As the sports nation turns all of it’s attention to John and Jim Harbaugh, the two brothers facing off as head coaches in next Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, the foundation of their lives sat down as a trio on the Indiana Hoosiers men’s basketball practice court.
The immediate family growing up in mother Jackie Harbaugh, a strong-willed woman who believes that education in any form can help you prosper in life; the sister Joani (married to Indiana University Head Coach Tom Crean), almost identical in facial features to her brothers who seemed forever grateful that her parents always allowed her to do anything that she loved; and the original coach of the family Jack, a former head coach at Western Michigan and Western Kentucky, and a man who’s eyes light up at any chance to talk about his family.
All three of them proud of the family that they have, not from their successes in the sporting world, not because brother Jim and his San Francisco 49ers will face off against brother John and his Baltimore Ravens in what will be the biggest game of their lives, but because outside all of that they truly believe their family motto that they yell often in unison.
“Who has it better than us,” yells Jack as he urges his family to put their hands in a circle to break a huddle.
“NOBODY!” joins in Jackie and Joani, a crying call that has been part of their family as long as they can all remember.
The motto has caught storm over the years, even to the point that the 49ers use it to pump-up the crowd during the pregame festivities at Candlestick Park. But to hear it come straight from the Harbaugh family, with the joy beaming from their smiles as they take in every second of the upcoming days, it almost makes you feel as if you can picture yourself riding in the back of their family car as the youngest Joani, the oldest John, and the middle-child Jim yelled it together as kids. It is a moment of peace, happiness, and joy from a unit that has undoubtedly had thousands of moments just like it.
However the reality has set in, and the reality is real. In ten days, John or Jim will live out their head coaching dream and become a Super Bowl a champion. The reality is, the other brother will lose what will potentially be the biggest loss of his life, perhaps plays away from reaching the ultimate accomplishment in the game of football.
Which is why father Jack, who finished 117-94-3 as an NCAA head coach that won the NCAA I-AA national football championship in 2002 with Western Kentucky, has advice for the boys that could perhaps calm them down a little bit.
“This is a great stage,” says Jack. “But it isn’t any different from when you competed in junior high school or high school. Emotionally, you want to put your team in the best possible position to be successful. Every decision that you make, it will center around the team, the team, and the team. Go out, prepare your team, enjoy yourself, and when it is all over, have no regrets.”
When asked what moment she perhaps knew that boys would be football players, perhaps football coaches, or even when she knew for sure that both John and Jim would have their lives around the game of football as an occupation, mother Jackie politely corrected the idea that there was no such thing as one moment. There was not one specific moment in time in which the pigskin and the gridiron became the driving force of their work-lives, but rather it was a slow-process and a love of the game that built throughout their lives that continue to grow to this day.
Yet with a smile, there is one story that could perhaps pinpoint what their first real introduction to football in the limelight may have been like when Jack was a defensive back’s coach from 1973-1979 under the legendary Bo Schembechler at the University of Michigan.
“I think one day Millie (Schembechler’s wife) and I were talking,” said Jackie.
“We were talking about our experiences and situations with our kids being little. I said that I used to always take the kids to the practice. So Millie went home and said to Bo, ‘I think Bo that it is time that you let the coach’s kids come to practice of they want to and be around.'”
“So by then they were old enough to ride their bicycles, and a lot of the coach’s kids came to practice. They would play on the dummies and things like that, and I think it was another sense of family with team and that is so important. I think that they have probably, unknowingly carried that into their lives with their teams. Because both the 49ers and the Ravens on Saturday morning before the games on Sunday allowed the players to bring their kids and coaches brought their kids to the facility to run around on the field and eat lunches with their dads. It’s a great thing!”
That was Jackie’s on-camera response, but off the camera, Jack asked not to let the truth get in the way of a good story. As the kids spent their time running around the Big House at Ann Arbor, playing on the practice fields, and spending time with the players in the locker rooms, slice of life moments would take place that may or may not have some bending of the truth. Was there a time when he would find a young Jim tied up to a goal post? Or when a younger John would be crammed into a locker and you could hear him screaming “Let me out, let me out!” as people walked by? Perhaps those, and this story, took place during those years.
“The players for Michigan used to wear these bands on their arms during the games,” said Jack. “And after the games John and Jim would go into the locker rooms and take these bands. They would then go to the school, and tell of their fellow classmates that Rick Leach, who as a big quarterback back during then, wore these bands and would sell them for a dollar. If Rick Leach wore all of the bands they sold, he would have worn them all the way up from his wrist to his elbow!”
