Marvin Lewis and Mike Smith talk nearly every week, discussing football and family and continuing a friendship that started more than a decade ago in Baltimore while coaching a championship defense.
Jim Schwartz, who brags about having the lowest phone bill in the NFL, mostly waits until the offseason scouting combines to catch up with his former colleagues and reminisce about a time where a group of tireless assistants spent hours discussing game plans, evaluating players and trading ideas
For Jack Del Rio, it is a picture across his desk of three of his former pupils — linebackers Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper — that provides an everyday reminder of his time in Baltimore.
"There is a unique bond that we all have," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' general manager. "Even though we've been successful here, there were some tough times that we had to go through and they understand the tough times as well as anybody."
Newsome is the patriarch of one of the NFL's most bountiful coaching trees, an impressive and expanding group of former Ravens assistants now having success as head coaches elsewhere. Lewis, whose Bengals will be at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday in a key AFC North showdown, is one of 12 former Ravens assistants currently occupying head coaching jobs either in the NFL or at the NCAA's highest level.
The Ravens have already matched up with three of them this season, beating Rex Ryan's New York Jets and Ken Whisenhunt's Arizona Cardinals, and losing to Del Rio's Jacksonville Jaguars.
The group also includes Smith, the fourth-year coach of the Atlanta Falcons; Schwartz, the third-year head man of the Detroit Lions, and Hue Jackson, in his first year at the helm of the Oakland Raiders.
Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), Pat Hill (Fresno State), Rick Neuheisel (UCLA) and David Shaw (Stanford) also used their experience with the Ravens to either accelerate or reinvigorate their coaching careers at the collegiate level.
"If you really want to get down to it, I think the guy probably that's at the middle of all of it was Ozzie Newsome," said Schwartz, the Mount St. Joseph graduate who was a defensive quality control coach with the Ravens from 1996 to 1998 under Ted Marchibroda. "Ozzie was in Cleveland. Ozzie was with Ted Marchibroda's staff. Ozzie was with the Brian Billick staff. Ozzie is with [John] Harbaugh's staff.
"He's been the one consistent factor. One of the attributes as a head coach is you need to be consistent. You need to be consistent with your players, in your approach. You need to have that kind of discipline and I don't think there's anybody that sets a better example that way than Ozzie Newsome."
Taking the lead
Legendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh was credited for developing the head coaching careers of Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green and Sam Wyche among others. Bill Parcells' coaching tree includes Super Bowl winners Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin and Sean Payton.
None of the former Ravens assistants have led their team to Super Bowl glory as a head coach, but all of them have been credited to some extent with helping to rebuild a struggling franchise.
"The one thing about those guys, they're all hard-working guys, and they all got where they are not based on working phones and connections. They just did a good job with the job that they were given," Schwartz said. "A lot of those guys came up from the bottom. Jack Del Rio, I know he played in the NFL, but he was an assistant strength coach. I was a quality control coach. Mike Smith was a quality control coach. Marvin Lewis was an intern with the San Francisco 49ers one year. [Whisenhunt] was tight ends and then special teams coach, and worked his way up to offensive coordinator and head coach."
Del Rio, the Ravens' linebacker coach from 1999 to 2001 under Brian Billick, took over a reeling Jaguars team in 2002 and had them in the playoffs two years later. Smith, Billick's brother-in law and one of his defensive assistants from 1999 to 2002, is 38-20 since getting hired by the Falcons. Ryan, a defensive coordinator with the Ravens and a member of their coaching staff for nearly a decade, has guided the Jets to back-to-back AFC title games.
Lewis, the Ravens' long-time defensive coordinator and the architect of the 2000 defense that carried the team to the Super Bowl, has had a tumultuous nine-season run at the helm of the Bengals, but he's also achieved two playoff berths and his current team is one of the NFL's biggest surprises. Schwartz has his Lions at 6-3 and looking for the franchise's first winning season since 2000
"I'm happy for all of them. We all were very close when you spend that kind of time together," Lewis said. "Obviously Jimmy Schwartz going into Detroit is similar to when I came [to Cincinnati]. You're going into a franchise that hadn't been very successful for a long period of time. I know he's in his third season now, the struggles that he had to go through for them to start putting some players in place that they can win with. You have to have a plan, you can't flinch on that plan and you just got to make every day the best day that you can. I think that's important. The other guys kind of inherited a little better football teams. You have to do feel good about what Jimmy has been able to do."
When Whisenhunt, the Ravens' tight ends coach in 1997-98, was hired by the Cardinals in 2007, they hadn't had a .500 season since 1998. They've had three since and went to the Super Bowl in 2008. The Raiders haven't been in the playoffs since 2002, but Jackson, Harbaugh's quarterbacks coach in 2008 and 2009, has them in first place in the AFC West.
"I think it's a credit to the three head coaches we've hired here — Ted, Brian and John," Newsome said. "I think they realized, and as an organization, we realize, how important having a good staff is to being a successful football team. You need a really good head coach, but a good head coach needs some good assistants."
