John and Jim Harbaugh: Bonded by Blood, Bound by Fate to Meet in the Super Bowl?
The scoreboard said 14-3, and the wrong team had 14. In the second quarter of a game they could not afford to lose, the hard-nosed head coach grabbed his quarterback and yelled, "Damn it! I don't care what we do! We just gotta outscore them!"
The lanky scrambler—who'd guaranteed victory before the game—took charge. He led an explosive comeback, completing 19 of 29 passes for 261 yards. With the conservative governor off the offense, the University of Michigan roared back to beat hated Ohio State, 26-24.
Bo Schembechler, as Mitch Albom told it, privately spoke to Jim Harbaugh after the game. Their Wolverines would be going to the Rose Bowl, and soon, Jim would be going to the NFL. Schembechler told Harbaugh how proud he was of him, and that he knew how proud Jim's father Jack Harbaugh, a football coach himself, must be.
Six days before, Jack had been fired. John Harbaugh, Jack's older son and running backs coach, was fired along with him.
The Harbaughs' Western Michigan Broncos had gone 3-8 that year, their third straight losing season under Jack. Jack told the Associated Press via The Day he was fired because football was becoming too much about money, and his program was losing too much of it.
That spring Jim, the first-round pick of the Chicago Bears, signed a rookie contract worth $1.3 million.
Sons in Sun and Shadow
Jim and John Harbaugh are very much their father's sons.
When they were children, as Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Arnold wrote, Jack would drop his sons off at school. Then an assistant to Schembechler at Michigan, Harbaugh would leave them with the same pregame speech.
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"OK, men, grab your lunchboxes and attack this day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind—and don't take any wooden nickels."
Jim and John have played and coached with the same relentless intensity, boundless enthusiasm and accept-no-substitutes attitude throughout their careers. The Harbaughs' common blood and shared upbringing couldn't be more obvious; it's literally all over their faces.
Their careers testify to the power of good genes and good parenting. But their careers also testify to the power of experience and how the events of our lives change and shape us.
Jim was one of the brightest-shining stars in football since before he could buy beer, while John toiled in his father's shadow for years on end.
Finding Their Place
While Jim was in Platteville, Wis., training to be the future of the mighty Chicago Bears franchise, John was following Jack to the University of Pittsburgh, where both served as assistant coaches for a season.
John then struck out on his own, sort of. John was hired by tiny Morehead State, where Jack first coached, to be the special teams coordinator, strength and conditioning coordinator and defensive backs coach.
After one season, new Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Tim Murphy hired Harbaugh to be his special teams coordinator. John made the big leap to Division I-A ball, just as his brother Jim was competing for the Bears' starting quarterback job.
Jim's NFL career began in earnest in 1989, as he slowly overtook Mike Tomczak for the starting job. Harbaugh got five rocky starts that year. He completed 62.4 percent of his passes for 1,204 yards and five touchdowns, but he also threw nine picks and went 1-4 as a starter.
In 1990, Jim entered the season an unquestioned starter for the first time. While the legendary Bears defense, and the running of Neal Anderson, led the way for Chicago, Jim grew mightily as a quarterback that season.
Jim cut down his interceptions to just six, boosted his touchdown total to 10 and quarterbacked the Bears to an 11-5 record and NFC Central crown. Jim and the Bears then won on Wild Card Weekend but lost in the divisional round to the eventual champion, the New York Giants.
In 1991, the Bears again went 11-5 but this time finished second to the Detroit Lions and lost in the first round to the ascendant Dallas Cowboys. After another season of risk-taking had led to another season of completing less than 60 percent of his passes—and this time throwing 16 interceptions to 15 touchdowns—the writing was on the wall.
In 1992, everything fell apart for the Bears. They went 5-11, and Mike Ditka was fired at the end of the season. The Bears started the Dave Wannstedt era with Harbaugh at the helm, but Harbaugh's play still didn't improve. After one season under Wannstedt, Harbaugh was released in favor of former Lion Erik Kramer.
Where was John Harbaugh in all this? Still the special teams coordinator at the University of Cincinnati.
