John Harbaugh's unorthodox approach -- football as family

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File

Professional football is cold and ruthless. At the highest level, we've come to accept this as sporting gospel. If you want to see coaches and players who feel as if they're part of a larger brotherhood, look to college. Or even better, high school.

The NFL is a business, and its players might as well be widgets. The New England Patriots, arguably the NFL's model franchise under Bill Belichick, seem to have perfected this approach. Better to get rid of a player sooner rather than later, regardless of the battles he has waged while wearing your colors. Chip Kelly tried to apply this philosophy to an even greater extreme in Philadelphia, and even though that experiment failed, it didn't stop him from landing another head-coaching job in San Francisco. In an era of non-guaranteed contracts and high roster turnover, it's easy to understand why that method is appealing. It's part of the reason why fantasy football has become so ingrained in our culture. If you want to be successful, it helps to remove all emotion.

John Harbaugh has always taken a different approach.

The Baltimore Ravens coach, who is entering his ninth season, is one of the few men in the NFL who approaches his job less like a CEO and more like the patriarch of a large family. He is demanding, and he is stubborn. If you dog it in practice or disrespect your teammates, he will fly across the field and get in your face like an ornery badger. But away from the field, he is loyal and loving in ways that make him unique in his profession. The past two weeks have been a great example of that.

The window into his worldview began March 13, when Harbaugh told a story at a University of Michigan coaching clinic. John's brother, Jim, the Wolverines coach, was giving a talk in front of nearly 2,000 high school and college coaches, explaining how you build relationships with players. When it was John's turn to talk, he shared a story about his relationship with Ravens mercurial free safety Ed Reed, revealing that, at times, they would go weeks without speaking. "We had a lot of clashes early on because Ed didn't like the way we were doing things," John said. "I wouldn't talk to him because I didn't really appreciate the way he was treating me. We'd walk by each other, and I'd make a point to not say hello. But before that happened, I made the point to him: You may not like me, and you may not like the way we're doing things, but that's not going to change the way I feel about you. I love you. Every player on your team should feel like you like them, and even more than that, that you love them."

He didn't stop there.

"If they're on your team, you're their dad," John continued. "They deserve your love. And if you can't like them, or love them, either you shouldn't be the coach or they shouldn't be on the team. Every player should know that you love them, and you care about them, even when they act crazy. Even when you discipline them. Even when you tell them it's not OK, that you're going to be there on the end of the bench. But I still love you. I still love you."

There are plenty of people who hear Harbaugh give a speech like that and immediately roll their eyes. They assume it's shtick or a phony motivational tactic, that a coach who talks to professional athletes that way -- Hey man, I love you -- is either kidding himself or putting on a show. Harbaugh, though, doesn't care how it's perceived. He believes if you're unafraid to wear your heart on your sleeve, if you're consistent with your love and loyalty, players will listen when they need it most. And those moments are rarely about football.

When Ravens cornerback Tray Walker was critically injured in a motorcycle accident this past week -- an accident that claimed his life 24 hours later -- Harbaugh was heartbroken. Walker, 23, was a bit player on the Ravens, having played in just eight games as a rookie, but in the eyes of Harbaugh, Walker was someone who showed promise personally and professionally. Having grown up in a rough part of Miami, Walker already had overcome many disadvantages. His own actions may have caused his death -- he was riding a dirt bike at night without a helmet, wearing dark clothes, when he was hit by a car -- but Harbaugh still couldn't help but ask: Could I have done more to prevent this? Could I have been a bigger presence in his life?

The coach couldn't sleep, couldn't focus, so he wrote a letter to his team. "As I focused on Tray this morning, some thoughts came to mind that I wanted to share," Harbaugh wrote. "What would I say to my own son, if I had a son, in a situation like this? You guys are that important to me."

In his letter, Harbaugh talked about looking after the people you love, about walking away from trouble, about considering the consequences of your actions. It was less a lecture and more of a plea. "I am asking you to consider what is at stake in your life," Harbaugh wrote. "Consider what your thoughts, actions and choices mean to those around you. Live your life fully and with purpose. Have fun and share your happiness. Find your Faith, and allow God to Grow Your Faith. Let's look out for one another. Be a great brother and friend. Inquire. Listen. Ask. Investigate. Reach out. Be There. Take a Step. Go For It. Remember, We are Brothers in Arms. And, again, take care of each other."

There are times, such as during the Ray Rice scandal, when Harbaugh's belief that football can be a redemptive force in the lives of young men leaves him open to serious -- and perhaps fair -- criticism. But there are also times when his unwavering belief that football can be unifying and loving is a welcome rebuttal to our cold and detached cynicism. When the Ravens bury Walker today, it will be one of those times.