Ravens coach John Harbaugh and his younger brother, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, grew up competing at just about everything, but they are each other's staunchest supporters
This is an article from the Oct. 18, 2010 issue
When Jim Harbaugh was a boy, he threw a football over his family tree. The tree, which stood in the front yard of his home in Ann Arbor, Mich., was a big evergreen, bigger to the Harbaugh boys than to anyone else: an enormous measuring stick in a childhood full of them. Jim was 15 months younger than his brother, John, but that didn't matter. Jim was taller, he was stronger, and he was the only kid in the neighborhood who could throw the ball over that tree. "It used to drive John crazy," Jim says. "He couldn't do it."
The Harbaugh boys are head football coaches now, two of the hottest in the country. Jim, 46, is on the West Coast, at Stanford, where he took the Cardinal from 1--11 to 8--5 in three years. Now his name is mentioned for every high-profile college position that opens up, and some NFL jobs too. Jim has been labeled the bulldog of the brothers, and a loud one; he ramps up the energy of any room he enters. "He's not your average football coach," Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck says. "He is very hands-on. It's almost like he's playing a little."
John, 48, is on the East Coast, in Baltimore, where he led the Ravens to postseason wins in each of his first two seasons. He is considered the more cerebral brother, the one who always chooses the right word at the right time. "After games, especially after disappointing losses, he is able to say things that would [normally] require you to sit [and think] on it overnight," Baltimore special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg says. "I've said to him a number of times, 'How do you do that?'"
Jim and John both seem to have been born to coach—or maybe they were raised to coach. Their father, Jack, was a longtime college coach who loved taking his kids to the office. In the 1970s Jack was an assistant under Bo Schembechler at Michigan, and the boys would sometimes throw a football around on the sideline while the Wolverines practiced. Their younger sister, Joani, learned to hot-splice game film by the time she was 10. Joani is the only Harbaugh child who did not become a coach, but she did marry one: Tom Crean, now the basketball coach at Indiana.
This makes Jack proud. His kids saw the coaching profession up close, all the tumult (Jack and his wife, Jackie, have moved 16 times), the long hours and the stress, and they dived in anyway. Jack was a hell of a coach himself—probably the best public speaker of all the Harbaughs and the winner of a Division I-AA national championship, with Western Kentucky in 2002.
But this story is not about Jack. It's about that tree.
When the boys were growing up, they shared a room, and life was one game after another: wrestling, on-the-knees one-on-one football, games that were barely even games: You try to get to that spot, and I'll try to stop you. "Jim is the greatest pure competitor, by far, that I ever met in my life," John says. "At everything."
Jim's classmates and teachers found out the hard way: He did not have an off switch. One time when the boys were in grade school, Jackie found out there was a problem at recess: The games meant too much to Jim. Was that, she wondered, a problem? Hell, Jack Harbaugh had exhorted his boys to approach every day with what he called "an enthusiasm unknown to mankind." What was he supposed to do now? Demotivate his middle child? Jackie said the U.S. education system was falling in love with "mediocrity—let's not let anybody be better than anybody else."
Being better than anybody else was Jim's reason to live. Better, faster, stronger, higher, louder, more—whatever more was. There was a beast in him that he could not contain.
He didn't play well with others? Well, who needs others? Jim took a wire hanger, a net and some tape and made a basketball hoop in the basement. He played music on his cassette player during his imaginary pregame layup drill. He taped a uniform number to his T-shirt. Then he played game after game. He kept stats and standings. He did not mind that there was nobody else in the room.
One time the boys were at their maternal grandfather's place in Ohio, and Jim sprinted off. John knew where Jim had gone. It was the same direction Jim always wanted to go. Up. "If there was a tree anywhere, I would climb it," Jim says. "I would go up there just to go up there, thinking about stuff. I liked being alone."
When Jim was in elementary school, he told people he would be an NFL quarterback. He became the varsity quarterback at Ann Arbor's Pioneer High as a sophomore—and that was too late for him. But Jim was so lightly recruited out of high school that when Schembechler finally invited him to come to Michigan, in 1982, Jim had to ask, "Is that a full scholarship, Bo?"
"I don't think I've been around anybody who worked harder as a player than Jim did," says longtime NFL coach Cam Cameron, who coached Harbaugh as a graduate assistant at Michigan. "Jim's answer to everything early on was physical. He was going to outwork you physically." Michigan players were expected to choose between morning and afternoon workouts in the summer. Harbaugh did both, every day. After being named the starter his sophomore year, 1984, he broke his arm five games into the season and couldn't play for the first time in his life. The beast darted from the practice field to the library, and Jim became an A student. When the arm healed, the beast went back to the practice field and Jim became a B student again.
As a junior Jim led the nation in passing efficiency and guided Michigan to a 10-1-1 record, a Fiesta Bowl victory over Nebraska and the No. 2 ranking. His final season he was a second-team All-America as the Wolverines went 11--2.
