The 2022 season will mark the 15th season for John Harbaugh as Ravens head coach. Harbaugh is 137-88 since coming to Baltimore in 2008. His teams have finished below .500 just twice in 14 years. He has won 11 playoff games, including Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers.

Former Ravens players Brendon Ayanbadejo (2008-2012) and Ray Rice (2008-2013) spoke with PressBox’s Glenn Clark about what has made Harbaugh so successful. Sam Koch (2006-2021), Anthony Levine Sr. (2012-2021) and Zach Orr (2014-2016) shared their answers via the Ravens. Ayanbadejo was the first free agent to sign with the Ravens after Harbaugh was hired. Koch, Levine and Orr are now on Harbaugh’s staff.

PressBox: What makes Harbaugh so special? Why has he been so successful in Baltimore?

Brendon Ayanbadejo: I just think he knows how to make things work. He knows how to grind you hard enough where you turn into a diamond and you’re not so fragile that you crack or you break. The people around him have changed, but in defining “Play Like A Raven” and what it means to be a Raven, I think he’s really taken that to the next level. … Not everybody can be a Raven. If you want to be a guy that’s not accountable and you’re not going to show up to practice every day and practice hard and mentor guys to a certain extent and give input and feedback, these are the things that great businesses do and these are the things that the Ravens are also looking for from their players. We want feedback. We want to know how we did things right, how we did things wrong. We want to do self-analysis. We want to do case studies. We want to implement what we can. That means you can’t stay the same, and I think he’s done that really well.

Sam Koch: He came in with an attitude that he wants anybody and everybody involved with the football realm, and even within the entire organization, to be the best. Everything that he approaches is to try to become better. Whether it’s his coaching or a particular player, he’s doing whatever he can to make each and every person on this field a better player, a better coach and a better person in general.

Anthony Levine Sr.: Coach Harbaugh is a real standup guy. He’s going to tell you what it is, tell you what it’s not. He’s not going to sugarcoat it. If you’re playing good, he’s going to tell you you’re playing good. If you’re playing bad, he’ll let you know you’re playing bad. He wants to have discussions with you. He allows us to be us. If you feel like you have a problem with something, say it, and we’ll address it head-on.

Zach Orr: I think he’s a genuine person, a loving person and a caring person. He wants to see you be successful as a person. He wants to see you have a family, take care of a family. And as a coach, he’s so competitive. He’s a hard worker. The good thing about it that we got to see as his former players, and now on his coaching staff, is you see both sides of it. As a player, I knew he was a competitive coach. As a coach, I see that he’s a competitive coach. He’s hard-working. He’s loyal from a sense of whoever his staff and his players are, he’s rolling with us, and he’s confident that he’ll take us to go up against anybody. We genuinely feel that and love that about him. He’s all about ball, but he has a big picture of what’s going on in the world, and he wants to express his feelings about that. He’s a future Hall of Fame coach.

Ray Rice: The one thing I love about him is that he’s always been somebody that was real. As an organization, you want somebody at the top that’s going to keep it real. He’s going to tell you why he grinds you the way he does and the reason why we do what we do. But he’s also at the point where he knows how to take care of his veterans as well. You’ve got to have that balance. Some guys, you hear it all over the league, they just don’t have it. When it’s time to grind, it’s time to grind. When it’s time for him to rest his veterans, he has a great feel of that, and he listens to his players. That’s one thing I can say about him. He listens to his players.

PressBox: How has Harbaugh stood the test of time throughout his career?

Brendon Ayanbadejo: I think the thing I first noticed about Coach Harbaugh is he’s always innovative, so that means he’s never going to be obsolete. He’s always going to innovate, no matter what it is. First team to go to iPads, Ravens. First team to have all your game video in the Cloud. You don’t even have to go to the facility. On your flight home, your stuff’s already loaded on your iPad and in the Cloud. Now every team does this, but we’re talking [2011]. So whatever it takes for him to be cutting edge — bringing in analytics people back in [2012] — and just staying ahead of the game and ahead of the curve.

Sam Koch: There was no day that he wasn’t trying to improve his coaching style. There were things, such as player leadership committee meetings. … There’s a committee where we discuss certain issues and we’d come up with solutions. As time progressed, we started having more of those meetings, addressing certain issues that he might have or players might have. He was always gracious in the way he and everyone approached that. We were all on the same page. Everything that he did was, in some way, to get better.

Anthony Levine Sr.: Something that he always told us and something that he still stands by, is no one cares about what you did last year, or even yesterday. It’s always about what you’re doing now, or for the future.

