Harbaugh turned 72 this year. He worked more than 40 years as a football coach, a job he treated more like a calling than a profession, but he has spent the past few autumns trying to relax and enjoy his retirement. The game, though, is in his blood. Certain rituals feel as important as going to mass. So when he spots the white FedEx truck in the distance, he cannot resist a smile. The best part of his week is about to begin.
Barring a delivery delay, Tim will hand Harbaugh two packages.
One will contain the coach's film from the Baltimore Ravens' most recent game.
The other contains the coach's film from the San Francisco 49ers' most recent game.
Jack Harbaugh can hardly wait to descend into his basement, and click on his television — the same one he's had since 1987 (he has no plans of getting a new one.) He'll spend the next few hours blissfully taking notes.
His two sons, John and Jim — who will make NFL history on Thursday when they become the first brothers to face one another as head coaches — are always curious to hear what he thinks. Jack Harbaugh will never volunteer his thoughts unless his boys ask him first, but they almost never forget to ask. It's become an important part of their week as well. Because even at 72, he'll see something they might have missed, or propose something they may not have considered.
It might be small, but both Harbaugh boys know that no detail is truly minor in the eyes of a good football coach. That philosophy is one of the reasons they've thrived at the highest level of coaching.
"Jim and I say it all the time, but he's the best coach we've ever been around," John Harbaugh said. "Now, we're biased maybe, but I've seen the guy coach. ... I've been around a lot of coaches over the years. There's never been a better coach. I've never been around a better coach, a better teacher, than Jack Harbaugh. I can tell you that."
For all they've accomplished, and for all the wisdom they've acquired over the years, the one football mind 49-year-old John Harbaugh and 47-year-old Jim Harbaugh cherish the most still belongs to their dad.
Like father, like sons
If you really want to understand how two Ohio boys with granite chins who once shared a bedroom grew up to become two of the NFL's best head coaches, all you have to do take a closer look at the man they most admire.
"The one thing that strikes me about my dad, even to this day, he's a man without guile," John Harbaugh said. "He's as honest and straightforward a person as I've ever met in my entire life. If there's one thing that Jim and I have both taken from that, and there's one thing that I'd like to be on my gravestone, it would be that. You know where he's coming from."
If you think this Thanksgiving clash between the Ravens and 49ers will be emotionally difficult to handle for John and Jim, imagine then what it will be like for Jack, as well as his wife Jackie.
"My original thought, when the schedule first came out, was I wanted get as many time zones away from the game as I could without disappearing into the ocean," Jack Harbaugh said.
That wouldn't fly, however, with his sons. So after some playful negotiations, a compromise was reached. There will be a brief gathering on the field before the game, a picture taken to hang on the mantle or tuck in a scrapbook, and then Jack and Jackie Harbaugh will quietly slip away from the field and into a private room at M&T Bank Stadium to watch the game.
"I think if we were sitting in the stands and something happened, you react in a certain way and it becomes a distraction," Jack Harbaugh said. "It would take away from the game. It's going to be better if we can get somewhere and watch the game and not have to worry about being a distraction."
"He knows if cameras caught him cheering, he'd be getting a call the next day from one of us saying 'I always knew you loved him more!'" John Harbaugh said.
But the Harbaughs don't have to be in the stadium for their presence to be felt. So much of what the Ravens and the 49ers do today mirrors what Jack Harbaugh did when he was coaching college football, whether it was in Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, California or Kentucky. John and Jim both like to say they get their passion and their intensity from their mother, but their sense of purpose and unwavering focus can be traced back to Jack.
"What sticks out to me is the way he taught us to have a deep abiding respect for the game of football," Jim Harbaugh said. "To respect the people that came before. To respect the people who are participating now. Just how important it was to have respect."
The lessons began at an early age. When Jack Harbaugh was an assistant coach at the University of Iowa in the early 1970s, one of his greatest pleasures was driving his sons to St. Patrick's Elementary School each day before he'd go into work. The boys — separated in age by just 15 months — would ride up front with him, Jim sitting in the middle seat and John by the window. Each day, he'd repeat the same message as he pulled up in front of the school. His voice would build to a crescendo as he said it.
Grab your lunches, men, and let's attack this day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind! And by the way, don't take any wooden nickles today.