Before the next-to-last regular-season game of his college career, Jim opened his mouth and the beast spoke: "I guarantee you we'll beat Ohio State and be in Pasadena." Jim didn't plan to say it. But he had planned to do it for years. "From the time I had sat up in those trees, I knew I was going to play in a Rose Bowl game," he says. "I knew that was my destiny."
Michigan beat Ohio State to go to Pasadena, where it would lose to Arizona State 22--15. Jim was named Big Ten Player of the Year and came in third in the Heisman Trophy voting. He went on to a 15-year NFL career with six teams. And whenever anybody asked him about life after football, he had an answer: He would be a coach.
After retiring as a player, he took a job as an offensive assistant with the Raiders in 2002. When they sat him down at a laptop to teach him how to use software to diagram plays, Harbaugh asked, "How do you turn it on?" He had never used a computer. He made $50,000 a year, working 20-hour days, sleeping under his desk. One time he was so exhausted that he fell asleep with his head on his computer keyboard; he woke up to a string of K's on the screen. Another time he woke up at the wheel of his car in his driveway before dawn, unsure if he was leaving for work or had just come home. Six years earlier Harbaugh had come within one play of leading the Colts to the Super Bowl. Now he was a grunt.
Almost every Sunday, an opposing player would say, "You're Jim Harbaugh, right?"
"Yeah," he'd say, "I'm Jim Harbaugh."
And then the player would start paying compliments—to John. I played for your brother ... that guy is the best.... He taught me everything.... Your brother is going to be a head coach in this league.
"That," Jim says, "is when I first realized, Man, my brother is really good. He's much better than I ever knew."
In their childhood competition, Jim had won not only the genetic lottery but also an actual lottery—for the chance to play for a team called the Ann Arbor Junior Packers. The Harbaugh boys were in grade school then, in 1973. Jim's number got picked, but John's didn't. John had to stand on the sideline and watch younger kids play. "I'm still very upset about it," he says.
Something always seemed to hold John back. One year in hockey a skate sliced his knee, and he needed 70 or 80 stitches. He had a chance to start at quarterback at Pioneer High, but he caught his finger in another player's jersey and broke it. He concentrated on playing defensive back and receiver; then he tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. He went to Miami of Ohio—a 170-pound 17-year-old not ready for the rigors of the college game. Before his sophomore year he blew out his knee again.
Finally, before the first game of his junior year, in 1983, John was told he had made the traveling squad to play South Carolina. He packed his bags, got ready to go ... and the coaches told him, No, sorry, we're taking a younger player instead. John traveled the rest of the year and earned a letter, but he impressed more people with his academics. He won the school's Football Scholar Athlete Award for, as he puts it, "stringing out 4.0s" in his final two years.
At the end of his fourth year John had a choice: try to come back for a fifth year of football or graduate and move on with his life. Jim would have come back. John took his string of 4.0s and graduated.
Now, where were we? Oh, yes. That tree. There it was, in the front yard, for John to see every time he left the house and every time he came home. "I might have gotten the ball over the corner of the tree," he jokes, but he has no problem telling the truth. "Jim could throw it over the tree, and I couldn't." But, he says, "I never compared [our abilities] and said I wished I could be the athlete Jim was." That explains what John did when he walked past that tree: He ignored it.
And then one day it wasn't much of a tree anymore. In January 1978 a winter storm chopped it in half.
By then John had already been typecast. Neither as athletic nor as confident as his brother, John had to be something else. Most people hadn't seen him work out with Jim, matching him bench press for bench press, squat for squat, sprint for sprint, until they puked. John was the one who set the workout regimen. People might have seen John's grades, but they couldn't see why he got them: He was so frustrated that he couldn't get on the field, he had to kick ass in something.
Yes, he turned down that last chance to play. But the way he saw it, he turned down another chance to be rejected. "I was going to control something," John says. In 1984 he got a job as a graduate assistant at Western Michigan, working for his father. John spent most days coaching but still found time to build the body he would have liked to have had in his playing days. He gained 30 pounds of muscle in two years. "You see how big you can get, how strong you can get," he says. "Maybe I had something to prove.... On some level I definitely did."
He worked for 13 years around the edges of his dream, at a range of Division I schools—Pitt, Morehead State, Cincinnati—until he was finally hired as defensive backs coach and special teams coordinator at Indiana in 1997. Fifteen years after his younger brother had made the Big Ten, John did too. He and his wife, Ingrid, looked at the lawns and limestone buildings, and it didn't matter that the Hoosiers were paying rent in the league basement. To the Harbaughs, this was Versailles.
"I remember saying to Ingrid, 'Look at this place! We're in the Big Ten,'" John says. "'We will be here for a long time.'"