Zach Orr: I think he’s definitely evolved, just from the time I came here, to the time now. Some stuff that he might’ve cared about before, it doesn’t matter to him as much anymore. He understands that times have changed and new generations come in. Certain things that don’t really affect the game, football-wise, he stops worrying about and stops spending energy on. He’s evolved as a leader. I’ve seen him evolve his football scheme. That’s one thing that makes him special. Even though he’s been coaching for a long time, he’s never satisfied. So, he’s always trying to learn the game. One thing that’s been consistent through his evolution are his core values. Be tough, be smart, be fast, be physical. He’s still preaching all of those things. Being a good teammate, being a good father, being a good husband, being a good man outside of the building — those core values haven’t changed. That’s why he’s been so successful. He’s probably the most competitive person I’ve ever been around.

Ray Rice: What stands the test of time is working hard. He loves the military ideas and stuff, but he’s not a militant person, if that makes sense. We used to always do things with the Navy SEALs, how they went about their business, but they were just blue-collar men. I think what made him stand the test of time is that he’s able to stand in the fire as just a blue-collar person. I think if he tried to be anything else, a lot of people will read through it. In this day and age, being authentic, being your true version of yourself really is the mantra to stick by. Anybody that’s true to themselves, you’re going to want to do more for that person because you know they’re going to be real with you.

PressBox: How did you develop such a special relationship with Harbaugh?

Brendon Ayanbadejo: [When] I showed up in Baltimore, I was already like 30 years old. I already [had] eight years of professional football when I showed up in Baltimore, but I saw a lot of things that I didn’t see in other places. As established as I already was when I got to Baltimore — I already had two Pro Bowls, already played in the Super Bowl — but I think he definitely took me to another level, especially the way I lead my family and the way that I was a leader in that locker room. I think he definitely helped me establish the next level of myself being greater and being better at everything I do.

Sam Koch: Having that special teams background and being in special teams, he was always around. He was always there to help our special teams game become the best they could be. Even though we had Jerry [Rosburg] and Randy [Brown] around, and now Chris [Horton], it’s his attention to detail that made our special teams the way they were, and he never left a stone unturned. The type of attention and thought that he brought to every single possession in a football game is why the Ravens are always in contention. We’re always just a consistent, solid opponent for other teams because we’re always in contention for the playoffs.

Anthony Levine Sr.: I think me and Coach have a lot of similarities. He’s one of those guys that you can tell won’t be denied. The way he started in the league and his coaching career — being an assistant, then being a special teams coordinator, then to go on to be the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens — I feel like my career is similar. I started out on the practice squad, then special teams, then on defense, then becoming “Co Cap.” We had that similar grind in common. Matter of fact, my youngest son and Coach share the same birthday. Again, he’s an open book. If I have any kind of problems with me or my family, me and Coach talk about it. We both love the football team. At the end of the day, I love the Baltimore Ravens, and Coach loves the Baltimore Ravens.

Zach Orr: I think what makes our relationship unique is I am one of the players who played for him, and now I’m getting my start as a coach under him. We’re both really competitive. He pushes me and challenges me. He did that when I was a player and now as a coach. He can do that because he knows I want to be the best I can be. I don’t ever take anything personally, and that’s what I love about him. I look to him as a mentor, not just as a football coach.

Ray Rice: I’m sure everybody is going to have different sentiments, but you think about it, I came in with him as the same draft class. He was our head coach, but you had guys like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed that were already there. So the word respect really goes a long way because he respected that locker room before he even coached a game here in Baltimore. So we kind of came in together. We all had to owe homage to the guys that were here before us, and I think it was just a unique situation where you had a bunch of Hall of Famers on the defense already and me, Joe Flacco and our class comes in. We blend with that group and a couple years down the line we’re Super Bowl winners.

John Harbaugh

PressBox: Is there a story involving you and Harbaugh that resonates to this day?

Brendon Ayanbadejo: I think the thing that I could appreciate the most is that when we were eating lunch, he was eating lunch. When we were eating breakfast, he was eating breakfast. So what did that mean? He took advantage of that time where other coaches were doing film or talking to their families or whatever. That’s our time to break bread together. That was our time for him to learn about us. We didn’t talk about football any time we ate breakfast or lunch together over five years. We never talked about football. We talked about family. We talked about vacations. We talked about how we’re implementing different equipment. But in terms of X’s and O’s, we didn’t talk about X’s and O’s at the lunch table. We talked about politics. We talked about the NFL having 17 games, and back then he told me, “The NFL’s going to have 17 games,” and I said, “Oh, hell no, they’re never going to do that,” and they did it.

