When John Harbaugh was introduced as the Baltimore Ravens head coach, a reporter brought up the fact that owner Steve Bisciotti mentioned he was searching for the next Hall of Fame coach.
"By the way, did you know I said that?" Bisciotti said with a smile, patting Harbaugh on the back.
Five years and one Super Bowl championship later, no one is laughing anymore. While it's too early to start talking about making a bust of him for Canton, Harbaugh's ability to consistently win -- and win at a high level -- in a league that prides itself on parity underscores an unprecedented path of success.
No coach has won more games (including playoffs) than Harbaugh since he became the Ravens coach in 2008. No coach in NFL history has won more playoff games than Harbaugh in the first five seasons of a career. He is the only coach to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons, and he is the only coach to advance to three conference title games in his first five years.
Harbaugh, 50, didn't make the cut in ESPN.com's countdown of the 20 greatest coaches of all time. He would, however, rank at the top of the list for the NFL's next great coach.
Some may dispute that by saying he's a good coach with great players. It's true that the Ravens have had at least five players make the Pro Bowl each season under Harbaugh, including six in 2012. What often goes overlooked is Harbaugh's knack for overcoming challenge after challenge. His teams have always survived serious injuries to star players, unpopular divorces with fan favorites, offensive inconsistency and a near-annual turnover at defensive coordinator (four in five seasons).
In 2008, his first season, Harbaugh went with a rookie starting quarterback (Joe Flacco) and guided the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game. In 2011, the Ravens parted ways with the top two receivers in franchise history (Derrick Mason and Todd Heap) before the start of training camp and Harbaugh got Baltimore to within one failed catch of the Super Bowl. And last season, despite reigning defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs and linebacker Ray Lewis missing a combined 18 games, Harbaugh captured another division title as well as the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
While many documented what winning the Super Bowl meant for Flacco, it represented validation for Harbaugh as well. It was only six years ago when Harbaugh, an accomplished special teams coach in the NFL, couldn't get an interview for the head-coaching job at Boston College (the job went to Jeff Jagodzinski). Today, he is shaking hands with President Barack Obama as part of the Super Bowl champions' visit to the White House.
"For me, there was no question in my mind that I could do it or would do it," Harbaugh said. "There wasn't any doubt personally about that. It was just a matter of where is it going to happen."
What you'll read now about Harbaugh is how this is his team with Lewis retiring. That's the perception on the outside. Those at Ravens headquarters know this has always been Harbaugh's team.
His attention to detail was key in turning the Ravens from underachievers to a perennial playoff team. His commitment to discipline changed the bad-boy culture in Baltimore. Last season's Super Bowl team featured just six players (Lewis, Suggs, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Marshal Yanda and Sam Koch) who were on the team before Harbaugh. For the most part, these were his guys.
When you sign up for Harbaugh's program, you're required to follow the rules at practice. Run full speed. Tuck in your shirts. Buckle your chinstrap. And don't ever think of sitting down. The signs posted throughout Ravens headquarters -- like W.I.N. (What's Important Now) and Team, Team, Team -- seem more suited for a college setting, but Harbaugh is all about professionalism. If you're not playing the best at that position, Harbaugh won't put you on the field, and it doesn't matter if you're a former Pro Bowl player. Chris McAlister and Bryant McKinnie learned that the hard way.
Harbaugh's tough love isn't for everyone. Bart Scott sounded off on him a few years ago, and Bernard Pollard said he wouldn't join the Ravens at the White House or ring ceremony after insinuating a problem with Harbaugh.
Harbaugh emphasized that he doesn't hold grudges and has respected every player who has been with the Ravens. In fact, Harbaugh believes one of the biggest factors to being a great coach is building relationships.
"The word I would use is you got to love your players," Harbaugh said, "and I believe Vince Lombardi loved his players. He was tough on them. He pushed them. They probably didn't love him back at the time. But they sure love him now."
Those who've remained have grown with Harbaugh.
"It was a lot different his first year," Yanda told The Baltimore Sun before the Super Bowl. "He didn't have his guys here, and some guys gave him fits and ticked him off. He didn't have his relationships built. But some of us have been together for five years now and we're more comfortable with him. We've had some great wins and tough losses together. We know him. We trust him, and he knows when it is time to work, we will work."
Harbaugh doesn't generate memorable quotes like Rex Ryan. He doesn't attract the same attention as his brother Jim. What Harbaugh stands for is a sum of the coaches that he learned under. From his father Jack, a longtime college coach, he understood the importance of connecting with players. From Bo Schembechler, he picked up the importance of physicality and the team concept. From Andy Reid, he developed the same meticulous nature.
Another fair comparison is Bill Belichick, who is considered the best head coach of this generation. Both got their start in the NFL coaching special teams and both had a football coach for a father growing up. And, in some respect, Harbaugh has Belichick to thank for where he is today. When the Ravens were looking at coaching candidates in 2008, Belichick called Bisciotti to suggest Harbaugh for the job.
"Take personalities completely out of it, they're both attention to detail, they're both schematically strong and they're both great evaluators of talent," said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who also coached under Belichick. "They know how to handle players and they know how to hire coaching staffs."
Since 2008, Harbaugh has won 63 games, tied for the most in the NFL with Belichick. His .692 winning percentage in the playoffs is tied for fifth best in NFL history with Belichick. Now, Harbaugh is looking to become the first coach to repeat as Super Bowl champion since Belichick.
But Harbaugh will have to win this one without two future Hall of Fame players in Lewis and Reed. If Harbaugh has proved anything in his five seasons with the Ravens, it's how he attacks challenges.
"The greatest opportunity is in the biggest adversity. That's what it always is," Harbaugh said. "Every year, you can look at what was said before the season about what kind of team we were going to have and then you saw what we were able to accomplish. I'm really excited about the challenges we get to face."