"The wooden nickles thing came from my dad, and he never explained it," Jack Harbaugh said. "I have some thoughts about what it means, but I don't think I ever explained it to them either. You look back over those things now and it kind of brings a smile to your face. Because there wasn't any plan, and there wasn't any real message. It was just a salutation where you try to convince your kids to bring a positive attitude to the day."
The three years Jack Harbaugh spent coaching at Iowa were not exactly memorable for what happened on the field. The Hawkeyes went 4-28-1 under Frank Lauterbur. But in a way, a decision Lauterbur made still resonates in the lives of the Harbaughs today. The Iowa coach did not want young kids hanging around at Hawkeyes practices. He felt they were a distraction to the players, who had quickly grown fond of dunking John and Jim in cold tubs, taping them to goal posts and stuffing them in lockers. Lauterbur told Harbaugh his sons, who often rode their bikes to practice after school, could not return.
"I remember we were watching a high school football game in Cedar Rapids," Jim Harbaugh said. "We were driving home, and we were maybe three blocks from our house. Dad would always let me jump up on his lap and let me drive the car home the last three blocks. When we got in the driveway, I climbed back to the passenger side and he said, 'I want to talk to you about something. Coach Lauterbur said he doesn't want you kids coming to practice anymore. I think this means I can't work at Iowa anymore. I can't work for a man who won't let my kids come to practice.'"
Jim swelled with pride. My dad loves John and me so much, he thought, he's willing to quit a job he loves on principle. But Jim also felt conflicted. His father didn't have another job lined up. He'd be walking away from his players in the middle of the season.
"I said, 'No dad! You can't do that! You've got to coach! We've got a game this week!'" Jim Harbaugh said. "My dad was like 'Well, OK, if you insist, but you won't be able to come to practice anymore.' It was only years later that I realized he had manipulated that masterfully."
But to this day, families — especially young kids — are welcome around the football teams John and Jim run. When he was coaching at Stanford, Jim instituted family picnic nights on Mondays. On Saturdays, the Ravens players and coaches are encouraged to bring their kids to work for what's called Family Day. In fact, just this past week, Ravens tight end Kris Wilson couldn't find a babysitter for his 3-year-old daughter, so he brought her to meetings the night before Baltimore played Cincinnati. John Harbaugh wasn't upset. In fact, it actually made him happy during an otherwise stressful week. At home games, Harbaugh's own daughter, Allison, will occasionally stand next to him on the sidelines during the national anthem, and then give him a kiss just before kickoff.
"A lot of coaches would look at that as a distraction, but I think in our places of work and what we're doing, I think we should make it family friendly," John Harbaugh said. "Let the kids come around. Let the kids be a part of it. They're not as much of a distraction as you would think."
The Harbaughs, because of the unpredictable nature of Jack's profession, never lived in the same town for more than a few years while John and Jim, and their younger sister Joani, were growing up. Jack's job at Bowling Green led to the position at Iowa. That led to a spot at Michigan under Bo Schembechler, which eventually turned into a job as Stanford's defensive coordinator.
"At one time, in the 1970s, he was the college secondary coach in the country," John Harbaugh said. "He was the guy who everyone came and visited to talk about defense. He was the premier guy. He spent a lot of time with Dick LeBeau when LeBeau was the Lions coach. And Dick LeBeau taught my dad Cover 2 back when it first came out in the mid-70s. They both talk about that a lot. He was very much a cutting-edge guy."
It did not matter where they were living, however, when the holidays arrived. Jack Harbaugh would load his family into the car and return to Ohio, and if the boys fought like caged bears on the open road with poor Joani wedged between them, their father would resort to his lone disciplinary tactic.
"He'd reach back when he was driving and he'd thump us on the forehead with his Big 10 Championship ring," John Harbaugh said. "Either that or he'd clunk our heads together."
"John was always just a little smarter than I was," Jim Harbaugh said. "He would never sit in that back left seat right behind my dad. He was harder to reach."
Their brawls were sometimes legendary. Jackie would plead with them to stop, insist that brothers shouldn't fight like this, but they didn't listen. The nomadic existence, however, only strengthened the bond between them. Jim emerged as the superior athlete, a reality people always assumed privately bothered his older sibling, but to this day, John insists it wasn't the case.
