Editor's note: This story was originally published on Jan. 13, 2012, two days before the Ravens beat the Texans in the divisional playoffs before losing a week later to the Patriots in the AFC Championship, when John's brother Jim also lost the NFC Championship with the 49ers. Next Sunday, both will sqaure off in Super Bowl XLVII.
John Harbaugh felt trapped.
It was the mid-1990s, and Harbaugh had been coaching special teams at the University of Cincinnati since the late 1980s. He was in his late 30s, and his coaching career seemed to be headed nowhere.
"Up until then, my career had been going pretty good," Harbaugh recalls now. "I was moving up, my dad Jack was a well-known, successful coach, and my brother Jim was a good player, and I figured Id move up through the coaching ranks pretty fast.
"Then I got stuck."
Harbaugh applied for jobs but couldn't get interviews. Or he got interviews, but didn't get the job. The years at Cincinnati began piling up, as did Harbaugh's frustration. The promotions he felt entitled to never came. The fancy new jobs he coveted went to others.
"I always tried to network, talk to people about what jobs were going to open up, do all the stuff I thought you were supposed to do to advance your career," Harbaugh said by phone from the Ravens complex in Owings Mills, Md. "But it was futile."
So for five years, for six years, for seven and then for eight years, Harbaugh coached special teams in relative obscurity at Cincinnati, then a low-key Missouri Valley Conference school that went from 1951 through 1997 without reaching a bowl game.
Stuck. Trapped. Eager for that next job, eager to take that next step up the coaching ladder, but unable to escape Cincy.
"I started having breakfast every Thursday morning at Perkins with a couple other guys," Harbaugh said. "And they kind of opened my eyes up to a lot of things, and I started looking at my career and my life differently."
Among those at the weekly pancake breakfast was Mark Householder, a former Cincinnati football player who is now president of Athletes in Action, the Christian sports ministry.
One day at Perkins, Harbs had an epiphany. The message his friends were preaching had gotten through, and it changed the way Harbaugh approached his life.
Basically, it was: Stop stressing out about the next step and enjoy this one.
"Instead of being frustrated, instead of worrying so much about what my next step was going to be, I decided to just embrace my situation," Harbaugh said. "I told Ingrid (his wife), 'Hey, this is our sixth or seventh year here, and you know what? We might be here my whole career, but if we are? Great, let's do it. Let's make a life here."
The lesson Harbaugh learned those Thursday mornings at Perkins in Cincinnati was to stop being so wrapped up in what you don't have and start counting your blessings for what you do have.
"If something better comes along, great, but let's slow down and enjoy this and make the best of it," he said. "And once I kind of understood how good I had it, other opportunities started opening up."
Indiana called a year later and then a year after that the Eagles called. Ten years later, the Ravens called, and here we are.
Here the Ravens are, in the playoffs for the fourth straight year, the No. 2 seed in the AFC postseason bracket.
Here they are, two wins from the Super Bowl.
"There's a fate element to it," Harbaugh said. "Once you unburden yourself from worrying about everything all the time, you become better at what you're trying to do, what you're there for in the first place. I became a better coach once I stopped getting wrapped up in what my next job would be.
"All of a sudden, life passes you by, and what have you done? Just worried about what you're doing next instead of just living your life and doing the very best you can do. It goes fast. Savor every moment."
All Harbaugh has done since Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti hired him from Andy Reid's coaching staff after the 2007 season to replace Brian Billick is lead the Ravens to the playoffs four straight years, compile a .688 winning percentage that ranks seventh-best in NFL history and win four road playoff games with a young quarterback from South Jersey, 25-year-old Joe Flacco.
The Ravens, who won the AFC North this year at 12-4, will face the Texans at 1 p.m. on Sunday in a conference semifinal playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, where they were 8-0 this year and 27-5 in four years under Harbaugh.
If they win, they'll play in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots in Foxboro or the Broncos in Baltimore.
Harbaugh is only the fourth coach since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to lead his team to the playoffs in each of his first four years. The others are Chuck Knox (1973-76) and John Robinson (1983-86) of the Rams and Bill Cowher (1992-95) of the Steelers.
Going back to 2000, Harbaugh's teams have been in the playoffs 10 of the last 12 years, winning at least one game in each of those 10 trips to the postseason.
The Ravens are the only NFL team to reach the playoffs in each of the last four years and the only team to win a playoff game each of the last three years.
But this postseason is different. For the first time under Harbaugh, the Ravens had a first-round bye, and theyll actually play a home playoff game. Theyre 4-3 in the postseason under Harbaugh, with all seven games on the road.
"Man, I love this team," Harbaugh said. "I think the experiences of the last four years, being on the road for all those playoff games, we've been hardened by that. I think everything we've been through, the great triumphs and great moments and also the great disappointments, we've carried that over into what we are today, what kind of football team we are.
"We talk about that all the time. We've had some great disappointments the last few years, but you know what they say when a bone breaks, it heals harder. And the process over the last four years has put us in this position. We are a team. We really are a consummate team with consummate team players, and I'm most proud of that. I really feel good about where we are."
Ray Rhodes brought Harbaugh to the Eagles as special teams coach in 1998, and Reid kept him in 1999. It didn't take Harbaugh long to establish himself, not only as one of the NFL's best special teams coaches, but also as someone whose knowledge of offense and defense and motivational skills made him one of the most respected members of Reid's staff.
Those closest to Harbaugh weren't surprised when Bisciotti made the outwardly shocking decision to hire Harbaugh ahead of a bunch of far better-known candidates.
He just has it.
Hard to believe 15 years ago Harbaugh felt stuck as special teams coach at the University of Cincinnati. Four years ago he was the Eagles' cornerbacks coach. Now he's two wins from the Super Bowl.
"I'm amazed by all of it," Harbaugh said. "I'm so grateful to the people who gave me opportunities along the way."
It's an unprecedented story, but in Harbaugh's world, there's no such thing as impossible. He truly believes that with hard work, good people and a sound philosophy, anything can be accomplished.
Talk to Harbs for a few minutes, and you'll understand why his players, including future Hall of Famers such as Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, are motivated and inspired by him every day.
"It goes back to really believing that all things are possible and living your life that way," Harbaugh said. "I hear people talking about their three-year plan or their five-year plan I want to accomplish this in the next three years or the next five years. I think that's a joke. That's so limiting. Because your plans might be for so much less than what's possible, what's in store for you.
"Never say you can't do something. Never believe you can't do something. Be humble but put everything you have into what you're doing, and anything is possible."