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Historic Clash is Bittersweet for Harbaugh Family
When his sons make NFL history on Thanksgiving, head coaching from opposite sidelines at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Jack Harbaugh doesn't want to be there.
Sure, he and his wife Jackie will be on hand for the pregame warm-ups, before their sons John and Jim lead the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers, respectively, on a Thursday night game televised on the NFL Network. But the parents will bolt the stadium before kickoff to a destination yet to determined - in part because of the conflicted emotions, in part because they don't want to be a distraction.
" 'Who you rooting for?' That's not only a tough question, but an impossible one to answer," Harbaugh said. "Our hope is, both football teams are well-coached, well-disciplined, and well-prepared, and the two teams will decide it in a three-hour game Thursday night."
Spoken like a lifelong coach. However, his tenor changes as he expounded on the uniqueness of the conversation that has many wondering if the Harbaughs - coaches of two division-leading teams - are the first family of the NFL.
"This is their profession, what they do," Jack said. "We're glad they're happy, but we take a great deal more satisfaction when we hear stories of what they do behind the scenes that reflect that they’re good people.
"Those, for us, are the crowning moments."
Ultimate coaching tree
The first and only other instance in which the Harbaugh brothers competed in a similar setting occurred in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the family lived for seven years. John was on the Baskin-Robbins team, the premier American Legion baseball team in the area, featuring starters from the local high schools. Jim didn't make that squad, so he - with the help of Jack - formed a team called the Sheriff's All-Stars.
The two teams met in the championship game, but John's team prevailed 1-0.
"It was heartbreaking for the Sheriff's All-Stars," said Jim, who is in his first year with the 49ers. "That would have been right up there with Rocky and Miracle on Ice."
The brothers Harbaugh were regulars at Michigan's football facilities, running around and playing catch on the fields.
"We were always around football," said John, who is 15 months older than Jim. "We were always on the field, in the locker room."
While he was head coach at Western Michigan and Western Kentucky, Jack didn't discourage the presence of his assistants' children. It's a philosophy that both his sons have embraced.
"Our coaches' kids are here all the time," John said, noting that one of his players had a daughter in attendance that didn't have a babysitter for a day.
"She was running around," said the fourth-year Ravens coach. "Let it be family friendly."
Jim was a football star, starting three seasons at Michigan before the Chicago Bears selected him with the 26th overall pick in the 1987 NFL draft. That he's now a football coach doesn't surprise Jack. But that John is sort of does.
Although he played at Miami (Ohio), John majored in political science, and Jack and Jackie figured he would attend law school.
But he expressed a desire to coach, and he joined Jack's staff at Western Michigan as a graduate assistant while earning a master's degree.
"He lived at our house, rode in car, ate our food, but we tried to give him as much of a coaching experience as we could," recalled Jack, who spent 39 years coaching in college.
[ Related: Best-ever lineup of NFL Thanksgiving games ]
For the next dozen seasons, John worked at four different universities, mostly coaching special teams, before joining the Philadelphia Eagles in 1998.
Both Jim and John embrace the teachings of their father and apply them every day as head coaches, including Jack's mantra.
"Who's got it better than us?" the coach screams.
"Noooo-body!" the players yell back.
"All of it comes from him," John said. "I think a philosophy was imbued in us, early on. An approach, and a way of looking at things."
Jack's coaching tree now extends beyond his sons. His daughter, Joani, married Indiana head basketball coach Tom Crean, whom she met while at Western Kentucky.
"He's a son to us," Jack said. "And we have a tremendous relationship. I don't know much about basketball. I'm trying to figure out that game."
Bond of brothers
The brothers Harbaugh loved a challenge, often inventing games to foster their competitive natures. They drew up their own "uniforms" on old sleeveless t-shirts, and they'd play basketball with a tennis ball and a coat-hanger rim, or just throw balls at a certain spot on trees.
"It was whatever we could think of," John recalled.
While he's 1-0 against his brother, John wasn't as talented an athlete as Jim, although that never bothered him. John always provided coaches glowing scouting reports of his brother.
"That was easy. If you can't root for your brother, I don't know who you could root for in the world," John said. "I felt he was the most underrated quarterback in the world. I felt like he never got enough credit."
Jim said he always admired his brother, bouncing topics off of him as early as four or five years old.
"Sharing ideas, and sharing goals, and sharing dreams," Jim said. "John has always knocked down hurdles for me.
"Other kids and teachers loved him. I mean, who wouldn't love John? That paved the way for me, in a lot of regard."
Jack said he didn't recall any "knock out, drag out" tussles between his sons. But John said there were a few, much to the chagrin of their mother.
"I can remember my mom yelling, screaming, wailing and crying: 'You're brothers. You're not supposed to act like this. You're supposed to get along better,' " John recalls.
The boys, though, did always have one common interest: the welfare of their little sister Joani. Jack didn't have to play the role of overprotective dad, because Joani had two watchful big brothers.
"They were inquisitive of where she was going, and when she was going to be home," Jack said. "And they handled it behind the scenes. Word on the street was that you don't fool with Joani, or you're going to deal with her two older brothers."
Jim said he and John never envisioned the possibility of Thursday, when they'll coach against one another in the NFL. But, like his father, he added this historic day is a feat is a shared one for the Harbaugh clan.
"I couldn't feel any luckier to have the family that we do," said Jim, whose 9-1 Niners have already exceeded last year's win total of six. "Who could possibly have it better than I had? That's how I feel about it."
Yet this week is a sample of how coaching has permeated into every aspect of their lives, both positively and negatively. The brothers won't have time to celebrate Thanksgiving together, likely limiting their interaction to brief pre- and postgame gatherings. Then Jim and his team will immediately hop on buses, head to the airport and fly back to California.
"There's just not a lot of time to even think about the warm and fuzzy reunions, or the nostalgia of it all," Jim said. "There's just work to be done."
But Friday, Jack and Jackie Harbaugh will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.
"It gets lost in the excitement in our week," Jack said. "Like everything else, it revolves around football."
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