Eventually, youngest sister Joani would want to take part in the sports fun. At six-years old Joanie saw her older brothers playing catch outside, and insisted that she be able to play along with the boys. So her father drove her to the nearest Sears Roebuck, and bought a faux-leather Ted Williams model baseball mitt for Joanie to play with that she claims to use to this day. Yet there she was as a bright-eyed child, just like the older brothers tossing the old ball around, and she has made herself one of their biggest fans and inseparable from their sports lives since.
Yet even after the biggest of games, such as last week’s conference championship weekend, there was Joani talking to Jim about the matters closest to home.
“Everyone wants to know what we talk about when we sit around a dinner table,” said Joani. “First of all, we don’t ever sit around a dinner table together, we just don’t have those opportunities. If we all lived close we would, but Jim called after he called Dad, and it was more about ‘How are you doing? Did the baby make it through the game,’ and it was the questions about kids and family. We were asked if we were going to be there, yes, and all of that kind of stuff.”
Jack then chimed in.
“John last week, before the game started, during the national anthem,” said Jack. “John had his arm around his daughter and his hand around his heart. He just had this look of I am enjoying this moment, and he was in a good place. I mean, family and country, what a beautiful picture that was. But after the game, when his game was over, about the middle of the third quarter Jim called from the airport. He didn’t talk about his game, or asked what we thought of that, he told me ‘Tell me what is going on with John! Tell me what is going on with John!'”
“He wanted to know the score,” said Joanie.
“And I said that ‘I’m watching it right now! There is a fumble, the Ravens have recovered,'” said Jack in a raised voice. “And then about two plays later ‘It’s a touchdown pass, we are up by two scores!”
“Do you realize what this is setting up,” screamed Jim over the phone to Jack.
“I said I think I do,” said Jack. “And then he was like ‘Hey dad, another thing, baby Jack (Jim’s four-month old baby) just caught his first teeth! He opened his mouth and we saw a big tooth!’ And I thought to myself here we are lining up to play in this great classic game, and Jim is talking about Jack talking about his first tooth. It brings it all together!”
Believe it or not the Harbaugh family will have a nice little distraction from the game of football over the following days, as Joanie’s husband in Hoosiers Head Coach Tom Crean (ranked seventh in the nation in the latest AP Poll) has Big Ten Conference games against Michigan State, Purdue, and Michigan following up to next Sunday. Jackie and Jack often take in the Indiana University basketball games together, with Jack in attendance to Wednesday night’s 72-49 victory over Penn State with World Series champion manager Tony La Russa by his side. Though Jack has no problem admitting that the game of hoops, despite having 12 less players on the court than on the field, just has too much going on for him to be able to take everything in.
“It just moves too fast,” said Jack as him and his family laughed. “You don’t have any of the huddles where you can just breathe and catch your breath. It just goes back and forth, back and forth.”
To make the upcoming Super Bowl Sunday more of a family matter, Jim’s oldest son Jay is actually part of the Ravens staff under John, making three Harbaugh’s rolling through the sidelines before the game. And once the day does roll around, the rest of the family including father Jack, mother Jackie, and daughter Joani will be there in attendance rooting on both teams, hoping for the success of both sons in a game that will ultimately leave one as the head coach of the losing team.
Yet with a family and uprising like the Harbaugh’s have given their children, and the close unity they share together as a family, it is safe to say they are all winners in the end.
“I haven’t really thought about this in awhile,” said Jack.
“There is a baseball pitcher by the name of Bob Feller. He used to pitch for the Cleveland Indians back when I was a kid, back in 1948. And when he was toward the end of his life, they asked him what his father gave him that allowed him to pursue a career in athletics that allowed him to live the life that he had. He said that there were three things. The number one thing was that his dad played catch with him. And I think back to being in Ann Arbor, and you would come home for an hour for a window of an hour for dinner. You would sit there and the kids would come and ask to play catch. The last thing you want to do is play catch, but you crawl out of your chair and go out there and play catch. The second thing was to drive them to games. You always want to go to games and get excited about our kids when playing little league baseball, but the greatest times we had was driving to games. You turned the radio off, and you have a chance to talk. You ask them how their school is going, how the grades are going, how are you doing with your mom. Did they understand why your mom reacted in that way? We had these deep discussions and they had no idea where we were going.”
“The last thing was, believe in them. Everyone needs someone to believe in them. We hope that it is in a family situation, or a coach, teacher, or a pastor. Someone that wraps their arms around that young man or woman and says that ‘I believe in you and that I trust you.’ And I look back at my life and I think hopefully, hopefully, we were able to do that with our children.”