In light traffic the drive from Indianapolis to Bloomington
should take 45 minutes. So to be on the safe side, Jim Harbaugh
allows himself a full half hour. Put him behind a steering
wheel, and Captain Comeback becomes Lieutenant Leadfoot.
Harbaugh earned the former moniker by quarterbacking the
Indianapolis Colts to three come-from-behind victories last
season. In bringing the Colts to within a Hail Mary pass of the
Super Bowl, the 32-year-old Harbaugh also plucked himself from
the slippery slope that leads to a second career as a clipboard
caddie. In a span of five months he went from the bench to the
starting lineup to the Pro Bowl. He even led the NFL in passing.
Awaiting his words of inspiration this morning are 500 or so
small-business owners who have packed a hotel ballroom in
Bloomington. The title of the seminar, "The Path to Profit,"
could double as a description of Harbaugh's '95 season. In
February the Colts named him their franchise player, meaning he
will earn at least $4 million this season.
Harbaugh seems less excited about this jackpot than he is about
his fast-rising Q rating. Rocketing south out of Indianapolis,
he rattles off--by request--some of the high-profile gigs he has
had of late. "I was on The Tonight Show at the Super Bowl," he
says. "I just shot a couple of commercials for ESPN. And I'm
going to Orlando to be in the Quarterback Challenge."
May 19, 1996
Harbaugh was in that made-for-TV schlockfest in the spring of
'94 but wasn't invited back last spring. However, because he
keeps an off-season home in Orlando and needed some autographs
for an auction at his annual charity golf tournament, he showed
up at the '95 event anyway, only to get his feelings hurt. "I
went up to Troy Aikman and asked him to sign a couple of
footballs," recalls Harbaugh. "And he did, which was nice. But
while he was signing, he didn't look up or take off his
sunglasses and say, 'Hi, Jim, how you doing?'"
Perhaps Aikman was already immersed in his much-publicized
football-isn't-as-much-fun-for-me-anymore phase. It's hard to
imagine that sort of melancholy afflicting Harbaugh, who seems
intent on enjoying every nanosecond of his moment in the sun.
"Hey," he announces as he drives along, "I may be in a movie!"
Indeed, he may appear briefly as himself in a flick in which Tom
Cruise will play a sports agent.
Everything seems to be breaking Harbaugh's way. As he motors
down Route 37 this day, going 77 in a 55 zone, he blows by a tan
Camaro that happens to be the unmarked car of an Indiana state
trooper. (There are accommodating athletes, and then there is
Harbaugh, who, having spied the trooper's flashing lights in his
rear-view mirror, turns to a reporter and says, "This will be
good for your story.") The trooper lets Harbaugh off with a
warning for the speeding violation. The cop does cite him for
not wearing a seat belt. "It's a $25 fine," says the officer. "I
think you can afford it."
The word is out. The four mil he is to make this season will be
a nice bump from the $950,000 he earned in '95. It will also
enable him to pay the bills from his February wedding, and
should enable him and his wife, Miah, to establish a college
fund for the baby they're expecting this fall and for their
six-year-old son, Jay Burke. Harbaugh has packed so much good
fortune into such little time that, he says, "people come up and
say, 'Congratulations,' and I have to ask them to be more
He is cruising at a conservative 65 now, and the effort required
to drive so slowly is consuming his innards. "It's nice to have
people pat you on the back," he says, "but you can't pay that
much attention to it. You can have fun with it, though, and I
am--because I've been on the other side."
The other side, in this case, was Chicago. Harbaugh spent his
first seven NFL seasons with the Bears, and many of the memories
of those years are not joyful. His most nightmarish moment came
one Monday night in October 1992 when he was verbally ambushed
on national television by an apoplectic coach Mike Ditka after
throwing an interception during a 21-20 loss to the Minnesota
Vikings. Mercifully, Harbaugh was released by the Bears in March
'94 and snapped up by the Colts.
