Original Piece is on ESPN.
Like so many high school seniors in 2020, Alison Harbaugh had her final spring sports season taken away by the coronavirus pandemic. Her parents, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh and his wife, Ingrid, missed out on the milestone moment of watching their only child walk across the stage in a traditional graduation ceremony.
Despite what they lost, what the Harbaugh family gained, surprisingly, were memories of a different sort that they’ll savor when Alison is at Notre Dame, where she has committed to play lacrosse.
Since he arrived in Baltimore in 2008, this was the time of year when Harbaugh spent hours at the Ravens’ facility watching spring practice, going over film and attending meetings.
However, during the 12 weeks of the state-ordered shutdown, he was a stay-at-home father and also served as an impromptu defender/assistant coach/teammate to help his daughter keep sharp at the game she loves.
When he’s training with Alison two to three times a week, Harbaugh isn’t the reigning NFL Coach of the Year. He’s just a lacrosse dad.
“If I was at work, I would never have been a part of that,” Harbaugh said before returning to the Ravens’ facility in mid-June. “It’s been a blessing.”
At his home nestled on 10 acres just north of Baltimore, Harbaugh is taking what he considers his perfect timeout from the daily pursuit of another Super Bowl title.
After a midday virtual meeting with Ravens players, Harbaugh is running around his front yard, where he is tirelessly chasing his 18-year-old daughter with a padded lacrosse stick.
Harbaugh goes one-on-one with Alison, doing his best to keep a soon-to-be Division I lacrosse player away from the goal despite being just four months removed from knee surgery. He puts her through drills that he has designed to improve her footwork and explosion. He fills in as one of her teammates so she can practice feeding passes around the crease.
Even when Alison has a socially distanced workout with a coach in the pouring rain, Harbaugh is that dad who is off to the side filming it on his phone.
“I just remember looking over at him and he was just smiling,” Alison said. “I could just tell he was the happiest person ever in that moment.”
Harbaugh always has supported Alison at lacrosse, even though he knew very little about the sport when she began playing it in second grade. Alison acknowledged it was hard to take her dad seriously when he called her stick a lacrosse “racket” for five years and he played catch while wearing a baseball glove.
For Bryn Mawr, Alison recorded 17 goals and 14 assists last season and scored four goals in the first scrimmage of this year before the season ended because of the coronavirus. Courtesy John Harbaugh
The most challenging part for Harbaugh these days is watching Alison’s games, where his demeanor is much different than what football fans tend to witness. On the NFL sidelines, Harbaugh strikes a commanding presence, whether it’s ripping into an official over a questionable penalty or telling quarterback Lamar Jackson on the bench about how he’s inspiring the next generation of players.
John Harbaugh personifies “head coach” on the sidelines. But at home, he was just another lacrosse practice partner. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
While watching lacrosse, Harbaugh is a fan, albeit an anxious and usually quiet one. When he does talk, the only person who can hear him is his wife. Under his breath, Harbaugh will say, “Oh, my gosh, that was a bad call.” When Alison glances over to the side during games, her father has the same tense look on his face.
“He says watching her games is way more difficult than coaching the Ravens during games,” Ingrid said. “At the Ravens, he feels like he has a little more control. When he’s watching Alison, he wants her to do well and doesn’t want her to get hurt.”
Among John Harbaugh’s biggest concerns is Alison getting targeted by officials and other players because of him. The name “Harbaugh” is on the back of her jersey when she plays for her club team. It’s not unusual for a referee to ask Alison during a game, “Is your father the coach of the Ravens?”
Those close to Harbaugh remember one exchange with an official when his daughter’s lacrosse game resembled M&T Bank Stadium. It happened two years ago when Alison cut off a player to the sideline and the whistle blew.
Harbaugh: “Good job, Alison. That’s the way to hustle.”
Referee: “Don’t tell her that. That wasn’t a good job. She didn’t do that right.”
Harbaugh: “Hey, she’s my daughter and I’ll tell her whatever I choose to tell her.”
The next day at the tournament, Ingrid was surprised to see Harbaugh smiling with that same referee in the parking lot. Harbaugh found out the official attended Western Michigan at the same time Harbaugh’s father, Jack, was the head football coach there.
“It turned out to be a good laugh,” Harbaugh said.
Is it cool having an NFL head coach as your father?
For Alison, she really doesn’t know any other life. She was a preschooler when Harbaugh was hired by the Ravens in 2008. When she does errands with her father, she knows it’ll be temporarily interrupted by someone asking Harbaugh to give an autograph and pose for a picture. During her tour of Notre Dame, it took only a stroll through the dining hall at lunchtime before Harbaugh was noticed by students.
Alison believes she doesn’t get hounded as much because she attends a private all-girls school, although she does have to shoot down certain perceptions. No, she can’t get you free tickets. No, she doesn’t hang out with Jackson and the other players.
There certainly are perks that come with being the daughter of a coach who’s the fourth-longest tenured in the NFL, behind Bill Belichick (New England Patriots), Sean Payton (New Orleans Saints) and Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers). She rode in the Humvee with her father during the Super Bowl parade seven years ago. Her family also got a standing ovation at a pizza restaurant at the end of last season, when Baltimore had the best record in the NFL.