In fact, he was lucky to be there. The head coach who hired John, Tim Murphy, was hired away by Harvard, and Murphy didn't take John with him. The new coach at Cincinnati, Rick Minter, kept John on the staff, but John had to prove himself all over again.
The Summer Solstice
While John was rebuilding his reputation with a new head man, Jim was a free agent.
He signed with the Indianapolis Colts and won their starting job. His play improved; his passer efficiency rating cracked 85 for the first time as a starter. The following season, everything clicked.
Jim Harbaugh had a fantastic season, not only by his own standards, but by anyone's.
Jim completed 63.7 percent of his passes, for 2,575 yards, 17 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Per Pro Football Reference, he led the NFL in interception rate (1.6 percent), yards per attempt (8.2), adjusted yards per attempt (8.6), passer efficiency rating (100.7) and fourth-quarter comebacks (three).
Harbaugh and the Colts sneaked into the playoffs on a tiebreaker and then went on a wild ride to the AFC championship game. They fell exactly one Hail Mary pass short of going to the Super Bowl:
On the strength of that incredible 1995 season, Colts offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda was hired to be the first head coach of the newly christened Baltimore Ravens. Harbaugh was given the Colts' franchise tag, granting him a one-year contract worth $4 million.
John kept coordinating Cincinnati's special teams.
Waning and Waxing
Though the Colts had found a quarterback, skipper Lindy Infante was slowly steering his ship into the rocks. In 1996, the Colts again went 9-7, but they were again knocked out of the playoffs by the Steelers, this time in the first round.
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That's when John finally got his big break: Indiana University hired Washington Redskins quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron to be their head coach. Years earlier, Cameron been the quarterbacks coach at the University of Michigan...when Jim was the quarterback.
Cameron needed a special teams coordinator, and John Harbaugh needed to move up the ladder. It was a perfect fit.
For one season, it was just like the old days. The two brothers were working in the same state again: Jim playing on the biggest stage, John coaching on a smaller one.
In 1997, though, despite having a young Marshall Faulk and a razor-sharp Harbaugh (he threw just four interceptions, at an NFL-lowest rate of 1.3 percent), the Colts could hardly score—and couldn't stop anyone from scoring.
Indianapolis went a disastrous 3-13. Infante was fired, and 34-year-old Jim wasn't kept around for the rebuilding project.
Instead, the Colts drafted some kid named Peyton.
The Circle of Life
Turns out one season of major-conference exposure was all the opportunity John Harbaugh needed.
Philadelphia Eagles head coach Ray Rhodes hired John to be his special teams coordinator. After 13 seasons bouncing around small-college football, John was suddenly on the fast track: In just two years, John had jumped to the Big Ten and then the NFL.
Jim, again deemed surplus to requirements, was again saved by a phone call. Jim's old offensive coordinator, Ted Marchibroda, needed a quarterback.
Jim saw the writing on the wall, though; at age 35 his playing career was almost at an end. Wanting to get a quick start on his post-playing coaching career, Jim needed a part-time gig. Fortunately, he had an in at Western Kentucky: head coach Jack Harbaugh.
In his off hours, Jim was serving as an scout and recruiter for the WKU Hilltoppers; though he was a NCAA-recognized member of the staff, he drew no salary. Like his big brother John back in 1984, Jim began learning the coaching ropes as an assistant to their father.
Meanwhile, John's career was again nearly sidetracked again; at the end of his first season with Philadelphia, Ray Rhodes got the axe.
Fortunately, incoming hire Andy Reid elected to keep John around. It may have helped that Reid's choice for defensive coordinator, the late Jim Johnson, had worked with the Colts while Jim Harbaugh was quarterbacking there.
John had to prove himself as a special teams coordinator all over again.
Jim only lasted one season in Baltimore; he was swept out the door along with Marchibroda. Jim landed in San Diego, where he got a small taste of revenge: With the Chargers, Jim started over the man he'd been replaced with in Chicago, Erik Kramer.
