WESTMINSTER, Md. - Nearly 7 months into his first year as the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, John Harbaugh still occasionally has to pinch himself to make sure he's not dreaming.

It wasn't all that long ago that the former Eagles assistant wondered if he'd ever get the opportunity to be a head coach at any level, let alone the National Football League. The list of bad college programs that wouldn't even give him an interview over the last 10 years could fill a phone book. But here he is now, with one of the 32 primo jobs in his profession.

"If I'm in front of the team or on the practice field, you don't give it a second thought," Harbaugh said. "You just coach. Having been the [Eagles'] special-team coach all those years, where you have to control a meeting or a practice, it's easy for me to do that. You get into that mode. But when you have a quiet moment, I occasionally go, 'Wow, how about this?'

"About a month into the job, I was in the weight room early. It has windows that overlook our practice fields. The sun was starting to come up over the fields. It was just beautiful. Then it hit me. I said to myself, 'I know what happened. I was driving somewhere and got in this huge car wreck, died on the spot, and now, I'm in heaven. Coaching heaven.' "

Heaven can quickly turn into hell for NFL head coaches if they don't win in a reasonable amount of time, which, these days, usually is only a couple of years, sometimes even less if you happen to work for a particularly impatient owner.

But failure isn't an option for the 45-year-old Harbaugh, who has been preparing for this opportunity since 1984, when he disappointed his mother by forsaking law school for an assistant-coaching job at Western Michigan.

He has the utmost confidence that he can turn around a Ravens team that won just five games last season and made it to the playoffs once in the last 4 years under previous coach Brian Billick.

"Being with Andy [Reid] all these years, I was able to put together a plan as a head coach," said Harbaugh, as he relaxed in his office during a break between practices at the Ravens' McDaniel College training camp. "How you apply it depends on the situation you're in. And then you learn every day as you go.

"The biggest thing here is, it's not an overhaul type of situation. A lot of times, coaches go in and they overhaul the organization. They become the organization, top to bottom. That's not what we're doing. We've got a great organization. We've got a lot of very good players on this team. We've got the best GM [Ozzie Newsome] in the league. A tremendous owner [Steve Bisciotti]. I don't have to come in here and be more than a football coach."

The switch from Billick to Harbaugh has been a bit of a culture shock for the players. Billick ran a pretty loose ship during his 9-year tenure in Baltimore. Probably too loose. He had few, if any, rules. He ran one of the league's easier training camps. It was jokingly referred to as Club Billick.

Enter Harbaugh, who, a la Reid, opened camp with 3 days of two-a-day workouts, every one of them in full pads. Days off during camp are few and far between. The first one isn't until Aug. 8.

Because of Westminster's proximity to Baltimore (it's just 10 minutes from the team's training facility and 25 minutes from downtown), Billick allowed his veteran players to sleep at home after the first 5 days of camp. Not Harbaugh. Everybody is staying at McDaniel until they break camp on Aug. 15. He's even instituted bed checks.

Harbaugh also ordered the benches removed from the sidelines at the team's training facility, and players must tuck in their shirttails during practice. He also rearranged the locker room at the training facility so that locker stalls no longer are grouped by position. The popular television show, "Ravens Wired," which miked a player every week, has been discontinued because Harbaugh felt it promoted individualism.

"If you talk to Eagles players, they'll tell you it's not in my personality to back off from the way I feel is the right way to do stuff," Harbaugh said. "These guys have embraced [the changes]. They love football, love to practice. They might like a little more so-called freedom. But they understand the purpose of everything we're doing. I see a bunch of guys who just want to be good."

Many of the veterans, such as linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, aren't used to following rules after spending their whole career under Billick. But if they have a problem with it, they are keeping it to themselves for now.

"No matter if you change coaches or coordinators or whatever, football is football and it's going to always take care of itself," said Lewis, 33, who is entering the final year of his contract.

Said tight end Todd Heap: "[Harbaugh] just has a different style [than Billick]. I don't think there's been a negative reaction. It's a situation where everybody is adjusting to a new coach. Brian was the only coach a lot of us knew at this level. But John's really come in and made a statement. Guys are impressed with that. We're here to win, and that's his main focus."