"My senior year at Pioneer High School [in Michigan], I was going to be the starting quarterback," John Harbaugh said. "I hadn't played quarterback before, but I was a good athlete and I was going to be the starter. Jim was a sophomore. He was coming from junior high and they knew about him, but I've know Jim my whole life. I know how good he is. I knew he was going to be the starter. It took about a week. They brought him up and I said, 'He'll be the starter. I'm going to wingback.' It was a given. People said to me, 'Didn't that bother you?' Well, no because he was a legitimate quarterback. It was all he ever played. I knew he was going to be pretty good."
Their journey from there has been well documented. Jim would eventually go on to become the starting quarterback for the University of Michigan, and parlay that into a 15-year NFL career, including one season with the Ravens. John contemplated going to law school before becoming a graduate assistant under his father at Western Michigan, a decision that set him on a path toward the NFL as well. In 1989, Jack became the head coach of a Western Kentucky program that was on the verge of implosion.
To this day, both John and Jim talk about their father's 14-year stint coaching the Hilltoppers in a way that suggests nothing short of reverence. The school repeatedly looked like it might kill the program, either by vote or simple neglect. First the athletic department was forced to cut 13 scholarships. Then the program's operating budget was slashed in half, eliminating the salaries of two full-time coaches. The locker room leaked when it rained. The players had to run across train tracks to get to practice, and then they'd spend the first 10 minutes picking up rocks from the field. The school wouldn't even buy soap for the athletic department, so Jackie Harbaugh went out and bought some herself so the players could shower after practices and games.
"What we would do is we'd cut them in half so they'd go a little bit longer," Jack Harbaugh said. "At the end of the day, we'd have our managers go through and collect them so the players didn't take them home with them so we'd have them the next day. There were some tough times. We were really on the ropes. The president had decided to drop the program. He had the votes. He had the five votes he needed to put the program away."
Jack Harbaugh's sons refused to watch their father struggle from afar. John, who was coaching at the University of Cincinnati at the time, would spend hours putting together two recruiting lists: the players he was targeting to play for the Bearcats, and the players he hoped his father could sign to play at Western Kentucky. Jim, who was still playing in the NFL, took an unpaid assistant coaching position on his father's staff, which allowed him to go on recruiting visits without violating NCAA rules. John would identify 20 or 30 kids in Florida they should go after, kids with talent but academic red flags, and Jim and Jack would drive down on their own dime to convince prospects to sign. The three Harbaugh men talked on the phone constantly.
"It was truly one of the great times of my life," Jim Harbaugh said. "You really start to understand how those father and son businesses happen. The dad passes something along to his son and they work side-by-side for awhile. You're learning the trade, the secrets, and you're talking every single day."
The turn-around was slow. Half the kids struggled to stay eligible academically. But in time, Jack Harbaugh molded them into a winner. In 2002, Western Kentucky captured the Division I-AA National Championship, a feat that would have been unfathomable when he took over the program.
"That was the signature coaching experience for me," Jack Harbaugh said. "John and Jim really stepped up. Without their support and contribution in terms of recruiting and the times we spent on the telephone talking football during that championship season, that would have never been possible."
Tickets to the game
Regardless of what happens in the Thanksgiving meeting between his two sons, this week will in some ways bring Jack Harbaugh's life almost full circle. On Friday, the day after the game, he and Jackie will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Fifty years ago, Harbaugh was a high school football coach in Cleveland, and in those days, Browns owner Art Modell provided free game tickets for local high school coaches. So the morning after the Harbaughs were married, they had breakfast at White Castle, and then spent their "honeymoon" watching the Browns play the Giants in Municipal Stadium.
"Jackie and I walked up those steps and I can remember it like it was yesterday," Jack Harbaugh said. "It was about all we could afford. I saw Mr. Modell at a game a few years ago. I told him, 'Mr. Modell, if it had not been for you, I would not have had a honeymoon.'"
After spending a few extra days in Baltimore with family, Jack Harbaugh and his wife will return to their home in Wisconsin. Eventually, a FedEx truck will swing by the house and make its regular delivery. Harbaugh's routine, however, will be slightly different this time. It will be a unique moment, alone in his basement, sitting in front of a television he's had for nearly 25 years. His voice swells with pride when he explains why.
"This time," Harbaugh said, "there will be only one tape to watch."