Still, it wasn't meant to last. During the 2000 season, Jim gave way to the other top quarterback pick from the 1998 draft: Ryan Leaf. Before the 2001 season, Jim camped with his hometown Lions but was cut in favor of Ty Detmer. He was signed by the Carolina Panthers but served as a mostly inactive reserve.
All the while, Jim was working for Western Kentucky, learning the trade and hitting the recruiting trail.
Waxing and Waning
Jim's playing career was finished, but his coaching career was immediately on the fast track.
In 2002, Jim was hired by the Oakland Raiders as quarterbacks coach. His first season on the job, they went to the Super Bowl.
After just his second season in Oakland, Jim achieved what John hadn't in 20 years in the industry: Jim was named head coach of the University of San Diego Toreros.
John's career, meanwhile, was again stuck in neutral. Toiling away as the Eagles' special teams coordinator, he couldn't get a head coaching interview for the world—despite having been named Special Teams Coach of the Year in 2001.
Teams just didn't see special teams coordinators as serious head coach candidates.
Jim had astounding success at San Diego, going 7-4, 11-1 and 11-1 in his three seasons there. Jim quickly became a hot name in nearly every coaching search. After the 2006 season, Jim and Stanford University agreed they were a mutual perfect fit.
At age 43, Jim had matched his father's highest achievement: becoming a Division I-A head coach.
Finally, John had had enough. By his request, Andy Reid reassigned John to defensive backs coach so John could get a chance at a head coaching gig.
It didn't take long for the gambit to pay off.
The Winter Solstice
In 2008, after one year as the Eagles' defensive backs coach, John replaced Brian Billick (the man who replaced Ted Marchibroda) as the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.
According to the Baltimore Sun's Edward Lee, on word of the news, Jim rummaged around in his closet until he found an old pair of Ravens practice shorts, which he proudly donned. The brothers' paths had crossed—not for the first time, and not for the last.
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John inherited a hard-nosed Ravens defense, and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. He needed an offensive coordinator—and it just so happened that Cam Cameron, the man who gave John his major-conference break, was available. John rounded out his staff with two other assistants you may have heard of: current Colts head coach Chuck Pagano and hot offensive coordinator candidate Hue Jackson.
It turns out, John's first head coaching gig was worth the wait: The Ravens went 11-5 in John's rookie season.
In the four seasons since, they've gone 9-7, 12-4, 12-4 and 10-6. They've won the AFC North two of his five seasons, made at least the second round of the playoffs every one of his five seasons and are playing in their third AFC championship game under his watch.
The Vernal Equinox
Jim, of course, wasn't far behind. He took over a Stanford program coming off a 1-11 nuclear winter of a season and immediately put his recruiting, coaching and quarterback experience to work.
He landed top prospect Andrew Luck right off the bat and began the process of grooming him into a champion. Jim's coaching stock continued its meteoric rise, as he led Stanford to records of 4-8, 5-7, 8-5 and finally 12-1.
Harbaugh was a white-hot coaching prospect throughout this time, at one point being wooed with an all-out pitch by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. But Jim picked the San Francisco 49ers, and the Harbaughs became the first brothers to both become NFL head coaches.
Jim, of course, immediately had the same success as his brother.
The 49ers improbably went 13-3 in Jim's first season as head coach and made it as far as the NFC championship game. This season, the 49ers went 11-4-1 in a much-improved NFC West division but again find themselves one game away from the Super Bowl.
It's fitting that John, who did incredible work in the background for over 20 years, could achieve the level of success he had in five short seasons and be considered almost an afterthought.
It's fitting that Jim, renowned as one of the most fiery, combative, cantankerous head coaches in the NFL, would achieve his success on the arms of tough, athletic quarterbacks like Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick. Could there be any better description of the 49ers' divisional-round defeat of the Green Bay Packers than "we just gotta outscore 'em"?
The Harbaugh brothers' success is unbelievable, a fantastically rare occurrence. The odds against the two of them meeting in the Super Bowl are astronomically large.
But in some sense, it's inevitable. Two brothers so alike in face and voice, who take so strongly after their father, who share the same strong values, who've taken such different, intertwining paths up the same mountain...in a way, it's inevitable that they'd meet at the top of the world.
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