Last week, I asked Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh if he’d hike Camelback Mountain with me while we were both at the NFL’s league meetings in Phoenix.
Harbaugh quickly got back to me: “I’d love to!”
Seriously, how cool is that?
It’s the league meetings at the lavish Arizona Biltmore Hotel, where the who’s who of the NFL rub elbows and squeeze meetings between rounds of golf and expensive meals.
Meanwhile, my days are spent literally rubbing elbows with other reporters crammed into a makeshift media workroom, writing up the latest news nuggets gleaned from these NFL power brokers. In there, you better pounce on the complimentary mini sandwiches quick or you may miss lunch.
Point is, Harbaugh could be doing any number of things other than hiking with me.
But John Harbaugh is a people person, and it’s part of what makes him a great coach. Considering we've worked together for nine years, I've known this about him for a long time. But this hike underscored that point.
A couple of hours after Harbaugh wrapped up his breakfast with reporters Tuesday, he changed into sneakers and we took off.
Turns out, I wasn’t the only person interested in hiking with Harbaugh.
Sean McDonough, the play-by-play voice of ESPN’s Monday Night Football, lives in the Phoenix area and also joined us.
Their connection is an example of how Harbaugh makes friends so easily, and keeps them.
McDonough got to know Harbaugh’s brother-in-law, Tom Crean, about 20 years ago when McDonough was calling one of his college basketball games. Crean was then an assistant coach at Michigan State.
One summer in the early ‘90s, Crean asked McDonough to play in Jim Harbaugh’s celebrity golf tournament at the University of Michigan. John, who was then the special teams coordinator at the University of Cincinnati, was there, and he and McDonough were paired together. McDonough was Harbaugh’s celebrity partner, something they still joke about today.
Two men with sharp wit and a sense of humor hit it off on the cart all day and have stayed in touch since. McDonough has even been on the Ravens sideline for games over the years.
Funny story. One time, McDonough came to the Ravens sideline during a rainy game and was wearing expensive loafers. Harbaugh noticed, and told him to ask the Ravens equipment staff if they could get him a pair of sneakers to change into. The only thing available in McDonough’s size was a pair of cleats, so he laced them up. Seeing that, another Ravens coach asked McDonough if he was going to tape up his ankles too.
Anyway, part of the bond Harbaugh and McDonough’s share is rooted in a common backstory.
Harbaugh is a coach who followed his father, Jack, into the profession. McDonough is the son of legendary Boston sportswriter, Will McDonough.
Both are now 54 years old, and they stood on Camelback Mountain as two men that worked hard to make it to the top of their professions.
Harbaugh hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in just his fifth year in the league, and is now about to enter his tenth season as a head coach with the Ravens – a rare feat for one coach with one team. After calling Boston Red Sox games, the World Series, NCAA tournament and PGA tour majors, McDonough took over for Mike Tirico last year on Monday Night Football.
Last season, McDonough called one of Harbaugh’s games for the first time. They’d sure come a long way since their golf cart meeting.
“It’s kind of cool, when you think about it, when we first met what life was like, and what it’s like now,” McDonough said as he sat with Harbaugh on the mountain.
When it comes to just about anything else in his life, Harbaugh is well prepared. When it came to Tuesday’s hike … well, not so much.
Before we got to the trailhead, we realized we didn’t have water, sunscreen or hats. And we were setting off in the middle of Phoenix’s afternoon heat.
Luckily, as I said, Harbaugh is a people person.
On our way to the start, he chatted up a park ranger to ask if there was water ahead. Slightly alarmed that we didn’t already have some, she warned us about the dangers of the trek.
“We’re superior athletes,” Harbaugh joked. That became a running joke for the hike as we stumbled our way up and back down the mountain. Harbaugh did tweak his ankle pretty bad at one point. Needless to say, he finished the hike – masking a limp.
Thankfully, two women had just finished their hike. “You have any extra water?” Harbaugh asked.
Sure thing, Harbaugh got a big bottle nearly full. The rest of us were bailed out by the park ranger and her co-worker, who fetched a few bottles out of their truck, free of charge (us reporters take notice of such expenditure breaks).
Finally, McDonough revealed Harbaugh's identity. That’s funny, the park ranger said, because my name is Lynn Swan – just like the great former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver, but with a different spelling.
And with that, Harbaugh tossed her his bottle to see if she could catch like Swann, gave her a hug, and we were off. Did I mention we hadn't even reached the trailhead?
As we hiked up the mountain, Harbaugh chatted up just about everyone we passed.
There was a little girl, tired and pouting sitting on the rocks. “Hi honey. It’s going to be OK,” he said.
There was a family of people all Harbaugh’s age or older who give him a lecture about his lack of preparedness. “Don’t forget your organ donor card,” an older man said, making Harbaugh crack up.
Along came Dax Schnase (real name), who is a blocking tight end at Division III DePauw, which is a small liberal arts college in Indiana. Harbaugh challenged him to name his school’s legendary coach, and Schnase got it with his second guess. It's Nick Mourouzis, who now works with the team's kickers and punters.
Another family passed by, and the mother of the bunch recognized Harbaugh. “How do I know you?” she said. Harbaugh asked his go-to question: Are you a Steelers fan? Another hug when the answer was no.
There was a young couple with the woman leading the way and her boyfriend trailing a dozen or so yards behind. “She’s kicking your butt right now, buddy!” Harbaugh heckled.
A couple of ex-baseball players meandered by, including former Major League Baseball journeyman outfielder Nate Schierholtz. He had to be the best athlete on this mountain, as we were readily willing to admit. “Look at these guys! Straight from the weight room these guys!” Harbaugh exclaimed before talking sports for a few minutes.
On the way back down, we met another family, this time with three young kids. One boy wore a Denver Broncos T-shirt. Another donned a Seattle Seahawks hat. “Can we convert you to the Ravens?” Harbaugh asked before grinning in a picture with them.
At the bottom, another family we met on the way up awaited. They had regretted not getting a picture with the head coach. A young girl said, “You’re Jim Harbaugh … ‘s brother.”
“Story of my life,” Harbaugh said to me with a chuckle.
One of Harbaugh’s greatest attributes as a coach – and leader in general – is that he relates to anyone so well.
Players talk about it all the time. There’s not a guy on the team that Harbaugh doesn’t talk to, from the last guy on the practice squad to those on his leadership council.
Same goes for us staff members. If you’re sitting by yourself in the cafeteria and Harbaugh walks in, you can expect company. And you’re just as likely to chat about football as you are the most random, down-to-earth things.
I gave Harbaugh a ride to the airport after the hike. We talked about our kids, the work-life balance, the TV show “Impractical Jokers,” which his daughter, Alison, loves and cracks up her parents too, and even the prospect of Harbaugh getting on Twitter like his brother.
Perhaps relating to people comes from Harbaugh’s roots as a special teams coach, which requires getting to know just about every player on the roster considering that’s the unit where they cut their teeth. Harbaugh has talked about that, and media members have latched onto it as a way to explain how a guy that had never been a head coach has been so successful.
Sure, that probably helps. But I think it’s because talking and relating to people is just who Harbaugh is. Meet his father, Jack, and you’ll see it’s more a product of nature and nurture than it is NFL. The NFL, by contrast, changes people.
But as Harbaugh and McDonough sat on a boulder on the side of the mountain talking about their fathers, friendship, faith and careers, McDonough said it’s remarkable how little Harbaugh has changed.
“Is that a good thing?” Harbaugh said with a laugh.
Yeah, that’s a good thing.