Harbaugh brothers get together for Thanksgiving
Reporting from Baltimore — The saga of the Harbaugh brothers is really a tale of the tape.
A good 15 feet of tape.
“John came up with this thing where he put a piece of athletic tape across the floor of the room we shared,” said Jim, whose San Francisco 49ers will play John’s Ravens in Baltimore on Thursday. “He proclaimed that I wasn’t allowed to come on his side of the tape, and he wasn’t allowed to come on my side.”
Jim agreed to the plan, only later to realize most of the prime items — a record player, radio, desk and alarm clock — were on his brother’s side of the room. Jim had the closet where they kept their clothes and the bedroom door on his side, yet John was allowed to use those as necessary.
“So the deal was the deal,” Jim said. “But there are those 10 or 12 defining moments in your life, and that was one of them. I learned a valuable lesson the hard way: You negotiate a good deal up front.”
It isn’t a piece of adhesive separating the Harbaughs now, but opposite coasts and NFL conferences, and each brother can argue his is the prime side of the room. The two will be on opposing sidelines in a Thanksgiving Day showdown marking the first time in NFL history brothers have squared off against each other as head coaches.
The 49ers, fresh off a 6-10 season, have done a U-turn in Jim’s first season, have won eight in a row, and at 9-1 have a five-game lead in the NFC West. The Ravens beat Cincinnati last Sunday to improve to 7-3 and claim a share of first place in the AFC North with Pittsburgh — a team Baltimore has already swept.
“There’s always a sibling rivalry, but that’s only going to be Thursday night,” said John, 48, who is 15 months older than Jim. “There really is no rivalry, at least on my end, and I think Jim feels the same way.
“When he would lose a game, that would really hurt. You’d feel really bad. That’s your family. The only people I root for in football are friends and family. Who they coach for, I couldn’t care less.”
Making this an even more memorable moment for the Harbaughs is that Friday is the 50th wedding anniversary of their parents, Jack and Jackie, who plan to stop by M&T Bank Stadium for family pictures before the game but won’t stick around to watch the game in person. They’ll watch it at John’s house.
“I can’t see myself in the stadium, Jackie as well,” Jack said by telephone. “The emotions that we have watching a game, we don’t want to subject anyone to that. That’s just going to be between us privately.”
After years of practice, the couple has learned to watch football together. Mostly.
“She jumps up in front of the screen every once in a while and blocks it off, and I have to kind of remind her,” Jack said. “The thing about Jackie is she really knows the game.”
As well she should. She was a cornerstone of Team Harbaugh, handling all the moves and most of the kid-raising as the family zigzagged all over the country for Jack’s jobs as a college football assistant. The family moved 16 times. Jackie and daughter Joani, the youngest Harbaugh, watched John go off to play defensive back at Miami of Ohio, and Jim head to Michigan, where he was a star quarterback for the Wolverines (and later spent 14 seasons playing for six NFL teams).
Not surprisingly, John and Jim were intensely competitive, whether it was who could throw a football over the gigantic pine tree in front of their home in Ann Arbor, Mich. — Jim accomplished that with a mighty heave — or whose turn it was to mow the big backyard.
“Our biggest fight was always over who cut the grass last,” John recalled in his office at Ravens headquarters. “Dad made a deal and said, ‘You’re both cutting the grass.’ The backyard was huge and there was a hill, and the frontyard was like the size of this room and flat. So we had to alternate. Well, Jim would always swear up and down that he was the last guy to do the backyard.
“It was total crap. Total crap. And he knew it was crap, and we’d fight about it.”
Jim has a very different recollection.
“My dad let me run the mower when I was 6,” he said. “I took great pride in mowing the grass. I would cut it in configurations of playing fields, like baseball diamonds. I’d cut football fields into the grass, then play on it for a while and then cut the rest of it. I loved mowing the grass.
“The truth is that my dad always let me mow the grass, and I always wanted to. When I was about 10, John wanted to mow the grass, but I wouldn’t let him. Then my dad said I had to. John’s not remembering the early years when I was the only one cutting it.”
