Super Bowl 2013: Harbaugh brothers compete, and so do father and son

San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, left, and his son Jay are shown before an NFL football game against the New York Giants in 2011.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

NEW ORLEANS — Everyone knows that Super Bowl XLVII pits coaching brothers John and Jim Harbaugh.

But few people are aware the game is also father versus son.

Jay Harbaugh, 23, whose father coaches the San Francisco 49ers, is a coaching intern for Baltimore. He works for his uncle, John, head coach of the Ravens, and he agreed to an extensive interview with The Times, provided the story run after the teams’ last media availability of the week.

That media window closed Friday morning with a joint press conference featuring the Harbaugh brothers. Jay Harbaugh said his family wanted to keep the story as quiet as possible during the week because it was simply another angle that diverted attention from the players in the game.


“I’m having the time of my life,” said Jay, who will sit in the booth with Ravens offensive coaches during the game. “The entire experience is everything that you dream about. I’m just ecstatic about the whole thing. Really, it’s incredible, with your first year in the NFL to be in this situation. It’s really incredible to be a part of.”

Although he knows the Super Bowl will be torturous for his grandparents, who are guaranteed to have one son lose on the game’s biggest stage, Jay is not one bit conflicted about being across the field from his father.

“I couldn’t fathom even considering not being all in with the team that I’m a part of,” he said. “Any true competitor feels the exact same way. You have to be totally all in with your team, sold on the vision. Otherwise, there’s no point. No point to being a part of it, putting in all the time that you do and making the sacrifices.

“In some alternate universe, if I was conflicted, it would just confuse my dad. It would confuse any true competitor because you can’t reconcile those things in your head. If you’re all in, you’re all in. There’s no wavering there. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition for that whole week.”

He went all but unnoticed during Media Day on Tuesday, wearing his white Ravens golf shirt and black cap, and standing with the other interns in the middle of a sea of reporters. He has the square jaw and athletic build of his father and uncle – Jay was a tight end and defensive end in high school – but his fair skin and reddish-blond hair is far lighter than theirs.

Clearly by design, there was no mention of him by either coach all week, but it was Jack Harbaugh who blew his grandson’s cover Wednesday during a press conference featuring him and his wife, Jackie.


“One story I want to mention is Jay Harbaugh, how many know who Jay Harbaugh is?” Jack asked reporters. “Anybody know Jay Harbaugh? … It’s kind of an interesting story. He does video and works in the weight room ... so you’ve got father and son competing on Sunday night as well.”

Jay, the eldest of Jim Harbaugh’s six children by two marriages, played three years of high school football in Southern California after his dad had retired as an NFL quarterback and was coaching at the University of San Diego. Jay missed his senior season because of an injury, then spent a postgraduate year at a Connecticut prep school in hopes of playing there. He was injured again, however, and turned his attention to becoming a coach.

“I’m really thankful and proud at the same time,” Jim Harbaugh said. “Jay is doing what he loves to do, and that’s a real blessing. And he’s doing it with the Baltimore Ravens, a tremendous organization, great coaches around him to mentor him. I hear he’s doing a phenomenal job, something I’m really proud of.

“This week, I haven’t been talking to him or calling him. Sent him a couple of texts to let him know how I feel about him.”

Jay Harbaugh half-jokes that he chose to attend Oregon State because the UV rays were preferable in the Pacific Northwest, but the main reason was he got to spend four years working under Beavers Coach Mike Riley, who was Jim’s coach with the San Diego Chargers.

“That was the first person to come to mind when I was choosing a school,” Jay said. “Because once you start off with a person like that, you build such a strong foundation to work from. Coaching-wise, that’s the way you want to do it.”


In addition to working as an undergraduate assistant at Oregon State, he was an intern in the 49ers’ scouting department during the summer of 2011, his dad’s first year as San Francisco’s coach. About a year later, after finishing his last final exam in college, he hopped in his car and drove to Baltimore to begin his career with the Ravens.

“I do a little bit of everything,” he said. “I help with special projects, help in the weight room, help with video on occasion. Whatever needs to get done, whatever’s going to help the team I’m going to do. That slightly ambiguous role is the biggest blessing because you’re talking about a building that’s chock full of experts, people that are detailed and motivated and do phenomenal work.

“Just being able to do a little mix and match, here and there, learning how the pieces fit together… it couldn’t possibly be any better.”

He also realizes that having the last name Harbaugh is something of a double-edged sword in that it has helped afford him this opportunity yet leaves him open to criticism from people who think that’s the only reason he has the job.

“There’s nobody on the planet who has it better than I do,” he said, hearkening to the famous Harbaugh family mantra of “Who’s got it better than us?”

He continued: “I don’t take that lightly. That’s the kind of thing that makes me want to work harder. People are going to assume what they want to assume. That doesn’t mean a thing. If anything, it drives me to work harder.”


He credits Jack and Jackie for instilling the values that were passed to their sons, then to the next generation.

Calling his grandfather “one of the greatest people I know,” Jay said: “Thinking back where I was a kid — and it was the same thing with my other grandpa, which is like the most beautiful thing in the world as a kid — is that they always had time for you. They always had time to play games, tell stories, roughhouse, or whatever it is. Jack was always there engaging me, teaching me, asking me questions, taking interest. And he’s the same way with all the other grandchildren. He’s a blast to be around.”

He said his grandmother is “intensely competitive, fiercely loyal. At this stage, she’s a fan, and she’s a very loyal fan of Indiana [where her son-in-law, Tom Crean, is the Hoosiers’ basketball coach], the Ravens, the Niners and all that. But I don’t think there’s ever been a more tenacious fan in the stadium. Even before the game starts, she’s locked in, in the zone. She’s getting after officials and other fans, and it’s amazing to watch.”

Likewise, growing up with a father who was a 14-year NFL quarterback known for his scrappy toughness and intensity helped mold him.

“As a young kid, you scrape your knee or something riding your bike outside and you cry,” Jay said. “Then, you see your dad with an entire leg that’s black and blue. It’s his toughness and competitive nature that stand out.”

Surely, that competitive nature will be evident Sunday in every Harbaugh in the Superdome, whether on the sidelines, in the coaching booth, or in the stands.


“It sounds like a cliché, but it’s a normal game,” Jay said. “The pregame will be a little more interesting and friendly, and that’s really the only difference. I have a lot of respect for that [49ers] organization and the team, just because I know so many of them personally, but that has no effect on anything. In fact, it makes me want to beat them more.”

John Harbaugh thinks Jay could be the key to the game.

“He’s far better than I even anticipated, and I knew he would be great at what he does. The way we look at it… maybe that will tip the scale. Maybe it will be Jay.”