After his first season as Indiana University head coach in 1997, Cam Cameron took a bittersweet phone call from then-Eagles director of pro personnel Michael Lombardi.
Lombardi, recently hired in a similar role with the Browns, sought permission to interview one of Cameron’s bright young assistants for the Eagles coaching staff. He found what Cameron knew he could no longer hide.
“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 told the Tribune in an interview.
That guy was John Harbaugh, who 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 IU head coach.
Years later, in 2008, John returned the favor when he became an NFL head coach by hiring Cameron as Ravens offensive coordinator. Few people in football possess the insight into the coaches of Super Bowl XLVII, John and Jim Harbaugh, that Cameron offers.
His longtime bond with the family only made the breakup more stunning when John fired Cameron on Dec. 10 with the Ravens leading the AFC North by two games at 9-4. The Ravens offense was ranked 18th in total offense and ninth in points - numbers that would have thrilled the Bears - 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 replacement play-caller Jim Caldwell, the Ravens improved their average offensive output by 62 yards per game during their march to the Superdome, success even Cameron believes 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 league-wide.
“I find it surprising that people found it surprising,” Cameron said. “I have so much respect for the organization and the people who made the decision there’s no way I could be bitter. 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 Super Bowl contenders that produced any higher reward came from the other Harbaugh leader Cameron knows well: Jim. When Jim followed his gut in sticking with explosive quarterback Colin Kaepernick even after 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. Jim went from Bo to Mike Ditka. There was nothing Mike threw at Jim that Bo hadn’t put him through.”
Jim and Cameron shot a quarterback video together when Jim played for the Bears. They later reminisced about their Michigan days as San Diego neighbors from 2004 to 2006 when Cameron was the Chargers offensive coordinator and Jim was the University of San Diego head coach. A sign of their friendship: In 11 years at Michigan, Cameron used to record Schembechler’s pregame talks and compiled a CD he copied for only Schembechler’s son, Glenn, and Jim.
“Those Bo speeches are unbelievable,” Cameron said. “Jim said sometimes he just listens to them driving down the road and I do the same thing.”
In the past month, Cameron has had more time to reflect than he ever envisioned during a Ravens playoff run. A vacation full of hunting, fishing and golfing won’t last much longer with Cameron’s resume.
In 11 seasons as an NFL head coach or offensive coordinator, his offenses ranked in the top five in points scored three times and in the top half nine times. The average experience of his starting quarterbacks in that span was 3.2 years. Translation: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco didn’t develop accidentally.
“There’s no doubt I’m going to be coaching next year,” Cameron said.
But first Cameron looks forward Sunday to watching the Harbaughs briefly turn New Orleans into the city of brotherly love.
“The brother rivalry is real,” Cameron said. “You’re talking about legendary implications and deep down both guys know it. But this won’t be the last time you see either one of them in the Super Bowl. They will be two of the great coaches in this league as long as they want to be.”
To Cameron, they will be better friends even longer.