NEW ORLEANS – Bold decisions defined the Super Bowl seasons for both San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and brother John Harbaugh, coach of the Baltimore Ravens.
Jim Harbaugh benched starting quarterback Alex Smith – who had won 20 of his previous 26 starts – at midseason in favor of second-year man Colin Kaepernick. John Harbaugh fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron with three games to go in the regular season.
Talk about pushing the right buttons. Kaepernick has taken the league by storm with his running and passing. The Ravens’ offense has caught fire in the postseason, scoring 90 points in three playoff games.
Back in suburban Milwaukee, Jack Harbaugh, the father of Jim and John, sat back in his home and watched in admiration as the NFL season played out.
“When those decisions were made, I kind of reflected on my own career, and I think that is what coaching is all about,” Jack Harbaugh said. “I think that is what leadership is all about, that is what the business is all about. Every single day in coaching – and the 43 years that I was in it – there was a decision that needed to be made. ... They made tough decisions. We are very proud.”
Decisiveness. Accountability. Leadership. They are traits Jim and John Harbaugh were raised on growing up as the sons of a football coach. They may not have been born to be coaches, but they sure were bred to be ones.
Their paths intersect in a historic way Sunday in Super Bowl XLVII. They are the only two brothers ever to coach against each other in an NFL game. Now they will square off in America’s biggest sporting event.
“I guess it’s pretty neat,” John Harbaugh deadpanned. “It’s not exactly like Churchill and Roosevelt or anything. But it’s pretty cool.”
Like so many children of football coaches, the Harbaugh boys spent their youth following dad on his coaching odyssey. After a couple of high school jobs in Ohio, Jack Harbaugh moved up the college assistant-coaching ladder, going from Morehead State to Bowling Green to big-time positions at Iowa, Michigan and Stanford.
The boys loved the life.
“Watching practice all the time as kids, we were part of the program,” said John Harbaugh, 50. “We were part of the team.”
“You know the song ‘Cats in the Cradle?’ ” Jim Harbaugh said, referring to the Harry Chapin song about a dad who laments missing time with a son. “My dad was the direct opposite of that song. And we both turned out just like our dad. When we were growing up, my dad would play catch with us, he’d take us to games, and most of all he believed in us. We grew up just like him.”
“I saw my dad doing a job he loved ... it just seemed like a great life,” said Jim Harbaugh, 49. “Who could possibly have it better than us? I wanted to be like him.”
John Harbaugh is 15 months older than his brother. The two boys competed in everything growing up, from football to hockey to who could run down the stairs faster.
There was a big evergreen tree in their front yard during the seven years Jack Harbaugh coached at Michigan, and that was one focus of competition. Jim Harbaugh could easily throw it over the tree; John could not.
“Playing any sport with Jim growing up was a test of will for all of us,” John Harbaugh said. “Jim was ahead of his time, he was bigger and stronger than all the kids his age. He didn’t hang out with kids his age too much. He hung out with me and my friends all the time. He was good enough to take it to us on a pretty regular basis.”
Along the way they were imprinted with their dad’s philosophy.
One morning in Iowa, Jack Harbaugh was driving 6-year-old Jim and 8-year-old John to school. It was dad’s role to chauffeur the two boys in the morning, and he wanted to make his time with the boys count. On this day, and every day forward, he said the same words just before the two boys got out of the car:
“OK, men, grab your lunchboxes and attack this day with an enthusiasm UNKNOWN TO MANKIND. And don’t take any wooden nickels.”
“I have no idea what a wooden nickel is, and I have no idea what that means,” said Jack Harbaugh on a conference call last week. “But it sounded like a pretty neat thing to say.”
“My dad’s leadership style as a head coach was about enthusiasm,” John Harbaugh said. “Enthusiasm UNKNOWN TO MANKIND. He was a go-getter. He’s the best motivator I’ve ever heard. He’s talked to Jim’s team and our team a number of times. You’ll never hear a better motivational story from anybody than Jack Harbaugh. His teams were rough and tough and physical.”
Jack Harbaugh, 73, had an outstanding coaching career. He was head coach at Western Michigan for five middling seasons, but then had a successful, 14-year run at Western Kentucky, from 1989 to 2002. He went 91-68 and won the NCAA national I-AA championship in his final season.
His sons have surpassed his accomplishments.
After playing college football at Miami of Ohio, John Harbaugh worked his way up the coaching ladder for 23 years before becoming Ravens head coach in 2008.
John Harbaugh is just the third NFL coach to lead his team to the playoffs each of his first five seasons. His Ravens record is 54-26, and he’s the only NFL coach to win a playoff game each of his first five seasons. His Ravens are physical, tough on defense and fundamentally sound.
Jim Harbaugh starred at the University of Michigan, then spent 14 years playing quarterback in the NFL, compiling a 66-74 record. His rise in coaching has been meteoric. After just two years as an assistant, he won two Division I-AA national college titles at the University of San Diego. Then he built a moribund Stanford program into a national power. In two seasons in San Francisco, his Niners have gone 14-4 and 13-4-1.
“From my earliest memories – 4 or 5 years old,” Jim Harbaugh said, “I remember getting it into my young head that I wanted to be a player, play as long as I could, and then be a coach, and then die.”
Jim Harbaugh is more fiery and demonstrative than most coaches, including his brother.
“When he walks into a room, there’s a circle of energy radiating out about 30 yards,” the father of a Stanford recruit once told the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Enthusiasm unknown to mankind – we heard that every day from him,” said Delano Howell, who played for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and for the Bills last season. “And that’s what he did, too. Even in meetings, he was enthusiastic.”
Now Jack Harbaugh and his wife of 51 years, Jackie, will have a Super Bowl experience unknown to any other parents.
“I think the greatest joy I got in my life – after seeing all of the ups and downs, and the ins and outs, and all of the different things involved in the coaching profession – is that this is something they would decide [to do],” Jack Harbaugh said. “It was something they wanted to do.”
“I am going to be neutral in the game,” Jackie Harbaugh said. “I know one is going to win and one is going to lose, but I would really like to end in a tie. Can the NFL do that?”