Then there was a time Jack sent his sons to the house of fellow Michigan assistant Bill McCartney, who later coached Colorado to a share of the national championship. McCartney had younger sons, and Jack thought his boys would be a good influence on them; mentors maybe.
“My dad said, ‘You’re going to be good for those boys. Make ‘em feel welcome,’ ” said John, a sixth-grader at the time. “We go over there and Jim and I get in this huge fight in their driveway. Bill McCartney was a devout Catholic, and his kids were going to Mass every morning.
“Not only were we fighting, we’re swearing, hitting each other. Bill McCartney brought us home and dad told us, ‘You won’t be going over to their house any time soon.’ ”
To the younger Harbaugh boy, that was difficult news to accept.
“The McCartneys had great cereal,” Jim said. “They had a cupboard with the good stuff — the Lucky Charms, Cap’n Crunch, Froot Loops — and we had Wheaties, Corn Flakes. My mom always had this granola-type cereal. But the McCartneys had the good stuff.
“I was mad at John for ruining that for us.”
The brothers weren’t always butting heads. They both spent a lot of time around the University of Michigan football team when their dad was an assistant under Bo Schembechler. The boys used to collect used wristbands around the locker room, keeping some for themselves and selling others to their buddies — but not before marking them with a “7" to indicate they belonged to popular Wolverines quarterback Rick Leach.
“They probably sold about 12 or 14 of them,” Jack recalled. “If Rick Leach had really worn all the Rick Leach wristbands they sold for a dollar, they would have been up to his shoulder.”
Naturally, the Harbaugh boys were standout athletes growing up, with John blazing the trail and Jim typically coming along to surpass him. John was the quarterback in high school, until his little brother took his job as a sophomore.
“All our lives, John has always knocked down hurdles for me and shown me the way,” Jim said. “In sports, with friends — he’d let me play with his friends because I didn’t have a whole lot of friends growing up, if any, other than my brother. I was very ultra-competitive. Offended a lot of people growing up.
“There was the hockey team, the baseball team. He would always put in a good word for me to the coach. ‘My brother’s really good. We should give him a shot.’ ”
When Jim was at Michigan, his biggest fan was a four-hour drive south, at college in Oxford, Ohio.
“I’d go to parties with him up there, he’d come down and visit us,” John said. “I was always like, ‘Man, that’s my brother! Michigan’s quarterback!’ We’d all watch the Michigan-Ohio State game. He was my little bro.”
John counts Jim among his closest friends, and Jim says the same about John.
“He’s my role model,” Jim said. “Next to my wife, he and my dad are my best friends. I’m not half the coach John is, but I’m trying.”
All the while, both of the brothers dote on their little sister, six years younger than John. Growing up, Joani was sweet and pretty, but had that hearty Harbaugh spirit and the determined attention to detail that has helped make her brothers successful coaches. (She went on to marry Tom Crean, now basketball coach at Indiana.)
“I remember she was in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ play, and she was so excited about it,” said John, recalling when his sister was 7. “She learned every single line — and she was a munchkin. All she basically said was whatever the munchkins said: ‘Follow the yellow brick road!’ That was her line. But she knew everyone else’s … She would just do it around the house for about a year.”
Football-wise, the Harbaugh boys aren’t in Kansas anymore. They will be in the spotlight Thursday, with each looking to maintain his team’s momentum heading into the stretch run of the regular season.
“I can’t predict how I’m going to feel, let alone how [my parents] are going to feel,” Jim said. “I’ll be thinking about the game, and John and the Ravens will be just somebody that we’re trying to beat. How everybody feels is going to be pretty irrelevant to me at that time.”
That said, both he and John can understand why their parents don’t want to stick around.
“Everybody always asks, ‘Is one of them going to be wearing one jersey and the other another jersey?’ ” John said. “That would be unthinkable for them. It’s not about that.
“My dad doesn’t want to be caught going, ‘Yay!’ or ‘Aww!’ because that would be unreflective of his feelings. They’re rooting for both of us. They want us both to do well, want our teams to do well.”
It will be a bittersweet day for the family, no way around it.
“The one that doesn’t win will get the first phone call from us,” Jack said. “He’ll need someone to talk to.”
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