By Larry Fine
NEW ORLEANS, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Football was in his blood, and coaching was a natural career path for John Harbaugh, who paid his dues and learned his craft rung by rung on his way to taking the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl.
The son of a coach and brother of the man who will direct the San Francisco 49ers on Super Sunday, Harbaugh was not blessed with the athletic skills of younger brother Jim, an NFL quarterback for 14 seasons.
He was, however, blessed with an inside take on life as a football coach, a family lesson that informs his approach to the job to this day.
"I think one of the great benefits of growing up in the house that we did as a coach's kids is that we saw dad do it," he said.
"The number one thing is that you put the players first. Just like a teacher, coaches are teachers and we learned that as kids.
"That's the thing that you do as a coach, you try to give everyone love. If you give everyone love, then you're going to be successful."
Five stops as an assistant coach in the college ranks took him from Western Michigan, where he coached under his father Jack Harbaugh, to Pittsburgh, Morehead State, Cincinnati and Indiana over a 13-year span.
That led to an NFL job coaching special teams for the Philadelphia Eagles, and after 10 years with them, Harbaugh was hired by the Ravens.
Harbaugh became the first coach to reach the playoffs in each of his first five seasons but the road this season to the Super Bowl was full of hurdles, including injuries to key players and the shocking death of wide receiver Torrey Smith's brother.
There was also the near clubhouse mutiny that the Ravens coach had to quell.
In midseason, Harbaugh had scheduled a physical practice in pads and veteran players refused to participate.
This led to an emotional confrontation between coach and team but Harbaugh managed to turn the harsh words and conflict into a therapeutic airing of frustrations.
"We had a mid-season thing," Harbaugh later admitted. "One thing about our guys, we like our guys talking things out and confronting issues.
"We've been doing that throughout the course of the season and it's pushed us so close as a football team. I think you're seeing the results of that right now."
Players have pointed to the row as a turning point in their push for the playoffs.
"I think that tells you a lot about coach Harbaugh," said safety Bernard Pollard. "To stand there in front of 60-plus guys and listen to things and what we had to say. That wouldn't have happened in a lot of other organizations. It just said a lot about his character."
Ray Lewis, a 17-year veteran and inspirational leader on the team, said Harbaugh had addressed the team as men.
"That was the biggest difference," said the linebacker. "That was the biggest difference because we came together and we made our mind up to do something as men."
Tackle Haloti Ngata said he had been impressed by the way Harbaugh had listened to the players.
"That takes a lot of heart and humbleness to sit there and listen to that," he said.
"Once we got all of that out, we started communicating better. We started talking more coach-to-player and player-to-coach. It brought us closer and it definitely helped our team." (Editing by Nick Mulvenney)