He started nine games for Indianapolis that fall but was benched
in favor of Don Majkowski. Asked if he was given a reason for
his demotion, Harbaugh smiles like a man who knows how ludicrous
what he is about to say is going to sound: "[Then coach] Ted
Marchibroda said, 'We don't think you got it done in the fourth
Under the influence of this opinion the Colts last spring traded
two high draft choices to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Craig
Erickson, who was handed the starting job on a platter. Erickson
failed to vindicate his champion, Marchibroda. In the opener
against the Cincinnati Bengals, he threw three interceptions and
bobbled a shotgun snap, causing a safety. He was relieved in the
fourth quarter by Harbaugh, whose touchdown pass and throw for a
two-point conversion with seven seconds left sent the game into
overtime. The Colts eventually lost.
Continuing his custodial duties, Harbaugh mopped up for Erickson
the following week, entering in the third quarter with
Indianapolis trailing the New York Jets 24-3. Harbaugh's two
fourth-quarter touchdown passes sent that game, too, into
overtime, and his 24-yard completion to wideout Sean Dawkins set
up the winning field goal. Marchibroda caved, naming Harbaugh
the starter. On Oct. 8, Captain Comeback sparked another
21-point second-half rally, this time against the Miami
Dolphins, whom the Colts beat 27-24, again in overtime.
"These guys had the kind of faith in Jim that the Cowboys have
in Troy Aikman, that the Dolphins have in Dan Marino, that the
Steelers had in Terry Bradshaw," says Colts vice president Bill
Tobin, who with the Bears in 1987 was instrumental in drafting
Harbaugh out of Michigan. "They get in the huddle and know
something good is going to happen."
The team's faith in Captain Comeback was never so evident as
during the final 90 seconds of the AFC Championship Game against
the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the bumblebee-colored riot that was
Three Rivers Stadium, the Colts trailed 20-16 with 1:30 left.
They had 84 yards to go and only one timeout. When Harbaugh
entered the huddle, wide receiver Floyd Turner shouted, "C'mon,
Jimmy. One more time!"
On third-and-three with 1:14 left, Harbaugh hit Turner for an
18-yard gain, to the Colts' 41. In the huddle a couple more
players picked up the chant. "C'mon, Jimmy. One more time!" By
the time he had driven the Colts to the Steelers' 29 and killed
the clock with five seconds left, everyone in the huddle was
shouting, "C'mon, Jimmy. One more time!" So loud and incessant
was the clamor that Captain Comeback had to tell his teammates
to shut up so he could call the play.
That play was Rocket--Colt-speak for the Hail Mary, which is what
Harbaugh propelled into the late afternoon air.
Punctuality is no longer possible this morning, Harbaugh's path
to the "Path to Profit" seminar having been blocked,
temporarily, by the state trooper. But after explaining his
tardiness and warning the assembled entrepreneurs to be on the
lookout for unmarked Camaros on Route 37, Harbaugh, who has been
a devout Christian since experiencing a religious awakening in
1990, urges his listeners to "turn your life over to Jesus
Christ"--something he apparently does every time he slides behind
the wheel. Other tips: "Have goals....Have a plan....Work hard."
Any questions? An older gentleman, hopeful, it seems, of
tripping up Harbaugh, says, "Goal-oriented as you are, where do
you see yourself 10 years from now?"
"I'll be coaching," Harbaugh says. His father, Jack, is the
football coach at Western Kentucky, and Jim works for the
Hilltoppers as an unpaid assistant, mainly calling recruits.
Jim's brother, John, is assistant head coach at Cincinnati. His
sister, Joani, is married to Tom Crean, an assistant basketball
coach at Michigan State. "When I really want to annoy my
family," Harbaugh tells his audience, "I tell them I'd be a
[full-time] coach, but right now I've got too many skills."
A young man pipes up: "Did you think Aaron Bailey caught that
ball?" Everyone in the room knows he is referring to that Hail
Mary in Pittsburgh.
Harbaugh reconstructs the scene: "Coming out of the huddle, all
that kept going through my mind was, Please, don't let me throw
the ball out of the end zone and look like a complete jerk."
Harbaugh took the shotgun snap and, despite the excruciating
pain in his right middle finger, which he had dislocated five
plays earlier, he unleashed a perfect, high-arcing pass. Replays
show the ball exiting the shadows, catching the late afternoon
sun and falling into a thicket of arms. Then the ball is in
Bailey's hands, then it is rolling down his chest, into his lap,
off his hands again and onto the ground.
"People said, 'What a blow that must have been,'" he tells the
aspiring profiteers. "But I was so happy to know that I'd played
with a lot of heart and had the most fun I could possibly have
in a football game. I was just overjoyed."
