A conversation with Jim and John Harbaugh — the brothers who will face each other when the 49ers and Ravens meet in the Super Bowl on Sunday in New Orleans — has a central theme that reflects the deep and abiding respect the two NFL coaches have for their father, Jack.
“I have never made a major decision without consulting with my father,” said Jim, whose 49ers won the NFC this season, the first time that has happened since 1994.
Added older brother, John, whose Ravens are back in the Super Bowl for the first time since winning it 13 years ago, “All the credit in my life, and I am sure Jim agrees, goes to our father.”
Jack Harbaugh worked with defensive backs at Michigan when Bo Schembechler was coach of the Wolverines; he later won a national championship at Western Kentucky. Both boys wanted to be like their father.
“Never thought about anything but coaching after I finished playing,” Jim said.
It was their father who taught the brothers the basics of fundamental football. They hung around the practice field and locker room in Ann Arbor, hearing firsthand the practice-field preachings of Schembechler, an advocate of the view that to win consistently you must be able to run the football and stop the run.
Each of the Harbaugh boys grasped the logic of that idea early on and have not let go. Interestingly, Jim seems to embrace the importance of adding a few running plays for his young quarterback Colin Kaepernick, which indicates he is a little more of a maverick.
Spend time with the Harbaughs and you become impressed with the many similarities they have when it comes to the game they love.
“You constantly hear that professional football players are greedy and selfish,” Jim said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
John, a man of deep faith, is always talking about the fact that he “loves” his players. It is not routine conversation. He believes that to win, you must put the team first — and that you have to have a sincere desire to not only do your best but to help the guy lined up beside you do his job.
Turn on a tape recorder and let John talk football, and you are listening to a man who could be dictating the message for a motivational book.
“Character,” he said, “is everything. There are plenty of great players out there who are great people, and finding them is our top priority. You cannot build a great team without employing high character people. You have to put the team first, yourself second. We believe we have been successful in finding those types of players.”
“Football, to us, starts in the trenches. You have to build the lines first — both sides of the ball. Your two lines are the most important features to your team if you want to win a championship. The salary cap has changed the economics of franchises, but you succeed by making sure that you find a way to develop your two lines.”
This Sunday at the Superdome will mark the second time the two NFL coaching brothers have met. The first time took place in Balti-more in 2011, with the Ravens winning 16-6. John’s memories include a touching moment after the game.
When his postgame requirements were over, he raced out into the tunnel where his parents had spent time consoling Jim, who was sitting on the first seat of the 49ers’ bus dejected, naturally.
Jim got off the bus for a chat with his older brother.
“He was upset with a couple of officiating calls but was ready to move on,” John recalled. “We wished each other luck. I stood there as the 49er buses roared out of the tunnel for the airport. For a brief moment, I felt that I had lost the game as I put myself, emotionally, into Jim’s shoes.”
That sobering moment does not suggest that the two boys won’t be ready to go for the jugular come kickoff. They are highly competitive and want to have the “other” brother extending a hand of congratulations when the game is over.
Jim had an NFL playing career, John did not. Jim jumped from a head coaching position at Stanford to the 49ers, John was a position coach who had spent most of his career working with special teams when he was hired by Baltimore.
In addition to giving the Ravens another championship opportunity, John’s gentlemanly style and his generous personality have enabled the Ravens to win over the bitter old Colts fans who were upset when the Irsay family moved the franchise to Indianapolis. When the Colts and Ravens played the first time in Baltimore, the Ravens won the game with the late John Unitas on the sideline.
Jim Harbaugh, then a Ravens quarterback, rushed the game ball over to Unitas to the great delight of Baltimore fans.
The Harbaughs are not without sentiment, but their seasoned competitiveness will trump sentiment in New Orleans.
Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.