Rookie head coach is one game from Super Bowl

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BALTIMORE - One day this fall, John Harbaugh walked into a barbershop near his home. As the wholesome-looking 46-year-old sat in the barber's chair, a young hairdresser carefully snipped his closely cropped brown hair.

"What are you doing this weekend?" she asked casually.

"Oh, I don't know," he replied, "a little bit of this and that."

The hairdresser kept up her poker face a little longer. She was trying to tease a man whose visage has quickly become one of the more recognizable in the region.

A year ago, Harbaugh, a lifelong Catholic, was plucked from relative obscurity to become the third head coach in Baltimore Ravens history. As the regular season of the National Football League came to a close in late December, he had achieved an 11-5 record and taken his team into the playoffs.

Since then the Ravens have advanced to the AFC championship game by defeating the Miami Dolphins in the first round of the playoffs, then upsetting the top-seeded Tennessee Titans last Saturday. Baltimore faces the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night with a chance to make it to the Super Bowl.

Harbaugh steered the conversation with his hairdresser away from his career. He never boasted about his high-profile job or tried to embarrass his playful tormentor.

The Ohio native wanted to stick to the ideals that have defined his life: treating others with respect and staying humble. Catholicism, he says, gave him those principles and they apply to the hairdresser just as much as they do to the multimillion-dollar athletes he coaches.

Earlier this season, Harbaugh sat in his office at the Ravens' training facility to discuss his faith and profession, and how the two mix, with The Catholic Review, Baltimore archdiocesan newspaper.

When Harbaugh was growing up, his family moved from Ohio to Iowa to Michigan over the course of a decade. When his father coached at the University of Michigan, Harbaugh attended a public high school in Ann Arbor, but he spent most of his elementary school years in various Catholic schools.

Harbaugh has fond memories of the nuns who kept him in line. After he clapped erasers on the walls, one punished him by making him write a sentence hundreds of times on the chalkboard. Another made him work as a janitor for two weeks after he scaled a church tower so he could clang the bell.

"Accountability was a big part of it," said Harbaugh, whose favorite duty as an altar boy was ringing the bells at Mass.

"They made you be courteous and respectful and not be judgmental of others," he said. "To understand right from wrong was the biggest thing."

Father Christopher Whatley, Catholic chaplain for the Ravens, said the head coach is always at Sunday Mass with other Catholic coaches before games. On the road, local priests are called ahead of time to lead worship.

"He's very prayerful during Mass and very attentive to what I have to share in the homily," said Father Whatley. "He's there to gain some spiritual nourishment."

It was Harbaugh who revived Catholic Masses for the Ravens after several years without them. He also attends a weekly Bible study at the training facility with his fellow coaches. Even though Sundays are the most high-pressure days of his life, Harbaugh said it's critical to make time for God.

"I think it's a way to honor God and praise God," he said. "You just humble yourself a little bit before God and let him know that these things that we do are for you."

Harbaugh likened his job to that of a shepherd who keeps everyone "moving in the right direction to get them to the pasture we want them to graze in."

"I care enough about the players to be demanding of them - to make sure that everything we do is about attention to detail," he said, "sticking to the plan and not backing out from the values and principles that we think are important."

Before, during and after games, Harbaugh said he's always praying - not for a win, but for God to draw near.

"I used to pray for other reasons, and every now and then, I'd pray for a turnover," he said, "but more than anything else, I want God to stay close to me so I don't get caught up in myself and basically embarrass myself. That's selfish behavior."

While he's not necessarily praying for a win, the coach gladly encourages fans to do some praying for his team.

"Catholic fans! Hey, you know, say a rosary!" he exclaimed with a grin. "Sunday morning for the Ravens!"

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009