Arch: Harbaugh stands tall at Miami

Sometimes you are cast aside. Sometimes you are cast in bronze.

After Saturday’s celebration at Yager Stadium, John Harbaugh now knows both feelings.

The day before Miami University opened its 1983 football season at South Carolina, Harbaugh — now the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens — was an under-sized, modestly-talented and briefly overjoyed junior defensive back for the team.

Returning from a knee injury that had wiped out his sophomore season, Harbaugh was told he’d finally made the traveling squad. But then, just as the team was about to leave Oxford, coaches informed him he instead was staying home. The Redskins (as the team was called then) were taking a different player in his place.

“Oh man, you gonna bring up that story?” Harbaugh said with a shake of his head, then, finally, a reflective smile. “You fight real hard to get into position to be in that spot and then the night before you find out you’re not gonna be a part of it.

“I’ll tell you, that was like a death blow. A gut shot. I felt like I got knocked out cold.

“But those things make you who you are. Those are the tough things in life. And so you fight back to make the next trip … and the things that prepared me best for my future in coaching were those tough times.

He learned that lesson well in 30 seasons as a college and NFL coach and his crowning moment came in Super Bowl XLVII — the 2013 championship game — when his Ravens outlasted the San Francisco 49ers, coached by his younger brother Jim, 34-31.

And that’s what brought about Saturday’s festivities.

When the red tarp was finally pulled off the towering, Kristin Visbal-sculpted likeness of him — a triumphant sideline pose with his right fist raised toward the heavens — Harbaugh was immortalized alongside eight other legends in the Cradle of Coaches Plaza at the south end of Yager.

That he now shares this hallowed ground with the other storied Miami-educated coaches — Bo Schembechler, Weeb Ewbank, John Pont, Ara Parseghian, Paul Brown, Carm Cozza, Paul Dietzel and Earl “Red” Blaik — left Harbaugh a bit in awe:

“The Cradle is the greatest honor in coaching — if you understand what it’s all about. Back in 1981 or ‘82 we had a press guide cover with all of them on it and I remember looking at it,” he said as a smile. “After flipping through it to make sure my name was on the roster — and it was, thank God — I thought, ‘These are the men who went to school and played at Miami and now we’re playing on and walking the same path.’ It was an incredible thing.”

As he had pulled the covering from the statute, Harbaugh was flanked by his wife Ingrid, his daughter Alison and his parents. His brother Jim had been in Oxford on Friday night for the enshrinement banquet as had Ravens president Dick Cass, general manager Ozzie Newsome, senior vice president Kevin Bryne, three of his assistant coaches and other team personnel.

Before the photo session began at the unveiling, Harbaugh called the current Miami players, in uniform for an afternoon practice that would follow, to crowd up behind him.

Sitting in the audience in front of him were many of his former Miami teammates, family friends, several Ravens fans in purple jerseys and even a half dozen players who had played for his dad — the renowned Jack Harbaugh — when he coached at Eaton High School in 1964 and 1965.

The statues in the plaza honor only Miami grads who have been named Coach of the Year at the college or NFL level, have won a national college or NFL title or have been elected to the college or pro football halls of fame.

That John’s enshrinement came at the expense of his brother brought out another story at Friday night’s banquet at the Shriver Center.

John said he’d never told it publicly before. He said once the game ended he knew he had to walk across the field and shake hands with the opposing coach.

As he — and a legion of cameramen — approached his brother, he said Jim gave him a short, stiff arm to the sternum, and then whispered in his ear: “Don’t hug me.”

John said his mouth-open, surprised look was really him gasping for a breath.

The story brought a roar from the crowd as did one from Miami athletics director David Sayler, who noted there was a bigger turnout for Harbaugh than there had been the year before when Ben Roethlisberger, the Miami alum and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, had been enshrined in the school’s hall of fame.

Hearing that, Harbaugh grinned and gave a fist pump.

All kidding aside, he admitted later the moment had him reeling:

“I just feel overwhelmed, stunned a little bit that people would take the time to come (out.)”

A coach’s kid

Jackie Harbaugh, John’s mother, said her eldest son was “christened” with a football.

Her husband Jack was at his first coaching job — at Perrysburg High — and she brought their 6-month-old baby to practice.

“We’re up sitting in the stands and out of nowhere comes this football,” she said Saturday. “I think somebody had kicked it and THWAAACK! It hit John right in the side of the head.

“I went, ‘Oh my goodness,’ but you know what? He never cried. He was christened.”

Jack would go on to coach 47 years, first at the high school level — Eaton for two seasons, Xenia for one — and then at 10 college stops, both as an assistant and a head coach. He won two I-AA national titles at Western Kentucky University.

“Growing up a coach’s kid you think about coaching your whole life,” John said. “Jim and I both thought we’d play as long as we could and then coach. The only difference was he played a little longer than I did.”

Jim was bigger (6-foot-3 versus 5-11), more athletic and had a more aggressive personality. He starred at the University of Michigan, was a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears and spent 15 seasons as an NFL quarterback before he began coaching.

John, on the other hand, lettered one year at Miami, had a 3.5 grade-point average, was a Football Scholar Athlete and bypassed a redshirt senior season so he could join his dad’s coaching staff at Western Michigan.

After assistant coaching jobs at Pitt, Morehead State, Cincinnati and Indiana, he was added to the Philadelphia Eagles staff in 1998 and then chosen as Ravens head coach in 2008.

That he’s now bronzed alongside coaching legends — especially Schembechler, who was long intertwined with his family — has humbled him.

“There’s no such thing as being on equal footing with Bo — that would be impossible. Or with Earl Blaik or John Pont or Weeb Ewbank or the rest. It’s just neat to be included in part of that. Right now I’m not sure I understand how it feels. It’s hard to connect with something like that except to remember all the people who helped you along the way.”

Giving back

And now he’s paying it forward, said Sayler, who’s been on the job just over 16 months:

“That’s why it was so important when we challenged the Cradle Association. They were going to wait a couple of years to vote for (a statue addition) and I said, ‘But we’ve got a guy qualified now. Let’s do this. Everyone knows who he is and that’s important.’

“When recruits come in here, this (plaza) is a special place to show them, but it doesn’t have the connection it could because the kids don’t understand who these people are. John is able to make the link to the past and bring that back to life.”

And the Miami program needs some life. It has had one winning season in the past eight years and last season the RedHawks went 0-12.

In December, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin was hired as the new coach and there is a strong push to return the program to its old powerhouse days in the Mid-American Conference.

Sayler said Harbaugh is involved in that effort as much as he can be:

“He’s very aware. He tracks our scores and knows what’s going on. He (and Jim and Jack) gave a good speech to our team yesterday and he’s going to walk around practice today.

“He’s given us real access. He’s helped us with donors. I get to go to the (Ravens) practice facility when I need to and he’s been instrumental in helping us get our indoor (practice) facility built. Everything you hope a man could be, John Harbaugh embodies that.”

Harbaugh talked repeatedly this weekend about helping turn the Miami program around and he especially reached out to the players who he called “motivated, determined and hungry.”

They in turn seemed mesmerized by the man who not only stood in front of them but towered over them in a fist-raised pose.

Everybody this weekend loved seeing John Harbaugh cast in bronze — except maybe for one guy suddenly feeling cast aside.

“I once learned if you drink milk you’ll grow big and strong and between the ages of 6 years old and 38, I drank as much milk as anyone walking the earth,” Jim Harbaugh said with a grin. “Now that’s all down the drain.

“I prided myself for a long time of being the tallest Harbaugh of all generations. That all changed with the unveiling of this statue. Now I’m no longer the tallest Harbaugh.”

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