When he was putting his coaching staff together, Harbaugh wisely retained defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who is well-liked by the defensive veterans and can act as a buffer between the head coach and players such as Lewis and Reed.

"I could have brought in a guy who ran a defense that I was familiar with," Harbaugh said, "which would have been more comfortable for me and would have given me more of an opportunity to control the defense, so to speak. Or I could have kept a great coach that the players are familiar with.

"First of all, Rex is a great coach and a great friend. And then, with us going through all of this change, it's nice for those guys to be able to have something they're really familiar with, which is the X's-and-O's part of the defense. So I figured, I'll learn the defense and let those guys learn the rest of it."

Harbaugh's January hiring came as a bit of a surprise, much like his mentor Reid's did in 1999 when the Eagles picked the then little-known Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach to be their head coach.

"The fact that Andy wasn't a proven guy did come up once or twice in the interview process," Harbaugh said with a smile. "I think I might have mentioned it."

He spent 9 years coaching the Eagles' special teams before Reid moved him to the secondary last season after Steve Spagnuolo left to become the Giants' defensive coordinator.

"It was completely coach's idea [to have him coach the defensive backs]," Harbaugh said. "I was content with what I was doing [coaching special teams], but I felt trapped from a football standpoint in the sense that I wasn't learning enough football.

"I felt I had a real good handle on special teams and I was very content doing that. I told him I could do it for the next 25 years because it was the best job in the world. It's like being self-employed in a lot of ways. But I wasn't learning, wasn't growing, X's-and-O's-wise. I didn't have enough time to spend in Jim [Johnson's] meetings to really get his defense. Jim would tell you I haven't spent enough time in the meetings yet to get the defense."

Late last season, Harbaugh was contacted by UCLA about its vacant head-coaching job. He was interviewed and finished a close second to Rick Neuheisel. If he had gotten that job, he would have been competing against his brother, Jim, who is the head coach at Stanford.

"I was worried that if I got that job, I'd have to go against Jim in recruiting," Harbaugh said. "How do you slam your own brother in recruiting? I'm sure we would've each found a way."

After the Ravens stumbled to a 5-11 finish, Bisciotti fired Billick. Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was the Ravens' top choice to replace him, but Garrett elected to remain in Dallas. That opened the door for Harbaugh.

"Steve and Ozzie had a critieria for the type of coach they felt would be most effective in this situation, much like Jeffrey [Lurie] did before he hired Andy," Harbaugh said. "They looked for a coach that filled those criteria rather than look for a coach and then try to fit him into the situation. I think what Steve saw [in him] was the perfect fit for this job. Just like Jeffrey saw Andy as the perfect fit for that job at the time."

Like Reid in '99, Harbaugh brought along "The Big Notebook" when he interviewed for the Ravens' job, which detailed every aspect of his head-coaching plan down to the smallest detail.

"I had the big, thick one," he said. "A 5-incher. I set it on the table and Ozzie said, 'What is this?' I'm like, 'That's the Andy Reid notebook. You didn't think I was going to bring one here?' "

While Harbaugh's switch from Eagles special-teams coordinator to secondary coach last year broadened his X's-and-O's horizon, he doubts it played any role in his getting the Ravens job.

"That never came up once," he said. "It was all about leadership, how we run the program, what kind of person you are, how you're going to apply your plan to what we've got. I think if I had still been the [Eagles'] special-teams coordinator, I still would've had a great shot at the job."

Harbaugh is the son of a coach. His father, Jack, was a college coach for 41 years. Following in his father's footsteps was all he ever wanted to do, much to the chagrin of his mom.

He spent 9 years on Reid's staff, watching and learning and waiting for someone to give him the same kind of opportunity the Eagles gave Reid. That someone turned out to be the Ravens.

"In Philadelphia, I always felt like, OK, I'm going to do my due diligence," Harbaugh said. "I'm going to watch Andy and learn from him and prepare in case the opportunity [to be a head coach] ever comes along.

"You don't want to die and go to heaven and then ask God why I never got my shot. And he says, 'Because you never got yourself ready for it.' " *