NEW ORLEANS – To say the Fabulous Harbaugh Brothers handle slights in different ways is like doing a compare and contrast between Pink Floyd and James Brown.
As Jim leads the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday against John's Baltimore Ravens, it's worth noting that when it comes to finding fuel in an insult, Jim has his brother beat by a mile.
The opening of the 1997 season may have come on Aug. 31, but Jim Harbaugh was beginning the September of his career. Still, there was a fair bit of angst left in his soul.
It was a typically brutal South Florida summer day and Jim couldn't finish the Colts' opener against the Dolphins. By the fourth quarter, no amount of IVs could keep his body from painfully cramping up. Jim, who only the season before had led Indianapolis on an improbable run to the playoffs, had to pull himself from the game.
Captain Comeback couldn't do the job.
In my story for the Miami Herald the next day, the lead graph made reference to Jim essentially saying "No mas" by his actions, a snarky reference to Roberto Duran begging out against Sugar Ray Leonard in a championship fight.
More than 3 ½ months later, on Dec. 14, 1997, the Dolphins traveled to Indianapolis for the rematch (the teams were in the same division back then). The Dolphins were on the way to the playoffs and the Colts were playing out the string of a 3-13 season.
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No matter. Jim played the best statistical game of his career. He completed 20 of 26 passes for 255 yards and set a career high with four touchdown passes on the way to a 146.6 rating. After the game, Jim asked if I was there. Sadly, I wasn't, having been called away for a family emergency that week.
Jim had a message he wanted delivered to me.
"Tell him, that was mas," Jim said.
A MORE ERUDITE APPROACH
Conversely, there's Jim's more cerebral brother. In December, John made the bold move to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Although the two men are close, Cameron had worn out his welcome by grating on quarterback Joe Flacco and quarterback coach Jim Caldwell. Only two years before, Cameron had forced out quarterback coach Jim Zorn, blaming it on "communication" issues.
Eventually, John and the Ravens figured out that the common denominator in the equation was Cameron.
However, at that moment, the move looked almost reckless. Here was a 9-4 team that was in first place jettisoning a crucial member of the coaching staff as the playoffs approached.
That Wednesday after the move, I was at John's press conference as reporters danced around the subject. Never one to shy away from a question, I asked simply: "John, isn't firing your offensive coordinator with three weeks left in the season sort of like dancing on the edge of chaos?"
John was slightly miffed by the question and responded, "Chaos? That's ridiculous." He then walked away before circling back to me.
"What kind of question was that?" asked John, who is never one to back away from a confrontation like his brother. Unlike Jim, however, John doesn't quite sell it. His face is in an almost perpetual grin, as if there is no one in the world who has a better life than him.
"Well, John, some people would say that move is a little out there. But I appreciate your response," I said.
Seemingly satisfied he had been heard, John walked away.
Nearly two weeks ago, in the Baltimore locker room after its AFC championship game victory at New England, John was smiling broadly, taking pictures with all sorts of people and answering questions at length. Even as he stood there nearly an hour after the game, his sweatshirt splotched with water and sweat, he couldn't have been happier and not a negative word came from his mouth.
As I walked away from him, I looked back and said, "So much for chaos, John."
John gave me a quizzical look and asked, "Chaos?"
"Don't you remember, 'Edge of chaos?' " I asked.
"Oh yeah," John said as he let out a laugh and smiled.
Not exactly the reaction of a man driven by negativity.
DRIVEN TO LISTEN
Jim's football career was fueled by negativity. Before he became the starter at Michigan, many observers thought he was getting the job merely because of his father Jack's strong ties to coach Bo Schembechler. Like so many athletes who live to prove others wrong, he turned the negative into a positive and had a solid college career that eventually led to him becoming a late first-round pick by the Bears.
He carved out a solid-but-unspectacular 15-year career in the NFL. He was never a great passer or an overwhelming runner. He was just enough of both to make it work out as he bounced through several organizations, including the 2001 campaign in which he never played.
When he turned to coaching, he used an approach built on being fueled by negativity. At Stanford, he used to tell his players that they had to find a way to, "Make it suck" every day in practice.
"If you make it suck, then the game is easy," former Stanford and current Steelers guard David DeCastro said, mimicking his former coach. "It was an interesting way to look at it."
In contrast, John is a listener, a man who reads the situation and adjusts as necessary. Over his five years with the Ravens, he has learned to back away from overt leadership, allowing men like Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed to take that role.
Earlier this season, John faced a difficult situation with his players, calling for them to practice in pads one day. The veterans rebelled and John had to think fast. The result was that John earned more trust from his players in the process.
"John wants to hear from the players, he wants to know what they think," Ravens center Matt Birk said. "He puts it on the players and when you have a veteran team like that, you know you can trust them and expect results."
With the 49ers, Jim looks for every morsel of angst to drive him. After the NFC championship game at Atlanta, he told reporters, "We rose up." It was an obvious reference to the Falcons' "Rise Up" motto that has played over the scoreboard to get fans going at critical parts of the game.
Last offseason, when Jim was trying to show support for quarterback Alex Smith, he found unique ways to deny that the team was interested in Peyton Manning, although the 49ers had obviously pursued him. After a blogger criticized first-round pick A.J. Jenkins in training camp, Jim came into the press room to defend the player, painting an us-against-them portrait for his team.
When asked this week if he used slights and insults now the same way he used them as a player, John paused slightly and gave a classic response.
"Possibly," Jim said as he stared at the reporter who asked the question.
Throughout this week, Jim has become progressively annoyed with the perception that his brother John is a better interview than him. Jim started to become increasingly open as the week wore on. At the same time, Jim has also become less and less comfortable with any concept of fraternizing with John. By Friday, as the brothers stood on stage with the Lombardi Trophy in a final promo shot for the game, John was smiling broadly.
Jim looked as if he'd stared at Medusa.
While there are common traits between the men, from their intensely competitive approaches (both men are known to blow up at staff members when necessary) to the way they talk (they each can elaborate in almost Shakespearean prose when the mood hits them), there is still a gap between them in one critical way:
Jim is listening for an edge. John is listening to take the edge off.
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