There used to be a time in my life when talking to the parents of Ravens coach John and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh in advance of the Super Bowl was simply about gleaning anecdotes, hearing and retelling tales of car rides and family dinners.
No longer. Now I am a parent.
People always said having kids “changes everything,” but this pretty little euphemism does not do justice to what happens. You go from being a normal person with a healthy balance and perspective to somebody plotting how to get your kid into Harvard, seriously debating tennis versus ballet all while figuring how to intermingle sharks and princesses into a fourth-birthday party theme. So what I really wanted to ask them was, How?
In this world of Tiger Moms and tutors for preschool entrance exams, what did Jackie and John Harbaugh do to produce two such high achievers?
“I don’t know if we instilled anything, but I think they watched,” Jack Harbaugh, their dad, said. “They observed and they saw things that they liked. And this is the profession that they decided to pursue, and I say that makes me most proud.”
In a more emotive moment, he called this “the greatest joy I got in my life.”
What I came looking for was a how-to and what I left with was the feeling that we have overcomplicated things in our pursuit of perfect parenting. How two brothers end up coaching each other in the pinnacle of their profession is actually quite simple. Jack did something that he loved passionately, and he included his children daily in pursuit of that passion.
“I’d like to say that I think that they took from Jack by watching how he conducted himself, they learned to be who they are in coaching. Not feeling they had to imitate any other coach that they were ever around,” Jackie Harbaugh said. “They are who they are as individuals, and that’s the way Jack was when he coached.”
It is much like what Emerson wrote in his 1842 essay, The Over-Soul, “that which we are, we shall teach, not voluntarily, but involuntarily.”
We do not hear what our parents say. We hear what they do.
We want to pretend our choices do not matter, how we live our lives does not influence what our kids become, but it does. Our kids do not mimic what we say. They mimic what we do.
If you want them to be passionate about their work, be passionate about yours. If you want them to love what they do, love what you do.
If you want them to be truthful, tell the truth. If you want them to be moral, have morals. We cannot instill that which we do not have in ourselves.
And in their dad, John, Jim and Joani Harbaugh found a man who loved coaching. Even now, so many years after his last, you can hear the love and respect he has for the sport. He still very much relates to the pain of losing, a feeling kindled by the Thanksgiving game between San Francisco and Baltimore last year. He remembers walking into the Ravens locker room and saw guys celebrating. He thought, “We are not needed here.” They then walked across the hall to a somber 49ers locker room, where they found Jim by himself, his head down.
“That is where we are needed,” Jim recalled. “So that feel of victory and agony of defeat … And we know we are going to experience that next week.”
People kept saying “good luck” to Jack, Jackie and Joani, which was confusing because they are not playing or rooting. There will be elation for the Harbaughs on Super Bowl Sunday for sure, but only in direct proportion to their agony. One of theirs will it will realize his biggest dream. One of theirs will have his crushed.
It is not their dream. What Jack knew for sure, after years of teaching young men, is the more you try to steer a kid, the more he rebels. So he just included them in the journey — all of them.
“I didn’t know I was in a coaching environment,” their sister, Joani Crean, said. “I just felt that was how we lived, that’s what my dad did for a living. Luckily, I think as parents they involved their kids in their professional life.”
Joani remembers Jackie loading them into the car and taking them to practice. It was how they saw him after school. She sat at the kitchen table with him coloring his scouting reports. And Jack still calls Joani “the very best hot splicer” he ever had. Hot splicing is back when film was studied was on celluloid 16mm film and had to be manually cut with scissors and put back together. What they learned was not simply Xs and Os but the simple joy of being yourself and liking that person.
The story has been told before, many times, how in 1993 Western Kentucky had been talking about cutting the program and instead decided to mortally wound it instead — slashing the budget and coaches.
Jack was sitting in his office pouting and talking about how his career was over when Jim walked in.
“This doesn’t sound like you,” Jack remembers him saying. “How can I help?”
What the story says to me is that Jack and Jackie raised kids who loved them and loved being around them. They took very different paths, Jim playing at Michigan and in the NFL and then landing big-time jobs whereas John thought for a while of becoming a politician. He certainly has the better demeanor for it, the congenial manner he displayed when calling in during the interview and asking, “Is it true you both love Jim more than John?”
Once they figured out it was John and everybody was laughing and “I love yous” had been exchanged, it was just a reminder of the difference in the boys. John always was the lesser known of the brothers, but now they are both here.
The lesson is that the best thing we can do for our kids is to live a happy, passionate life and to include them in the daily undertaking of that work, whatever it may be.