ESPN The Magazine’s “1 Day 1 Game” issue opens up John Harbaugh’s daily planner for in-depth look

The cover of the new "1 Day 1 Game'' issue of "ESPN The Magazine"
The cover of the new “1 Day 1 Game” issue of ESPN The Magazine

While coach Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers – the defending NFC champions – face the Washington Redskins tonight in a key Monday Night Football matchup (8:25 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN), brother John Harbaugh will be hard at work getting his Baltimore Ravens ready for their Thanksgiving night game against Pittsburgh.

Even in a holiday week, NFL coaches spend a majority of the 168 hours (or fewer) studying film, conducting meetings and scouting opponents, but exactly how much time?

The new “1 Day 1 Game” issue of ESPN The Magazine, on newsstands Friday, helps answer that question thanks to a detailed journal documenting a week in the life of Super Bowl-winning head coach John Harbaugh.

Senior writer Kevin Van Valkenburg discussed the project and how his relationship with Harbaugh helped lead to the coach’s participation.

How long has this story been in the works?
As we were putting together ideas for our annual “1 Day 1 Game Issue,” where we try to blanket a sporting event and cover every aspect of it in ways readers might not have thought about before, the health scares that [NFL head coaches John] Fox and [Gary] Kubiak went through recently were definitely on our minds.

One of the Magazine editors, Ryan Hockensmith, asked me if I knew any NFL head coaches who might be willing to open up their day planner and share what exactly their week was like. We wanted to know: Do coaches really sleep in their office? Just how many meetings do they have to attend? How often do they see their families during the season? To be frank, we figured we’d get rejections across the board.

How did you secure John Harbaugh’s participation?
When I asked him if he’d be willing, I actually had pretty low expectations. He is the only coach in the NFL to make the playoffs five straight years, but at the moment, he’s fighting to keep his (5-6) team in the hunt. But somewhat to my surprise, he was pretty open to the idea. It was a good example of how it doesn’t hurt to ask. Sometimes people say yes.

How well do you know Harbaugh?
Before I joined ESPN, I worked at the Baltimore Sun for 11 years, and the last three years that I was at the paper, I mostly covered the Ravens, both as a feature writer and a columnist. I got to know John pretty well during that time.

What were your conversations like with him when discussing this project?
The first thing I brought up was the idea of diminishing returns. I wanted to know if he thought it was a fair criticism. Whenever the issue of working 100-hour weeks is brought up, one of the first things people assume is that’s it’s just an arms race among NFL coaches, that one of the reasons they work so many hours is that the other guy is working 100 hours. But John doesn’t believe that. I think he agreed to do it because he felt like it would be a nice window into the life of an NFL coach.

He assigned a Ravens staffer to help document his schedule. How did they approach the project?
I think he felt like that was the best way to give me a real look into his life, and to do it in real time. I actually thought we’d discuss things in more general terms, but it was his idea to have his assistant, Dan Parsons, take notes during the Bears week so I could get a real idea of what his life was really like. Obviously, he didn’t feel like he could let me follow him around and be his shadow for an entire week, but he knew I wanted to know about stuff that went beyond just the football. He agreed to add stuff to the timeline from his home life, like when he was able to talk to his wife, and when he tried to squeeze in some time to see his 12-year-old daughter, Alison. After he and Parsons put together a timeline, the Ravens showed it to me and then we talked after practice one day about a bunch of the entries, specifically some of the big-picture stuff.

What was the most surprising thing you learned?
Just how much he feels like every minute counts. One of the reasons he said he sleeps on his office couch three nights a week is it takes 25 minutes to drive home, or drive to the Ravens complex in Owings Mills, Md. When you start adding that up, that’s almost three hours a week you’d rather be studying film or having breakfast with players or meeting with your assistants. Even when he climbs on the treadmill, he’s usually using that time to watch film or take notes about the upcoming game plan. Friday nights, he tries to unplug for a few hours and play basketball with his daughter or read books with her, and when the Ravens are playing in Baltimore, he always tries to attend one of her athletic contests on Saturday, but the rest of the time, his job is all-consuming.

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