NFL

49ers-Ravens is an all-Harbaugh affair

Jackie and Jack Harbaugh
Jackie and Jack Harbaugh are ready for the family showdown.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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FAMILY FUN

The Harbaugh brothers are just one of the many great families in sports.

Little John and Jim Harbaugh shared a bedroom in the family house, and during the day, when dad was at work, they would find old sleeveless t-shirts and draw on them to make them look like Big Ten jerseys. Then they’d dream and compete, the way all brothers do.

“We’d play tennis-ball basketball on a coat-hanger rim,’’ John said. Or they were “throwing balls between tree branches, hitting snowballs against a tree.’’

There is a simple goodness to the feel of the Thanksgiving Day game between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, when brothers face each other as NFL head coaches for the first time. Everyone is looking for the Harbaugh boys, all grown up and leading first-place teams, to look back to their childhood, to “peel back the onion some more and get to my soul,’’ as Jim put it.

And to hear how they were as kids, you could have predicted how they’d respond to that. Jim was sternly against it, wanting to focus only on his 49ers and on winning. John joined in for a while.

Could you have predicted that someday they’d both have been NFL coaches, facing each other in a game like this? That’s the funny thing.

Yes, you probably could have.

This story isn’t best when looking backward. It’s best looking forward.

When you sit Thursday over the turkey and stuffing, and watch your kids say a beautiful grace and then fight over cranberries, think about where they’ll be 30-35 years from now.

Sometimes, we get so caught up in little things, particularly in hard times, that we can overlook the big picture. The Harbaughs tell that story in reverse.

They talk as if they are from a white-picket fence, typical All-American family. You can almost hear the birds chirping in the trees. They went into the family business, as their dad, Jack, was a coach, too. They pulled for each other, cheered for each other, and surely fought each other, too. Now they are best friends.

“We had some knockdown, drag-outs when we were younger,’’ John said. “I can remember my mom screaming 'You’re brothers. You’re not supposed to act like this.' ’’

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Oh, of course they were supposed to act like that. That’s how brothers act. It’s how kids act. For once, thanks to this game, we can all relate to the sports world.

Thursday’s game serves to remind us that athletes and coaches, who we place on too high a pedestal, once were climbing trees in the backyard and screaming “AAAhhhhh’’ just like the rest of us.

The Harbaugh brothers are not going to sit down over Thanksgiving dinner after the game. Their parents? Well, yes Jack and Jackie will be there. Sort of. Jack, who waits weekly for the UPS truck with his sons’ game tapes, so he can break them down and fire off pages of handwritten notes to his boys, said last week that he wouldn’t be able to sit there for the game. Not this game, while his kids butt heads again.

They will show up beforehand for a family celebration on field, and then leave, finding a place in private to watch on TV.

The Harbaughs are now right up there, just behind the Mannings and ahead of the Ryans, as the American football family. John and Jim say that this is about their teams, their players, that it isn’t about them. Then John admits:

“To say that’s not there, that you’re not thinking about it, I think probably wouldn’t be real. I think it’s an amazing thing. It’s a historic thing. It’s very special.’’

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And Jim? “There’s not a lot of time,’’ he said, “to really think about the warm and fuzzy reunions.’’

Figures. He did allow this, though, about his childhood:

“I think it’s pretty well documented. It was the best. What kid could possibly have it better? An older brother like John, a younger sister like Joani (now married to Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean), parents who have been together for 50 years and loved each other, loved their kids.’’

John, 15 months older, talked about the game being a touching moment.

Jim said the NFL gave the 49ers the short end of the stick, making them travel across three time zones during a short week.

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“We played against each other in baseball in high school, an American Legion team,’’ John said, asked if they had ever competed against each other officially before. “My dad was actually coaching Jim’s team. We won, 1-0.’’

Jim gave more details, saying John was on, basically, an all-star team from the region. Jim’s team was made up of players who had failed to make John’s team.

“We almost pulled off the (upset),’’ Jim said. “That would have been right up there with 'Rocky' and 'Miracle on Ice.' "

Jack Harbaugh was a football coach for four decades, including seven years in the 1970s under Bo Schembechler at Michigan. Jack also was the head coach at Western Michigan and Western Kentucky.

In fact, he credits John and Jim for saving the Western Kentucky program. With the program in deep trouble, Jim worked as unpaid assistant to his dad there while he was still an NFL quarterback.

Imagine a potential recruit’s face at seeing a Pro Bowl quarterback making a pitch for Western Kentucky. Meanwhile, John, at the University of Cincinnati at the time, helped his dad with lists of players he should be recruiting.

In 2002, Jack led Western Kentucky to the Division I-AA national championship.

“We were always around the office,’’ John said. “We were always around the field. We were always around the locker room. We’ve tried to do that with our team (the Ravens) ...

“One of our players, Kris Wilson, has a 3-year-old and didn’t have a babysitter, so he brought her over here for our Saturday night meetings. She was running around. A lot of coaches would look at that as a distraction . . . Let the kids come around. Let the kids be part of it.’’

Well, there are all sorts of stories about Jim’s excessive competitiveness. John didn’t quite make it as a pro player, and worked his way up through the usual coaching ranks.

John, now 49, likes to tell about the time Jim was a baseball pitcher in a co-ed league, and fired a fastball into a girl’s back. Parents booed him, and yelled, and when the Harbaughs got home, John asked Jim what had happened.

Jim said this: She was crowding the plate.

John says there is a misunderstanding about Jim, that he really is nice and personable. He’s not built entirely around competition. Maybe, but it was John who said this about Jim to the Associated Press in September:

“He would alienate the other kids, so I was really the only friend he had. We joke that dad’s profession was the perfect profession for Jim, because after two years, he’d be like, `It’s time to move, Dad. I’ve lost all my friends.’

“We were in Iowa one time and Dad felt bad because we were leaving for Michigan. He tried to break it to us, and Jim goes, `Just in time, Dad. I just ran out of my last friend.’ ’’

Jim Schwartz, Detroit Lions coach, would have no trouble believing that story. He went after Jim after the 49ers beat the Lions and Harbaugh offered a cocky postgame handshake.

It’s funny to see how childhood traits turn into grown-up traits. Jim says that John paved the way for him in every way, including into tryouts for teams and into friendships.

Today, the 49ers players might wear t-shirts with the Harbaugh family motto: “Who’s got it better?’’

John says he wishes he’d have thought of the t-shirt idea first for the Ravens. He jokes that Jim never credits him for anything, and that he also hasn’t offered to chip in for all the tickets needed for family and friends on Thursday.

Jim said he isn’t keeping score on who pays for what.

“I think we’ve pretty much exhausted all this,’’ Jim said. “I’ve got to get back to work here.’’

Neither would explain how their coaching styles differ, saying that to compare is to suggest one is better than the other.

Then, John goes back to painting the picket fence image. He joked that their sister was the favored one, that she got her own room and that when all three sat in the back seat of the car, she got the whole bench while Jim and John were crammed against a door.

He also said that he always cheered for Jim — always, except for one baseball game. Thursday will be the second time.

Their story just seems so typical with such an unusual and happy ending. Think about that Thursday when you pass the potatoes to your kids, and they spill gravy on the carpet.

Tagged: 49ers, Ravens

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