Super Bowl 2013: Growing up with the Harbaughs
So fervent is the interest in Jim and John Harbaugh right now that the rest of the family — parents Jack and Jackie, and sister Joani — held a Super Bowl conference call Thursday. The most probing reporter’s question came via “John from Baltimore.”
“Is it true that both of you liked Jim better than John?”
Stunned silence finally gave way to laughter.
Yep, it was John Harbaugh. Joani recognized the voice just as Mom was “ready to come right through this phone,” Jack said.
“That’s the fighting spirit,” John from Baltimore said.
And that’s the Harbaugh family. Tempting as it is to dismiss the brotherly angle as an over-hyped distraction to Super Bowl XLVII — as Jim has tried to do — the funny tales about the boys’ upbringing go a long way to explaining just how the 49ers and Baltimore Ravens ended up here.
They paint a vivid portrait of how two hypercompetitive brothers with contrasting personalities — the volatile Jim, the personable John — set out on different paths only to arrive at the same destination.
Stories from the family and those close to them show that, and they take us to the root of this family tree.
–For the record: No, the parents don’t like Jim best. “I know one is going to win and one is going to lose, but I would like for it to end in a tie,” Jackie said. “Can the NFL do that?”
As with Jim and John’s previous meeting, there will be equal parts happiness and heartache. Last Thanksgiving, in the first meeting between NFL head coaching brothers, the Ravens thumped the 49ers 16-6.
When it was over, the parents first walked to Baltimore’s locker room and found a raging celebration.
“I thought, ‘We’re really not needed here,’ ” Jack recalled. “So we walked across the hall into the 49ers locker room. It was quiet and somber. I finally saw Jim all by himself, nobody around him. He still had his coaching stuff on. I realized that’s where we were needed. That was thrill of victory and agony of defeat, and I know we’re going to experience that next week.”
–The road to the Super Bowl was not a straight line. The Harbaughs had an itinerant life, moving 17 times during Jack’s 43-year coaching career.
That was fine with Jim, who once informed his dad that he was ready to move after two years in Iowa because he had run out of friends.
Still, a lesson from Iowa left an imprint. Jack recalled taking the boys to elementary school on a cold winter day and turning around to see his boys shivering in the back seat.
“I saw their faces, their sad, sad faces,” Jack said. “And our thing was: ‘We will attack this day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind! And oh, by the way, don’t take any wooden nickels.’ “
The wooden nickel part is long gone, but “Attack this day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind!” is a staple in the 49ers’ locker room. It was one of the first things Jim Harbaugh said when introduced as the team’s new head coach.
Jack called the boys’ decisions to choose coaching careers even after seeing the strain it can take at times, “the greatest joy” of his life.
–At youth hockey games, Jackie began sitting away from other parents because her boys kept plowing over other kids. As a youth pitcher, Jim once plunked a girl in the back — bringing her angry mother onto the field to accuse Jim of being a bully.
“She was crowding the plate,” young Jim reasoned.
Jackie eventually got called into the elementary school in Ann Arbor, Mich. There were complaints from parents about both, though mostly Jim, playing too hard at recess.
“Jackie told (school officials): ‘You do everything in your power to make sure he’s a good sportsman out there. But don’t do anything to affect his competitiveness,’ ” Jack remembered.
That sounds exactly like Jackie, said Willie Taggart, a family friend who is the University of South Florida football coach.
“Jackie is really the head coach of the Harbaughs,” he said. “I think even Jack gets his competitiveness from Jackie. She is just tough, and that rubs off on everyone else.”
–Heaven was going to Dad’s practices. At the University of Michigan, the brothers were taped to the goal posts and stuffed in lockers by players, and loved it. They collected used wristbands and would write No. 7 on them — the number of Wolverines star quarterback Rick Leach — and sold them to gullible classmates for a buck.
One day, Jim cavalierly risked the wrath of the legendary gruff Michigan coach Bo Schembechler.
“When people ask what the difference was between Jim and John, Jack always tells the story about when they were 9 and 10,” said David Elson, an assistant under Jack and now the New Mexico State defensive coordinator. “The staff was coming off the field and John was right there waiting where he was supposed to be. But they couldn’t find Jim.
“So they walk into Bo’s office and there’s Jim sitting in Bo’s chair with his feet up on Bo’s desk and he says, ‘Hey, Bo, how are you doing?’ That’s Jim. He has a little more of a devil in him than John.”
–In 1992, Jack’s Western Kentucky program barely survived being disbanded. Funding was slashed, scholarships were dropped and two assistants were cut. Jack was ready to resign when the sons concocted a plan.
John, then a University of Cincinnati assistant, began drawing up two recruiting lists: one for his school and one for his dad’s Division I-AA program. Jim, still an NFL player, became an unpaid assistant.
“Sometimes these boxes of stuff would just show up from Indianapolis,” Elson recalled. “They’d be filled with once-worn cleats and pads that Jim would collect from the guys in the Colts’ locker room because our budget was so bad and he knew our guys needed stuff.”
Taggart was a high school star when he was told Jim Harbaugh wanted to visit him. “The NFL quarterback? Yeah, right,” Taggart thought. But Taggart would be Jim’s first recruit for his dad, and later Western Kentucky would win the 2002 I-AA national title.
“They didn’t want Dad to give up football,” Taggart said, “and they made sure he didn’t.”
–The brothers played one season together at Pioneer High in Ann Arbor.
“They could have a love-hate thing going,” teammate Greg Yarrington said. “There were days on the field when they hated each other. But after practice they would be brothers again.”
John was supposed to be the quarterback his senior year — until the coaches got a good look at sophomore Jim.
“John was so gracious about it,” said Yarrington, now a health care company vice president. “I remember the rest of the team wasn’t receptive because let’s just say Jim had a heightened sense of self-confidence. But John rationalized it and made sure the rest of us were OK with it, too.”
–Jim, in contrast to his older brother, was never gracious about losing.
When Jack joined the Stanford staff, Jim immediately became a football star at Palo Alto High. His junior year, the team won a league title but was upset in a rivalry game to end the season. Reid Johnson was Jim’s favorite receiving target, and his father drove them home afterward.
“My son was sitting in the passenger seat and saying, ‘Well, we already won the championship and that’s what really counts,’ ” recalled Pitch Johnson, an independent venture capitalist. “Well then Jim leans over from the back seat and says: ‘Reid, don’t you ever say that again.’ “
–Little sister Joani — five years younger than Jim, six years younger than John — could hot-splice game tape by age 10. She was no jock, but she was as competitive as any of them.
She was once cast in the school play as a munchkin from “The Wizard of Oz.”
“I was highly, highly offended,” Joani said, laughing. “I do remember that I was not Dorothy or Glinda, so I decided to memorize the entire play in case somebody went down with the flu or something. They could just put me in there. I was ready to do it.”
With that, Joani and her parents helped fans understand a little more about the men behind the curtain. ___