Newsome said that an essential part of the Ravens' interview process for their head coach vacancies was finding out who the potential hire would bring along as assistants. Marchibroda's first staff in 2006 included Lewis, Ferentz, Hill, Schwartz and Eric Mangini, who would later have stints as the head coach of the Jets and Cleveland Browns.
Billick's first staff in 1999 was almost an embarrassment of riches as far as defensive minds with Lewis, Del Rio, Ryan and Smith. Two seasons later, Mike Nolan joined the staff, and two years after that, Billick and the Ravens hired Mike Singletary as linebackers coach. Nolan and Singletary both went on to coach the San Francisco 49ers.
"You have to have a group, starting with ownership and going down to the general manager and head coach, that embrace that," said Billick, now an analyst with both FOX Sports and NFL Network. "It sounds odd but not everybody does it in terms of wanting to help nurture the talents of the coaches on the staff. It basically says that you're willing to let them grow and progress and go elsewhere and have success. A lot of clubs don't do that.
"It comes down to giving them the responsibility, giving them the access to the media to show that they can lead and develop those skills across the board. We tried to do that when I was there and the guys beyond me have continued it on, and [Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti] very much believes in it as well. I think you can attribute it to the overall structure at the top, and their willingness to let coaches grow that way."
Billick cited Lewis' ability as the defensive coordinator to manage so many strong-willed personalities and allow them to be individuals for the betterment of the team and their coaching futures.
"There were a lot of opinions in there, a lot of personalities. It takes a lot to manage that and I give Marvin a lot of credit for being able to do that," Billick said. "You look at the personalities of these guys — a Rex Ryan versus Mike Nolan, a Mike Smith versus a Jack Del Rio. Those are very distinct and different personalities which underscores that it takes different types to be a coach in the National Football League or even a college coach. It shows that you have to be able to work with that diversity, not only to be good but to help nurture those personalities going forward. They each are going to do it a little differently."
Stability, leadership key
Harbaugh has often discussed the lessons that he learned while working for nearly a decade under Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, who has formed quite a coaching tree of his own. During his time as an assistant with the Eagles, Harbaugh coached with St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and Cleveland Browns coach Pat Shurmur.
Harbaugh has found — and tried to foster — a similar atmosphere in Baltimore.
"I think this is a great environment for anybody to grow professionally," Harbaugh said. "We have tremendous leadership in Steve Bisciotti at the top. He creates an environment where you can really grow and learn, and he's a teacher. You've got [president] Dick Cass, who is a tremendous person and tremendous leader, and you've got Ozzie Newsome, obviously. So it just permeates the organization. People are able to take the values of this organization to other places and do well."
Newsome has spent hours with Ravens assistants — both past and present — breaking down film and observing practice and meetings. Speaking specifically about the ones that went on to become head coaches, Newsome, long lauded for his ability to judge and unearth playing talent, said that he saw their potential early.
"You saw their work ethic, you saw their passion for football. You saw how they were able to work within a structure and be a team player," Newsome said. "We would always joke because during the spring, they would get a chance to evaluate players and go out on college campuses. We would always say, 'Boy, we'd love to have Mike Smith as a scout. Pat Hill would be a great scout.' They not only showed their work ethic, but the passion that they had for their jobs."
That is made easier while working under the backdrop of a winning and stable organization with talent on the field and experience on the coaching staff. However, that wasn't always the case. Schwartz remembers how much the Ravens' defense struggled in 1996, and how hard Lewis and the staff had to work to build a defense that carried a team to the Super Bowl four years ago.
To Schwartz, it seems so long ago, at least until so many of the former Ravens' assistants and now head coaches get together each offseason at the scouting combines. When the conversations start and the stories begin, it seems like it was just yesterday.
"We're all sort of too busy working, but you know you are good friends with someone when you don't talk to them for a few months or a half year, and then when you do get together, it's like you're never apart," Schwartz said. "Coaches work typically 90 to 100 hours a week. You're doing everything with that group of guys that you're working with. There's a bond that is developed there and you always remember that, even with guys that you haven't seen in a while. You can pick up things quickly. It's like you've never been apart."
Here is a list of former Baltimore assistants who got — and still hold — head coaching positions in the NFL or college after leaving the Ravens.NameCoaching Position with Ravens, YearsCurrent head-coaching jobJack Del RioLinebackers, 1999-01Jacksonville JaguarsKirk FerentzAsst. head coach/offense, 1996-98IowaPat HillTight ends, 1996Fresno StateHue JacksonQuarterbacks,2008-09Oakland RaidersMarvin LewisDef. coordinator, 1996-01Cincinnati BengalsRick NeuheiselQBs/off. Coordinator, 2005-07UCLARex RyanDef. coordinator/def. line, 1999-08New York JetsJim SchwartzDef. quality control, 1996-98Detroit LionsDavid ShawQBs/wide receivers, 2002-05StanfordMike SmithLinebackers/def. assistant, 1999-02Atlanta FalconsKen WhisenhuntTight ends, 1997-98Arizona CardinalsNote: Former Ravens assistants Mike Singletary (San Francisco), Mike Nolan (San Francisco), Eric Mangini (New York Jets and Cleveland) and Al Lavan (Delaware State) also got head coaching jobs after leaving Baltimore, but they have since been dismissed from those positions.