John Harbaugh's T-shirt game is strong and motivating the Ravens

Baltimore Ravens

Editor's note: This story originally published on Sept. 1, 2019.

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh loves a good T-shirt. So much so that he's got a guy on staff making custom designs for him.

At training camp last year, Harbaugh showed up with three words printed on a T-shirt.

Trying to set the tone after the 2017 season ended with a last-minute loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Harbaugh wanted to move past one of the most gut-wrenching moments in team history and put his players in the right mindset.

At a team meeting, Harbaugh told the story of the biblical figure Benaiah chasing a lion into a snowy pit and killing it.

"If you want to do great things, you have to have courage,” said Harbaugh. "You got to know your moment.”

And boom ... not long after that, Harbaugh later appeared at practice wearing a shirt reading, “Chase the Lion.”

One of the reasons Harbaugh is the fourth-longest-tenured coach in the NFL is his ability to find the pulse of the team and tailor his message to the circumstances. Harbaugh's success -- a Super Bowl title and 114 victories -- comes from his ability to reinforce those messages to his players.

And T-shirts are one of his favorite methods.

"If I wear it out there, I’m trying to say something to them that day,” Harbaugh said. "It’s all part of culture-building. It’s our world view. It’s what we believe. It’s what we’re based on. It’s our principles that we’re anchored to, and that’s the way it’s going to be."

Harbaugh loves reading. If he comes across a meaningful life lesson, he picks up his phone and types it into his notes. There are easily a thousand talking points on his phone right now.

Many of those get made into shirts. Harbaugh doesn't know the number of T-shirts he has made in his 12 seasons in Baltimore. The older ones are stored in a couple of drawers in his office.

If he wants a new message placed on a shirt, he informs Ravens equipment manager William Sheridan, who promptly gets it done.

"I’m going to make all of them into a quilt some day," Harbaugh said with a smile. "I just have to find time to learn how to sew."

Here's a look at some of Harbaugh's best creations:

Life is Short, Run to the Ball

This one Harbaugh coined himself. Assistant coaches can be seen at practice and players are spotted in the locker room wearing the same T-shirts.

"It’s nice to get a couple of T-shirts, especially when they pertain to you specifically,” defensive end Chris Wormley said. "[The slogan] is something that we preach pretty much every day, especially during camp and OTAs. Good things happen when you run to the ball. And life is short, why not use your time on the football field to run to the ball?"

Chase the Lion

The Ravens' 2018 regular season came down to the final game -- just as it did in 2017. But unlike the previous year, Baltimore wasn't ousted from playoff contention on a late fourth=quarter touchdown. Instead, middle linebacker C.J. Mosley intercepted Baker Mayfield to secure the victory and the AFC North title.

In the locker room afterward, Harbaugh huddled his players together before saying, "We said we were going to chase the lion. We said we're not going to flinch, not going to back down and not going to turn. We put this thing aside. We said we're going to the look the lion in the eye, and when the time came, we were going to chase it in a deep, dark pit. And at the end, kill the lion."

Iron Sharpens Iron

From Proverbs 27:17: "Iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another."

"How does Iron sharpen iron?" Harbaugh said. "In order for that to happen, both pieces of iron have to be at the right attitude. If they don’t, if they’re at the wrong angle, they’ll chip each other and eventually break each other."

This rang true during the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl season, when Harbaugh was looking to fix the culture of the team. It became a rallying cry on that team, and players still recite those words.

"That’s Ed Reed's favorite," Harbaugh said. "Every time he calls me, he finishes up with ‘Iron Sharpens Iron, coach.'"

Fix Bayonets

In August 2013, on the eve of training camp, Harbaugh took his players to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the site of the battle that changed the Civil War.

The 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment ran low on ammunition after 90 minutes of continuous fighting and it responded to the sight of rebel infantry forming again for yet another push up the hill by suddenly charging downhill with fixed bayonets, surprising and scattering the Confederates. This ended the attack on Little Round Top.

"'Fix bayonets' was a command, and it has resonance for our football team," Harbaugh said.


Last season, the Ravens were coming off the bye with a 4-5 record and on a three-game losing streak. Starting quarterback Joe Flacco was injured, which meant they had to give the ball to rookie first-round pick Lamar Jackson with the franchise at a crossroads.

So the night before the Ravens' Week 11 game against the Bengals, Harbaugh showed his players a video from Jocko Willink, a Navy SEAL turned bestselling author. Willink's repeated response to adversity was one word: "Good."

After the Ravens beat the Bengals -- sparking Baltimore's season-ending 6-1 run -- Harbaugh brought up all the mistakes to his players in the locker room and shouted, "Good!" after each one.

We lined up the wrong way on fourth-down-and-1 ... Good!

Lamar [Jackson] scrambled around and threw a pick ... Good!

It became a catchphrase for one of the best late-season turnarounds in the league.

One Cord

This comes from Ecclesiastes 4:12: Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken

"It’s the whole story of sticking together," Harbaugh said. "You twist the cord the right way, under adversity, it only gets stronger. You twist it the wrong way, individually and become individual strands within the cord, that’s how you take a rope or cord apart. If you turn things the wrong way, it’s how you fall apart. If you turn things the right way, together, you hold onto each other. That’s how you become one cord."