After his first season as coach at Indiana University in 1997, Cam Cameron took a bittersweet phone call from Michael Lombardi, then the director of pro personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Lombardi sought permission to interview one of Cameron’s bright young assistants for the Eagles’ coaching staff. Cameron knew he could no longer hide his secret.
“I just laughed at the time because I said. ‘I’ve got one guy on my staff who’s ready for the NFL right now and you guys found him,’ ” Cameron recalled.
That guy was John Harbaugh, whom Cameron knew well enough from coaching his brother, Jim, at Michigan and working together at Michigan football camps to make among his first hires as coach of the Hoosiers. John Harbaugh joined the Eagles as special teams coach.
John Harbaugh returned the favor in 2008 after becoming Baltimore’s coach by hiring Cameron as offensive coordinator of the Ravens. Few people in football possess more insight into the coaching brothers of Super Bowl XLVII, John and Jim Harbaugh, than Cameron offers.
“The brother rivalry is real,” Cameron said. “You’re talking about legendary implications and deep down both guys know it.”
His longtime bond with the family only made the breakup more stunning when John fired Cameron on Dec. 10 despite the Ravens’ 9-4 record. The Ravens were ranked 18th in total offense and ninth in points but inconsistency compelled John to do what he called, “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a coach.”
In six games under new coordinator Jim Caldwell, the Ravens improved their average offensive output by 62 yards per game during their march to the Super Bowl, success even Cameron said justified his firing. Cameron created a buzz by telling The New York Times it was a “brilliant move,” but wondered why his compliment caused so much fuss.
“I have so much respect for the organization and the people who made the decision, there’s no way I could be bitter,” he said. “No mixed emotions. Something needed to be done. If it had to be me so John Harbaugh and everybody could benefit, I’m fine with that. Any time you make a change at head coach, coordinator and quarterback, it’s a gamble. But great leaders make smart gambles.”
The only risk among the two remaining teams that produced a higher reward came from the other Harbaugh leader Cameron knows well: Jim.
When Jim followed his gut in sticking with explosive Colin Kaepernick as San Francisco’s quarterback, even after incumbent starter Alex Smith returned from a concussion, it reflected the supreme confidence of the kid Cameron remembered coaching at Michigan.
“Coach (Bo) Schembechler used to chew Jim out constantly so it’s easy for a quarterbacks coach to get close when the head coach rips your quarterback all the time,” Cameron said. “To this day, he’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever been around and most upbeat, positive people.”
There’s another connection between the Harbaughs and the Hoosiers. Their baby sister, Joani, is married to Indiana men’s basketball coach Tom Crean.