Anthony Levine Sr.: I came from another organization. As a player on the practice squad, I never really got to sit down with the head coach. My first time meeting Coach Harbs, I walked into the cafeteria and I was sitting at the table by myself. Then, he comes up, he sits down beside me, and we’re having breakfast together. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even think he knew who I was. Then, all of a sudden, as he was about to leave, he said, “Anthony Levine, I just want to say I’m glad to have you here, and I think you’re going to be a heck of a player.” The first thing that I did — I called my mother and father and told them, “Coach knows who I am!” But that’s how he is. He’ll go up to every single person. He knows every single person on that football team, even if you think he doesn’t know you. I tell him all the time, “You don’t know how much that meant to me, Coach.”

Ray Rice: I always go back to my rookie training camp. … This was the old two-a-days, and every running back got hurt in practice except for me. Usually when somebody gets hurt, you’re bringing another guy in. I got to a point where I was taking every single rep in practice for about three, four days straight before they brought someone else in. If you want to add that up, that’s old-school two-a-days, live. It was a lot, needless to say. But me going through that built [my] identity [for] my teammates, it built my trust within the coaches because I was able to come in the next year and compete for a starting job. I never use the term that I was necessarily better than anyone, but I think Coach Harbaugh’s identity of being there, being present, working hard gave me a chance. That was his identity, but it became my personality of doing what I had to do not only to just remain at the top but exceed my own expectations.

PressBox: How has Harbaugh helped you in life outside of sports?

Brendon Ayanbadejo: Even now I just text him at any time and he’ll hit me back. We still keep in touch. I didn’t have that relationship with any of my other coaches, that personable relationship. And now I think when I run my business or with my family, I’m looking for the same feedback as a father. What did I do good or what did I do bad? What did you like? Or so on and so forth with my kids. But also with my employees, we’re always looking for feedback. How can we better serve you from my company’s standpoint? How can we better serve our employees and get more out of our employees by serving them better? Even though he’s on the top of the mountain looking down, he’s not leading from the back. He’s leading from the front of the pack and he’s wanting to go through the things that we go through. That’s the same way I run my business and I try to run my family, so definitely an impact from Coach Harbs.

Sam Koch: The family atmosphere that John brought here and the way this organization is, it is all about family first. He always puts in the perspective of family first, football, the team. He always tries to find ways to correlate family or history to our meetings. And the way he treats us, being hard-nosed, being disciplined, being accountable — those are traits that we see on the football field and that he wants on the football field, and they are the same things you want for your kids. You want them to be outstanding men and women in the community, be a servant to the community, being out there and helpful in every way. The same way he approaches practice is the same way he also approaches his family, because he wants them to go out there and be the best people they can be every day.

Anthony Levine Sr.: I’ve seen Coach’s daughter, Alison, start playing sports, go through school, and now she’s off to college. It was kind of like that for my kids. I always talked to Coach about our kids. We always have those family discussions. I send him videos of my kids playing sports. He always told all of us stories of his dad, and then I’d tell him stories about my dad. That’s another thing me and Coach Harbs have in common — him and his dad are like best friends. And me and my dad are like best friends. So, every time Coach talks about his dad, I talk about my dad. He changes you as a man, as well. Even when we have our team meetings now, he’ll say things that resonate with me.

Zach Orr: No matter where our conversations can go, he always brings it back to my family. “How’s your family doing?” He’s recommended books for me to read. He constantly sends you messages. He’s helped me out a lot, personally. He’s willing to share his knowledge and advice, and he genuinely cares about you.

Ray Rice: My situation is unique. I won a Super Bowl with him. I can say that being a part of his first draft class is really special. To see where he is, I kind of got to watch him grow as a coach as well. I think that what I feel personally is that how he grew as a coach, everything that I’ve been through in my own life, I think we kind of got to see each other. I’ve seen him grow as a coach and he’s seen me grow as a man. Obviously he’s older than me, but he came in as a fairly young head coach. Fifteen years later, for him to still be standing the test of time, it tells you a lot about who he is as a man. You can talk about wins and losses. You could talk about all that stuff, but I think this community needs a great leader of men. They don’t need a coach that just winning football games. Obviously we want to win, but I think he cares just as much about his players as he does about winning.

Photo Credits: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Issue 275: June/July 2022

PressBox

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