do the best you can with whatever is in front of you now. That’s where the power is.
Who were some of your favorite coaches growing up?
Some of my favorites were the head coaches from my dad’s teams. Bo Schembechler from the University of Michigan and Mike Gottfried — who is actually my dad’s first cousin — from the University of Pittsburgh are two examples of that.
You can even go all the way back to when I first started playing football as a little kid to find one of my favorites: Tom Minnick, whom I’m still friends with to this day. He reminds me of what it means to be a good coach. Good coaches see the best in their players even when that best isn’t fully developed and then they try to bring that out.
Looking back, I don’t think I ever had a bad coach. I was blessed to have so many good men who wanted to bring out the best in me. Now, I want to do that same thing for the young men I work with.
Were you always able to relate your faith to football?
As I grew physically, I think my faith did as well. Maybe in grade school the connection between faith and football was a vague, generic thing, but in high school, they started to come together. That’s when I went to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp that motivated me to make faith more of an explicit thing. Then, in college, I was part of Athletes in Action, and, now, professionally, I’ve become acquainted with Catholic Athletes for Christ.
We recently had a great event at the combine that was sponsored by Catholic Athletes for Christ. There was a Mass with many coaches, scouts, executives and other staff in attendance. Then we shared a dinner afterward.
Weren’t you the one who started having Masses offered for Ravens’ players and coaches?
They did have Mass years before I got there, when Ted Marchibroda was the coach. However, it had stopped, so I reinstated the practice when I arrived. There are quite a few players and coaches who attend the Mass. It’s a wonderful opportunity to pray and worship with men you already work with.
The Mass makes me recall how every priest today can trace his lineage all the way back to Jesus. There’s the unbroken succession of bishops who’ve ordained priests for centuries, so that each and every Catholic priest is truly connected to Jesus in a sacramental way. That’s an amazing, irreplaceable thing the Church offers to us today.
Another thing that I really admire is how thoroughly the Church has thought through so many tough issues over the centuries. Some of the greatest minds the world has ever known can be found in the Catholic Church. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Robert Bellarmine are just a few of the Catholics who have contributed so much, not only to the Church, but to the world in general, through their dedication to prayer, learning and teaching.
Whatever questions anyone might have about a moral issue they’re wrestling with, the Church has profound answers to propose. Scripture and Tradition are united for a wealth of information on how to live an upright, happy life.
Do you have a favorite Bible verse?
In the Old Testament, the first one that comes to mind is Proverbs 3:5. Trusting in the Lord with all your heart is the key to happiness. We do have to put forth our own effort, but, ultimately, what makes for a good life is letting God be God.
In the New Testament, Romans 8:28 is a favorite. When we trust God, all things do work together for good. The failures and setbacks we might encounter have a meaning that is not obvious on a superficial level, but the meaning does become clear in the light of faith.
My favorite book overall of the Bible is probably the Gospel of St. John. It gets to the heart of who Jesus is in the opening line: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus is the second Person of the Trinity, equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and this was true long before he became man for our salvation.
St. John’s Gospel is a great explanation of how love and obedience go hand-in-hand. We can say we love God, but that’s not really the case when we disobey his commands. John 14:15 reads: “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Love of God is inseparable from obedience. When we walk rightly and search for him, when God’s desires become the desires of our own heart, then his great plans for our lives can become real.
Was there a particularly tough time your faith got you through?
I’ve been blessed to never have been really hit with too much tragedy. However, one of the roadblocks was when my wife, Ingrid, and I were trying to have children. We hadn’t expected a challenge in that area of life, so it really took us by surprise. There was a frustration that we couldn’t achieve what we were hoping to.
We finally made the decision to let go of the things that were out of our control and surrender them to God. We understood that, even if God didn’t want to give us any kids, that would be best for us. He is always working things for our own good, even when it doesn’t seem like it.
Well, that realization — and decision to let go of things — brought about peace of mind, and then, paradoxically, it brought about our daughter, who is now 12. When we stopped demanding that things go our way and instead recognized God’s superiority and wisdom, things couldn’t help but go very well.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.