Super Bowl: Coaches linked by blood, sport
Harbaughs reaching top of their game at same time
John Harbaugh, left, and Jim, center, follow in the footsteps of their father, Jack, who had a long college coaching career.
Until last season, when they faced each other across a football field for the first time, John Harbaugh had never rooted against his little brother, Jim.
Except for the one time they were on different American Legion baseball teams in high school — and John wants it known that his team won, 1-0 — the brothers were always on the same side, whether it was on their high-school football team or on the ice rink they made in the backyard of their childhood home.
On Feb. 3, the brothers, separated by just 15 months but alike in so many ways, will be on different sides of the country’s biggest sporting event when the Balti-more Ravens, the team John has coached for five seasons, play the San Francisco 49ers, the team Jim has coached for two, in the Super Bowl.
The Harbaughs are the first brothers to be head coaches in the NFL. For two weeks at least, the Harbaughs will supplant the Mannings as the first family of football, the title game serving as the next installment of a sibling rivalry that used to include competitions to see who could throw a football over a towering tree and fights over which brother was scheduled to mow the big backyard lawn at their parents’ home in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The brothers, however, do not seem impressed by their impending meeting.
“Is it really going to be written about?” John said the other day. “It’s not exactly like Churchill and Roosevelt.”
Said Jim, after a few questions about the Harbaugh family: “I can take a pass, personally, from that,”
Jim Harbaugh said that playing his brother in the Super Bowl is “a blessing and a curse.” The blessing is that he’s proud of his brother and has a fondness for the Ravens organization, for whom he played briefly near the end of his career.
“The curse part would be that the talk of the two brothers playing in the Super Bowl and what that takes away from the players that are in the game,” he said.
Added John: “We’re not that interesting. There is nothing more to learn. It’s just like any other family. We get it, it’s really cool and it’s exciting and all that. It’s really about the players.”
That the brothers have reached the pinnacle of their careers at exactly the same moment seems fitting, because their lives have wound around each other, fierce competition and football since they were children.
Among many stops in his long coaching career, Jack Harbaugh was an assistant to Bo Schembechler at Michigan. His sons would go to practice, but they were also budding businessmen. They would take wristbands and write the name of the starting quarterback at the time on them, selling them to their classmates as if they were all game-worn wristbands.
John was supposed to be the starting quarterback his senior year at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor. But by then, Jim had grown taller — and better. He started as a sophomore, and John switched to fullback and defensive back.
John Harbaugh has joked that he dominated his brother for most of their lives, but Jim had the far better athletic career, going on to become an All-American at Michigan and then a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears. John mostly was a reserve defensive back at Miami University.
But while his brother played 15 years in the NFL, John’s coaching career began in anonymity. After 10 years as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles, he became the coach of the Ravens in 2008 — after New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick called Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to recommend Harbaugh.
Even while Jim Harbaugh played in the NFL, he served as an assistant to his father, who was then the coach at Western Kentucky. In 2002, his playing days finally over, Jim became the Oakland Raiders’ quarterbacks coach. But the job that led him to the NFL was at Stanford, where he tutored Andrew Luck and returned the Cardinal to national prominence.
After last week’s conference championship games — San Francisco rallied to beat Atlanta and Baltimore dominated New England — John Harbaugh said he would like to think the Ravens and the 49ers are mirror images: physically imposing, able to run the ball, but with quarterbacks who throw well, and possessing “roughhouse” defenses. It is impossible, though, to miss the brothers’ differences in personality.
John Harbaugh smiles more, making a point to thank everyone for coming when he begins his postgame news conferences. Jim, who seems to wear the same black 49ers sweatshirt tucked into khaki pants every day, has been known for his wild-eyed, emotional style since his playing days. He had an epic meltdown after what he considered a bad call last Sunday, sending the marker that always hangs from a lanyard swinging furiously.
The brothers said they had not fought since they were about 25, but they used to fight so vigorously that their mother cried as she begged them to stop.
“He’s an incredibly competitive person,” John said of his brother. “He will fight you for anything. That’s what made him a great player, what makes him the man he is.”
Last year, John Harbaugh told an associate that the brothers had vacationed together recently. They were goofing off in the water and their horseplay got a little heated. Jim held his older brother under the water, Ravens public-relations chief Kevin Byrne said then, until bubbles started coming out of his nose. Then he finally let go of him.
But when the Harbaughs surface with their teams next week, they will not ease off, any more than they did in grade school.