They were there a year. The Eagles called and made John their special teams coordinator. Seven years passed. Eight. Nine. John wondered if he would be an assistant for life. "All along the way you have these frustrations," he says. "[As a college coach] you always wonder, Why can't I get to Ohio State or Michigan? Man, I'm still at Cincinnati. Or [in the NFL], I'm still a special teams coordinator. I loved being a special teams coordinator, but when is a special teams coordinator ever going to get a shot?"
The older John got, the more people thought he was Jim's younger brother. He longed for his own team. He interviewed for college head coaching jobs but never got hired. He felt slighted but refused to say so. People could label him less athletic and competitive and more studious than Jim, but nobody could say John Harbaugh was bitter.
Every time somebody rejected his résumé, he went out and made new friends he could add to his list of references. Then, in January 2007, John's phone rang with a once-in-a-lifetime offer. But the call didn't come from a college athletic director or an NFL general manager. It came from his brother.
Jim had beaten John yet again. While John worked his way up a very crowded ladder, Jim found a ladder that nobody else could see. He'd left the Raiders at the end of 2003 to become head coach at the University of San Diego, a Division I-AA program. Everybody he trusted was against it. "It's USD, Jim, not USC," grumbled Raiders owner Al Davis. They said he'd never get out of Division I-AA.
He went to San Diego, brought his father out of retirement to be his running backs and assistant head coach and won two I-AA national titles. Never get out? It took him three years to get to Stanford.
That is when Jim asked John to be his defensive coordinator. The job made no sense—nobody leaves the NFL to be an assistant for a Pac-10 team that just went 1--11. John could not possibly say yes. And yet ... he didn't want to say no either. He told Eagles coach Andy Reid, "It's not like it's a regular job. It's my brother." But even that didn't explain it; Jim and John are not typical brothers.
Sometimes, when the Harbaughs are on vacation together, Ingrid tells John, "I can't believe you grew up like this." If John and Jim are teaching kids how to blow bubbles, they have to see who can blow the most bubbles. Every bike ride becomes a race. If the family is eating hamburgers and there is one left on the serving plate, John and Jim will race to finish theirs so they can grab the last one. "They can't cut it in half," Ingrid says. Sometimes Jim will point at John's plate and ask, "Are you going to eat that?" and John will say, "Yeah! I'm taking a breath."
Ingrid has known the brothers for 25 years, so the question must be asked, How many times has she seen them argue? "Never," she says. "Ever."
They have always been competitors but have never been rivals, which is why they have always been best friends. Jim glows when he talks about John's nine-year-old daughter, Alison. John is always asking about Jim's wife, Sarah, his four kids (three from a previous marriage) and a fifth on the way.
They compete against each because they love to compete and they love to be with each other. Their proudest achievement, as a family, might have come in the mid-1990s, when Jack was coaching Western Kentucky and the school reduced his scholarship allotment, slashed his budget and told him to lay off two coaches. The program seemed doomed. Then the boys went to work. John was recruiting for Cincinnati, and he compiled two recruiting lists: one for Cincinnati, one for Western Kentucky. But it was Jim who really stepped in. He took a coaching position with Jack for no salary. This allowed him to recruit for his father while he continued playing pro football.
Jim had to convince recruits that, yes, he was that Jim Harbaugh, starting NFL quarterback. He stayed on for seven years, and in 2002, just after Jim left, the Hilltoppers won the I-AA national title. Jack sums up Jim's contribution simply: "He saved us. He saved the program."
John knew Jim would save Stanford too. He had watched Jim beat out more highly touted quarterbacks at Michigan, and he knew Jim had taken a swing at former Bills star Jim Kelly after Kelly questioned Jim's toughness during a TV broadcast. John knew better than to doubt the beast.
But something did not feel right about working with Jim. When your brother is your best friend, why put that kind of stress on the relationship? Philadelphia offered John a contract extension and a chance to coach defensive backs. He stayed put.
A year later Baltimore interviewed him for the head coaching job. All those years, John had acquired friends and admirers and told himself it would all pay off someday. Now it did. One of John's NFL acquaintances called Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti with some advice: Hire John Harbaugh. That call was not the only reason Harbaugh got the job. But in the NFL it always helps to get an unsolicited recommendation from Bill Belichick.
Sometimes reporters ask John, How does the Patriots' defense compare with the Broncos'? Which team has the quicker running back, the more explosive deep threats, the more dangerous blitz packages? They are asking the wrong guy. "I've got this rule," John says. "We make no comparisons. Somebody is going to be devalued. Maybe I'm sensitive to that."
Jim apparently does not have that rule. Shortly after arriving at Stanford, he tried to tout the school's academic priorities by comparing them favorably with Michigan's; anger over that still lingers in Ann Arbor.
