PHILADELPHIA — The path Andy Reid and John Harbaugh crossed was unique in NFL coaching circles. Jack Harbaugh was the lone connection between the two when they first met, through significantly different circumstances.
Four decades ago, Jack Harbaugh was a college football coach who knew Reid from his days at BYU as a graduate assistant. Reid met Jack through former BYU coach LaVell Edwards and developed a friendship with him that ultimately led Reid to his eldest son, John.
Fast-forward to the present as the two will face off in Sunday’s NFC Championship when Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens host Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs in their first-ever meeting in a postseason setting.
Long before this moment, however, Harbaugh wasn’t sure if his NFL coaching career would be over before it really got started. Long before Harbaugh became the epicenter of the Ravens, the older of the Harbaugh brothers was brought on by Philadelphia Eagles head coach Ray Rhodes as the special teams coach in 1998.
The 1998 Eagles were one of the worst teams in franchise history, finishing with a 3-13 record that led to Rhodes’ firing. All of the sudden, the then-36-year-old Harbaugh was a holdover on one of the worst teams in the NFL.
A new head coach was coming in and preparing to put his own staff together. The first exchange with Reid, of course, went back to Jack.
“When I met John,” Reid said, “I’m going, ‘Man, if you’re half as good as your dad, you’re on,’ so it didn’t take very long.”
Somehow. Harbaugh was able to retain his job and convince Reid why he should be back.
“I was hoping to stay, and he gave me an opportunity to do it,” Harbaugh said earlier this week. “I was young and just figuring things out. That was good of him, and [I] hope he’s glad he did looking back on it.”
Harbaugh took his second opportunity with the Eagles and made the most of it, becoming one of Reid’s top assistants over his nine years with his former boss. Not only was Harbaugh one of the top special teams coaches in the game as Reid established a perennial championship contender in Philadelphia, but he was also becoming one of the most respected coaches in the organization.
“Coach Harbaugh is a leader of men and when he speaks; regardless of what he says, you believe what he’s saying,” said Hugh Douglas, who played for Reid and Harbaugh in Philadelphia for five seasons. “A coach’s biggest job is to brainwash his players into whatever it is he’s trying to accomplish. Coach Reid and Coach Harbaugh do a tremendous job of that.
“When you see them in their press conferences they exhume confidence. When you see them around their players, the players look at them and they know ‘if coach is telling you something, he knows what he’s talking about.'”
Harbaugh established that backbone early in his tenure with Reid, with Douglas being the guinea pig. Douglas was tested by Harbaugh during a special teams meeting early in the Reid era.
“Guys were talking and everything. He singled me out and told me to be quiet. I knew exactly what he was doing because he was trying to get the respect and he was trying to get the room back,” Douglas said. “In that moment when he was in there with the young guys I was like, ‘Dang, Coach, why are you calling me out?’ He said ‘Hugh, if the young guys see you doing that or acting this way. If I don’t say anything to you, they’re gonna feel like they can do it. So you have to be a leader.’
“I was the veteran in the room. I had to be that guy,” Douglas said. “I understood it and I respected him for it. This game is about being a leader of men and having guys respect you.
“I’ll never forget that, man. I’ll never forget that. I looked at him and said, ‘I understand, Coach.’ To this day, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Harbaugh.”
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As Harbaugh’s stock was rising in the Eagles’ organization, Reid’s assistants were starting to get coordinator jobs around the NFL — and having early degrees of success. Brad Childress was the lone assistant to get a head-coaching job at the time, something Harbaugh pursued for himself — even if he was only a special teams coach.
“Coach Reid does a great job of putting his assistant coaches in a position to be successful,” Douglas said. “I remember when Coach Harbaugh had the desire to become a head coach. Coach Reid told him — and I’m assuming this is how Reid had this conversation — in order to do that you have to coach a position. That’s when Coach Harbaugh started coaching the defensive backs.
“Not only that, his dad was a coach. His brother played the game, so he’s been around football his whole life.”
The path to success for Harbaugh in Baltimore was relatively quick. The Ravens reached the AFC championship game in Harbaugh’s first year as head coach in 2008 with rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. Harbaugh won a playoff game in each of his first five seasons, culminating with a Super Bowl XLVII championship.
Harbaugh was the first of Reid’s assistants to win a Super Bowl, winning the championship seven years before Reid would hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy himself. Thanks to a small index card installed in Reid’s office at the NovaCare Complex, Harbaugh was able to carry Reid’s most important characteristic to Baltimore.
“One of the things with Andy [was] he had this 3×5 card behind his desk on his bulletin board. It said, ‘Don’t judge,'” Harbaugh said. “I got the nerve to ask him about it one time, and he just basically [said] it was a Biblical principle.
“Take people where they’re at. Assume the best. Try to communicate with everybody on equal terms. I’ve never forgotten that.”
Reid eventually was let go in Philadelphia and was hired immediately in Kansas City. The winningest head coach in Eagles history has actually had more success with the Chiefs, winning two Super Bowl titles and going to six consecutive conference championship games. Reid has only won fewer than 10 games once in his 11 seasons in Kansas City.
“Football, especially professional football, is like a microwave,” Douglas said. “You gotta have it now. You try to balance being a good team, a relevant team, and having your young players to develop. Unfortunately for a lot of coaches, they don’t get that time.
“Andy Reid has cultivated such a culture in Kansas City. When you look at that and the fact he has Patrick Mahomes, it takes time to build that culture. It really does (take time). You have to have an organization that believes in you and allows you to get the guys that you need that you can push in the right direction at all times.”
Reid and Harbaugh were fortunate enough to work for organizations that had the patience to allow them to build the culture they envisioned. Philadelphia was one of the prestigious franchises in the NFL when Reid was there, and now Kansas City and Baltimore have those titles with Reid and Harbaugh.
“With Coach Harbaugh, every time I hear him speak I just smile because I know that guy,” Douglas said. “I’ve seen him grow from a special teams coach to a coach of a Super Bowl champion team. And that’s pretty cool to see.”