OWINGS MILLS, Md. – The worst loss lingered for a few days, the way such defeats can. And maybe the missed field goal last January in Foxborough would have torn Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh apart even more if he had nothing to do but sit in his office and wonder how a 32-yard kick couldn't fly through the uprights.
But he had another team, in another sport, in another city. He had another group of players who would listen. These were men with a season still alive, whose dream wouldn't die for another two months and there was something redemptive about living it with them.
In other words, thank God for Indiana basketball.
Harbaugh's brother-in-law is Tom Crean, Indiana men's basketball coach. Harbaugh loves Crean, as does his other brother Jim, the coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Crean, John Harbaugh believes, is a football coach in a college basketball coach's coat and tie.
"I think his practices are harder than ours," John Harbaugh said.
And since last February's Super Bowl was played in Indianapolis, an hour from IU's campus, both Harbaughs were fortunate in being able to take care of league obligations and forget bitter losses in the AFC and NFC championship games by embracing Crean's basketball team.
Two weeks after the Ravens dropped a game-winning touchdown pass and missed a game-tying field goal in the last seconds at New England, John Harbaugh was standing in front of the Indiana team before it played at Purdue talking about winning and life. The Hoosiers needed something at that moment. They had just lost by 12 points at Michigan and were 5-6 in the Big Ten. The day after Harbaugh spoke, they won at Purdue and then took seven of their next nine to push Indiana into the NCAA Tournament where they went all the way to the Sweet 16.
"More than anything he came here and along with Jim, [he] helped get our team back on track after a loss," Crean said by text on Monday. "So he always moves forward even when he is beat up."
Somehow it is fate that the Ravens are back in another AFC championship game in Foxborough against the Patriots. This means another chance, another way to forget the pass that was dropped and the kick that wouldn't go through the uprights. Harbaugh doesn't seem to want to talk specifically about the emotions that came with such a bitter defeat. When asked in a news conference on Monday how long it took to get over the loss he smiled and said: "I don't have that marked on my calendar. I didn't put a red dot on the day it was over."
Later, as he stood by himself, on the side of the auditorium, he shook his head as he contemplated last year's title game.
"You don't dwell on it every second, it's just football man," he said.
He was asked if he doesn't like to talk about the New England loss and his emotions that followed and he laughed, then threw his arms wide.
"What am I supposed to say," he said.
When someone suggested that maybe he say he was bitter for months or that he kicked holes in the wall of his house, he chuckled.
"I hugged my daughter and I hugged my wife," he said.
Then Harbaugh nodded. He liked that.
"Yes," he said definitively, "That's it. I hugged my daughter and I hugged my wife. Write that."
He walked off to a television interview repeating those words to a team official. "I hugged my daughter and I hugged my wife…"
Crean believes John Harbaugh was less anguished for himself than for his players. Harbaugh was convinced the Ravens were playing their best football of the year, Crean said, and the defeat ruined months of hard work that so many players had put into the season.
"I think how he feels for the players as men tore at him," Crean said.
So, yes, Indiana was a welcome break. It gave John Harbaugh a new team to worry about, new games to watch, new players to whom he could talk about life. It also put him around family since Jim was also around and, of course, their sister Joani. They got to see their nieces and nephews. They felt embraced.
"I think he got some energy being around family," Crean said. Soon came the NFL scouting combine, also in Indianapolis, which allowed John to see the Hoosiers and the Creans again. The process of building another football team began and the New England game began to fade into the distance.
At least until now and the rematch Harbaugh might never have expected, the one defensive tackle Haloti Ngata acknowledged on Monday by saying: "If we were going to the Super Bowl, it would be great to go through Foxborough and win there."
So along comes another chance. And when it ends – either on Sunday or Feb. 3 in New Orleans – there will be a basketball team in the Midwest that will be happy to see him. It is a team that is now ranked No. 2 in the country – a team with a real chance at a national title.
And it is a team that can look back and trace its run to greatness to the day John Harbaugh stood before it in the weeks after the worst loss.
A day that might have revived them all.
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