But it’s the trying moments that John and Ingrid believe have ultimately made her stronger. After Billy Cundiff’s missed field goal cost the Ravens a trip to the Super Bowl in the 2011 AFC Championship Game, a 9-year-old Alison answered question after question about the heartbreaking loss at school the next day by saying: “I’m very proud of my dad. I’m very proud of the team.” During the time when the Ravens failed to make the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, Alison stood at the free throw line of a high school basketball game and heard chants of “Your dad sucks” from the visiting crowd.
“I don’t think for one second that she doesn’t face certain pressure that has to be really tough,” Harbaugh said. “I’m proud of her about so many things, but that may be the thing that, from my perspective, I’m most proud of her. Because it’s impossible for me or Ingrid to understand what it is to be an NFL head coach’s daughter in the town playing sports. There’s benefits to it, and I also think there’s some real difficult things to it.”
Like Alison, John Harbaugh grew up around football because his father was a lifelong college coach. Jack Harbaugh was an assistant at Michigan during the teenage years of sons John and Jim and made sure they were involved with the team. They stacked tackling dummies, helped clean up and even got taped to the goal post.
It was going to be different for John because he has a daughter, but he was very sensitive not to exclude her. On game days, Alison and the other coaches’ children — it didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl — helped on the Ravens’ sideline by handing out printed pictures of plays from atop the stadium to assistants. Each child received $25 per game and the chance to be part of the action.
Neither John nor Alison can remember the exact game, but Alison started standing next to her father during the national anthem around the 2012 season. This budding tradition faced a potential snag when Baltimore reached the Super Bowl that season.
“You couldn’t work the Super Bowl unless you were 14. Because she was in fifth grade, we had to totally lie,” Ingrid said. “It was so bad.”
When the national anthem began at the Super Bowl, Harbaugh had his right hand over his heart and his left arm around Alison. Afterward, Harbaugh gave Alison a kiss on the forehead and she whispered in his ear: “Hey, Dad, we can do this.”
Even up to last season, Alison was by her father’s side for the national anthem at nearly every home game and one road trip.
“I think it’s something that we really appreciate and enjoy doing together,” Alison said. “It’s definitely been really cool to do that. I’m going to miss it next year. It will be sad, but I think he’ll be more sad than me about it.”
Sit with the Harbaugh family at dinnertime, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear laughter. They choose a sitcom to watch on TV while eating. It’s one episode a night, and they don’t stop until they go through the entire series. They’ve finished all of “Frasier” and “The Big Bang Theory.” “Modern Family” is the favorite right now.
John, Ingrid and Alison then get out the board games, and Baltimore’s all-time winningest NFL coach is on a losing streak. But it was the time when Alison first lost that Ingrid realized how much she’s just like her father. The family was playing Chutes and Ladders as they often did, but John decided he wasn’t going to let his 6-year-old daughter win like he did in the past. She was going to have to learn how to handle defeat.
Alison screamed, cried and pushed over the board.
There are no more tantrums these days. The competitiveness, though, still exists. Alison can play well in a game, but if her team loses, that’s unacceptable.
“I tell her often: ‘You come by it honestly, believe me, honey,'” John said. “‘It’s in your genetics, your DNA.'”
Brooke Shriver, who coaches Alison in lacrosse at the Bryn Mawr School, sees that passion to succeed. When she calls out “next goal wins,” she notices that Alison wants the ball in her stick. Alison, who is a valuable asset as a left-hander on attack, recorded 17 goals and 14 assists last season and scored four goals in the first scrimmage of this year before the season ended because of the coronavirus.
Alison’s strength is her vision. She has great awareness and anticipation that she uses to set up her teammates. Where coaches have seen the biggest growth is her confidence. Alison is much more aggressive, and she doesn’t shy away from helping out the younger players and speaking up at halftime.
“I think she really has gotten that from John being able to connect with people and be respected,” Shriver said. “It’s like having another coach.”
Alison has thought about getting into the family business and becoming a sports coach, but she’s keeping her options open. She often gets a behind-the-scenes look at coaching, and her father has asked her a few times to look over an email before he sends it to the team. Few understand the level of commitment it takes to be a coach more than Alison. During the NFL season, she doesn’t see her father from Monday through Thursday. Harbaugh is usually home Friday afternoon.
Even though most of his fall and winter is spent in his office, Harbaugh still finds ways to show how much Alison means to him. He rearranged a late-week practice so he could watch Alison deliver her senior speech, which he acknowledged brought tears to his eyes. He didn’t let knee surgery get in his way of watching her basketball game, using crutches to get in the stands one day after his operation.
When Alison signed her letter of intent to play at Notre Dame, Harbaugh stood at the podium for his media session wearing a Fighting Irish lacrosse quarter-zip pullover. Quickly, the phone for Notre Dame women’s lacrosse coach Christine Halfpenny blew up.
“I told them, he’s always like that. You always see the pride that John has in Alison,” Halfpenny said. “He’s just so authentic. That’s the word I think of when I think of John Harbaugh. He cares, so, so much, and he’s kind and smart and articulate. That’s what you see also in Alison, and it’s so cool.”