John Harbaugh happy to see athlete’s voices are still relevant decades later

© Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

John Harbaugh was born into football. 

His father, Jack, played football at Bowling Green and later became a college coach for several decades. Notably, he was the defensive backs coach for Michigan from 1973-1979, smack in the middle of “The Ten Year War” between Ohio State and Michigan. 

The games were hotly contested each year, as perhaps college football’s greatest rivalry was forged. John, who was born in 1962, had a front row seat to all of it. 

What he also had was a front row seat to social upheavals in American history. At the time, there was a continued fight for equality from people of color and other marginalized communities, the Vietnam War was ending as anti-war movements raged across the country and political scandal rocked the country. In a lot of ways, those situations mirror discussions today.

Jack’s experiences have no doubt helped John in his coaching career, who has seen similar situations pop up before in the football world.

“There’s a great book called the “Ten Year War,” looking at the two campuses, Michigan and Ohio State, when Bo (Schembechler) and Woody (Hayes) were coaching,” John said Friday. “It gets into the politics at the time, the era, the cultural changes. As a football coach, the coaches were in the middle of that just like we are now with the players. It was no different than in the players feelings, emotions, how strongly they felt about those things.”

John began coaching in 1984 at Western Michigan and later made the jump to the NFL in 1998. 


He’s been the coach of the Ravens since 2008, and recently, has had to deal with tough conversations and discussions with his team about social justice movements in the United States. Thursday night, the Ravens released a detailed and comprehensive statement about their demands and initiatives for social justice. 

John said he remembers his father talking about those issues back then, which included how players styled their looks on the road and how that related to the social issues going on in the 1970s. 

In today’s world, professional athletes are more outspoken than ever before, and as the Ravens showed, aren’t afraid of not only voicing their opinions, but pushing for specific change.

“It’s eerie, and honestly in a good way,” Harbaugh said. “It’s good to see that young people today feel strongly about their world as they did then. To be a part of it in sports, you’ve usually got people that have a platform that are a lot more thoughtful sometimes than they get credit for. I see a lot of similarities when my dad was coaching at Michigan back in the 70s to what we’re going through now, my brother and I, with our players today.”