"I know one thing: John's got my back. And he knows I've got his back." -- Jim Harbaugh
On Thanksgiving night, Jack and Jackie Harbaugh will walk into M&T Stadium and pose for an unprecedented photograph. They will stand with the two head coaches, who are also their two sons: the 49ers' Jim, the frontrunner for NFL Coach of the Year, and the Ravens' John, one of the most respected coaches in the NFL.
This will be the first matchup between head-coaching brothers in league history. But by kickoff, Jack and Jackie will be long gone.
They have chosen a place near the stadium where they can watch Jim and John on TV. Jack says he and Jackie don't want to be a distraction. But that's not the real reason.
No, the real reason is that Jack and Jackie don't want fans to see them on TV and guess whether they are rooting for Jim or John.
They heard enough of that from the boys when they were kids. You like him better! ... He is your favorite! Jack says if the boys both complained, he figured he and Jackie were doing a good job -- "like a baseball umpire," he says, who ticks off both teams.
Jack was a longtime college coach. He has studied football history, and he knows how special this matchup is. But how is he supposed to feel?
He has thought about it a ton, talked about it with Jackie, turned it over in his head. He remembers watching Peyton Manning face Eli on national TV, and thinking about how conflicted their parents must have felt. But compared to the Harbaughs, Archie and Olivia Manning had it easy: They could just cheer for the offenses.
"When you watch the game, I don't know what you're watching for," Jack said. "If something goes well, are you supposed to feel good or supposed to feel bad? I have no idea."
Jack's daughter Joani says to just enjoy it, and remember that both teams will be well-coached but the players will decide the game. He agrees in theory, but in practice? How can he feel nothing? He has turned one of Newton's laws of motion into Harbaugh's law of emotion: "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction."
All Jack knows is that at the end of the game, his first thoughts will be with the losing coach. No matter how high you climb in life, the old saying is true: You are only as happy as your least happy child.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is how we view the Harbaughs, too. When Jim says something nutty, or gets into an altercation over a postgame handshake, of all things, we think: John wouldn't have done that. They're so ... different.
Well. Here is a story about that. Last year, after my piece on the Harbaughs ran in SI, I talked to Jim. He told me how much he loved this quote from John:
"I've got this rule. We make no comparisons. Somebody is going to be devalued. Maybe I'm sensitive to that."
A few days later, I read a San Francisco Chronicle story about Jim. The writer had asked him to compare college and pro coaching, and he said ...
"As soon as you compare one to the other, it devalues one of them."
Naturally, I teased Jim that he stole that from John. His response: "In the coaching profession, we don't call it plagiarism. We call it research!"
This week, I told Jack that story. And before I could finish it, he said: "We used to have a saying: In coaching, it's not plagiarism. We call it research."
This should be a great story for Jack Harbaugh. The Harbaughs are a storytelling family, and what could be better than this? John and Jim, facing each other on national television!
Maybe some day, they will tell this story the way they talk about the time Jim coached the University of San Diego, and his team played at Princeton, and John was on the sidelines to support him. And the refs called a few penalties on San Diego. And John, who was an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles at the time, started screaming at the refs: That's why you'll always be in the Ivy League. Jim was worried John would get kicked out.
Maybe they will remember this game like they remember the time when John was coaching the Ravens in Green Bay, and he heard a voice on the sideline, and it was Jim, who was the Stanford coach. And John turned and said: "Can you be out here?" John was worried Jim was breaking NFL rules.
Or ... wait. Maybe this story is the one that fits. It may be the Harbaughs' favorite story of all.
John and Jim were kids in Ann Arbor. It was a Saturday morning in the winter. They had a hockey game. Jackie dropped them off at their hockey game at Yost Ice Arena, and she dropped Jack at his office nearby -- he was an assistant to Bo Schembechler at Michigan -- and then she drove away to run some errands.
Problem was, the game wasn't at Yost. It was at Veterans' Park, three miles away.
So John and Jim threw rocks at Jack's office window until they got his attention. And Jack borrowed a car from one of his fellow assistants at Michigan, Chuck Stobart. And Jack sped toward Vets' Park with the boys, and maybe it was a little slippery, and maybe he was going too fast, because he went over a bump in the road and ...
He smacked Chuck Stobart's car into another car.
"Entirely his fault," Jim said. "Entirely."
Of course, the driver of the other car was steaming. But Jack was a coach. He had been defusing situations forever. So he told the other driver not to worry -- what mattered is that the kids were OK.
Then another car came by, and Jack flagged it down. Now, what do you think Jack asked the woman behind the wheel?
Fact one: There was smoke coming out of Stobart's car.
Fact two: The other car was a mess, too.
So this is what Jack asked the woman:
"Can you take these boys to Vets' Park? They have a hockey game."
In the Harbaugh family, nothing ever gets in the way of the games. But the games don't get in the way of being a family, either.
When Jim and John pose for that photo with their parents on Thanksgiving Night, they will probably chat for a few minutes, but once the game starts, they will try to beat the heck out of each other, with no hard feelings, the way they always have.
At the end of the night, Jack Harbaugh's thoughts may be with the losing coach, but he knows what Jim and John know: Whoever loses will get over it, and the only brothers to face each other as NFL head coaches will remain the closest of friends. For each Harbaugh brother, there is an equal and opposite Harbaugh brother. Their parents will leave the stadium. John and Jim never would.