You want to make comparisons? O.K.: John works out regularly; Jim never gets on a treadmill. "I gotta find something where I'm competing," Jim says, so he plays racquetball and runs down to the basketball court and challenges somebody to a game of H-O-R-S-E. Sometimes at a Stanford practice Jim will line up behind center, ostensibly to teach his quarterbacks a lesson but also because "I just like the feel of the ball on [my] hand."
John says that every time he speaks about anybody, he imagines, "That person is standing right there in front of you, as is his wife, their kids, his mom, his dad." But the beast still hijacks Jim's vocal cords sometimes. Three years ago he said he'd heard Pete Carroll was on his way from USC to the NFL, which annoyed Carroll (who has since left USC for the NFL). Jim said he was just repeating what he had heard. But it was surely not a coincidence that the Trojans were dominating the Pac-10 at the time. When reporters asked Jim if he would retract his comments, he refused. "We bow to no man," he said. "We bow to no program here at Stanford University." Stanford upset the Trojans that year, then blew them out last year. At the end of the 2009 game the beast took over again: Stanford, up 48--21 midway through the fourth quarter, went for two.
John would not have done that. Or would he? Let's go back—way back. To that tree.
Jim could throw it over the tree, and John could not. Jim's superior athleticism sent him off in one direction, and John went off in another—and ever since, Jim has been known as the brash athlete and John the reserved thinker. But both say repeatedly, We're a lot more alike than you think. "We had the same mind-set," John says, "but the difference was he was a lot better. That kind of dictated his path."
Jim talks about how John handled sitting on the bench in college and says with admiration, "It didn't hijack him. That's a real winner, a real champion. We'd rather be underestimated by people. It's a strength, almost a strategy. Underestimate him, he will eventually find a way to beat you."
John, unprompted, gives a 10-minute speech about how Jim was underappreciated his whole career, and says, "He will let you think he is kind of this hardheaded guy. But he's really smart. He's got a great feel for people. He is real empathetic. He'd love for you to underestimate him that way."
They don't know exactly what would have happened if John had thrown it over the tree and Jim hadn't. They don't know if John would go for two when up by 27 and say he bows to no man—or if Jim would avoid comparisons and always say the right thing at the right time. What they do know is that while those differences seem to matter to the public, they don't mean much to the Harbaughs.
Once in a while, Jim Harbaugh asks his Stanford players to name the one thing you have to do to make an NFL team. The answers come quickly: You have to be talented. You have to work hard. Nope, Jim says. A lot of guys are talented and work hard and never make it. "The one thing you have to do to make an NFL team," he says, "is take another man's job away from him. And those men really like those jobs."
It is a ruthless world, and the Harbaughs love it that way: There is no faking success, none of what their mother called "mediocrity—let's not let anybody be better than anybody else." John, whose Ravens are 4--1 and leading the AFC North, keeps a plastic armadillo in his office because he thinks people need thick skin, and he often asks his players, "You got your baby-deerskin on today? Or do you have your armadillo skin?"
He tells unhappy players, "You can bitch all you want, as long as everybody can hear you. If you've got something you want to change, make a case. If it's best for the team, we'll do it."
Sometimes it feels as if Jim and John are running two branches of the same organization: the East and West Coast operations of Harbaugh Family Coaching Inc. When graduate assistant Matt Weiss finished working for Jim in Palo Alto, he transferred to Baltimore, where he works for John. When Jim needed a defensive coordinator, he plucked Vic Fangio off the Ravens' payroll.
Jim has a sign in his office that says, STANFORD FOOTBALL IS HUSTLE. CONSTANT HUSTLE. HUSTLING ALL THE TIME. John saw it and lit up. "I love that sign!" he said. Outside John's office now is a sign that reads, RAVENS FOOTBALL IS HUSTLE. CONSTANT HUSTLE. HUSTLING ALL THE TIME.
John watches as many Stanford games on TV as he can, and at one point last season when the Ravens were struggling, he told his staff, "We need to play like Stanford." When Jim has a chance, he flies to Baltimore, stands on the sideline and helps his brother. Last year Jim noticed that the Steelers were timing the Ravens' snap count and told John, who made an adjustment.
They don't compare each other's accomplishments. They're too busy hustling. Jim, eight years after asking the Raiders how to turn on a computer, is a regular Twitterer. John, more than 30 years after people started tagging him as the studious one, says, "I'm kind of a bulldog."
John watches all of Stanford's game film in the off-season and sends Jim player evaluations, defensive schemes and special teams schemes. Jim has sent John offensive ideas. "I'm sure he's helped us in more ways than I've helped him," says Jim, whose Cardinal team is 5--1 and ranked No. 14. "I'm quite sure of that. Gosh, he's a great football mind."
And then Jim Harbaugh, the greatest pure competitor that John Harbaugh has ever met, says, "I'm probably half the coach he is." He smiles. "But I'm trying."
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