Soon he is overjoyed to be back in the privacy of his car, where
he is free to jam a wad of Skoal in his mouth and talk about the
Colts' outlook for this fall. He is worried. After the regular
season Harbaugh sprang for Rolexes for his five starting
linemen. Had he waited until, say, July to buy the watches, he
might have saved some serious coin; free agency could cost the
Colts four of those starters. Tobin has imported capable
replacements, but Harbaugh frets that the team's chemistry will
suffer. The Colts also have a new coach in Lindy Infante, though
Harbaugh is comfortable with the man who was not only his
offensive coordinator last season but is also his neighbor.
Upon running into Harbaugh at the Pro Bowl, San Francisco 49ers
quarterback Steve Young congratulated him on his fine season.
When Harbaugh reciprocated the sentiment, Young made a face.
"You wait," said Young. "The next time your quarterback rating
dips under 100, people will be saying, 'Where's the old Jim
The new Jim Harbaugh is in the doghouse as soon as he returns
from Bloomington. He is greeted by Miah, who missed a doctor's
appointment because her husband left that morning with both sets
The next day Harbaugh brings one set of keys to the John
Marshall Middle School on the east side of Indianapolis. The
start of his stay-in-school speech is delayed slightly by
unruliness among some of the younger students. "Sixth-graders,
we're waiting," says principal Concetta Raimondi.
Rather than browbeat the youngsters, Harbaugh empathizes with
them. He recalls the loneliness of his own middle school years.
"When I was in seventh grade," he says, "I didn't have any
friends. Thinking back, I don't know why that was." Could it
have been because, according to his dad, he was the kind of
ball-hogging kid who, as a Little League centerfielder, would
bowl over the second baseman to catch a pop-up?
Perhaps Jim lacked friends because he didn't need them. "He was
one of the world's greatest daydreamers," Jack recalls. "He'd
spend hours throwing a tennis ball against the back wall of the
grocery store. When he got home we'd say, 'Where have you been?'
and he'd say, 'Doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians. I
pitched both ends. We won 'em both.'"
He lacked neither athletic ability nor confidence. During Jack's
tenure as an assistant coach at Michigan, Bo Schembechler walked
into his own office one day to discover Jim, then about 10, with
his feet on the desk. "How are you, Jim Harbaugh?" growled the
Without taking down his feet, Jim replied, "O.K. How you doin',
A good-but-not-great high school football player, Harbaugh was
not deluged with scholarship offers. He was elated when Michigan
offered him a full ride, then crushed when, during his freshman
year, a spiteful member of Schembechler's staff told him, "The
only reason you were offered a scholarship was that your dad
coached here." (Jack had left Michigan in 1979.)
After starting his last two years at Michigan, Harbaugh was the
26th pick in the '87 NFL draft. He twice took the Bears to an
11-5 record and the playoffs, but he is best remembered for
catching that earful of Ditka invective. He signed a five-year,
$13 million deal in March 1993, only to be booed so resoundingly
before Chicago's home opener later that year that his mother,
Jackie, who was in the crowd, was reduced to tears. "If I had
any moxie about me," she says, "I would have punched somebody in
The '93 season was a horrific one for Harbaugh. Playing behind a
five-blocks-of-pumice offensive line, he was sacked 43 times. As
Chicago struggled to a 7-9 record, first-year coach Dave
Wannstedt and his staff seldom bestirred themselves to shield or
absolve him. Says then Bears wideout Tom Waddle, "Jim was the
scapegoat. He had to bear the brunt of the fact that our offense
These days in Indianapolis, Harbaugh is the man. That much is
clear from the reception he gets at John Marshall. After his
talk Harbaugh pitches an idea: With the kids' help, he
re-creates the final play of the Colts' season. He starts the
students on the countdown--"Five...four...three...two...
one!"--and floats a Hail Mary. The ball falls on the line of
demarcation between the seventh- and eighth-graders. This time,
it does not hit the ground.
"What's your name?" Harbaugh asks the boy who comes down with
the ball. The receiver is Steve Williams, a gangly eighth-grader
who seems stunned by his good fortune. "Steve," says Harbaugh,
"I could have used you in Pittsburgh."
They smile at each other, two kids having the time of their