When Jack Harbaugh’s boys were young, they’d be on their way home from a junior football practice and their father would turn and ask them a simple question.
“Men,” Jack would begin, “Who’s got it better than us?”
Immediately, John and Jim Harbaugh would join their father in unison.
These days, it seems Jack Harbaugh's motto applies perfectly. The Harbaugh brothers, only 15 months apart in age, have become as much of a storyline for the 49ers-Ravens Super Bowl showdown Feb. 3 in New Orleans as their two teams.
John, the coach of the Ravens, and Jim, the 49ers coach and former Bears quarterback, have already grown weary of discussing it. Every second spent talking about themselves and their sibling rivalry, they insist, takes attention away from the teams they coach. And as older sibling John put it this week in downplaying the brother versus brother head-to-head meeting, “It’s not exactly like Churchill and Roosevelt or anything.”
Then, there’s Jack.
During his own coaching career, Jack moved his family 16 times. His three children – the two future coaches and the future coach’s wife (daughter Joani is married to Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean) – digested the game. Jim and John watched football practice at the University of Michigan, where Jack was an assistant under Bo Schembechler. They’d stack tackling dummies and play catch on the sidelines. Joani used to splice film for her dad, learning the family business at any early age.
But Jack never pushed his sons to follow his path. He did, however, insist that whatever they did, they did it with everything they had. When he’d drive the boys to school when he was an assistant coach at Iowa, he’d leave them with instructions.
“Men,” Jack would say,” attack the day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”
“In this world, you can choose to be positive, or you can choose to be negative. You can choose to see things through a set of eyes that sees good, or you can choose to see things in life that aren’t so good,” Jack told me for a profile I wrote on the Harbaughs in 2011. “At least every day they were reminded to look at it through a positive set of eyes. Let the lens of your eyes be positive.”
His sons have carried Jack’s message to the pinnacle of their profession, guaranteeing that the Harbaugh name will be permanently affixed to a Lombardi Trophy.
With their sons in the middle of all the hype, Jack and his wife of 51 years, Jackie, will stay out of the way. The two brothers will communicate only through text message, and Jack, who still has game film from his two boys delivered to his Wisconsin home each week, will relish the journey to the top for his two sons.
He’ll never intrude into their business but will answer when they call, living by another mantra he picked up from former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes: Never do for your players what they can do for themselves.
Like she does before every game, Jackie Harbaugh will call both of her sons the night before the game and wish them luck. As much as she has seen them compete head-to-head, she hates to watch it at this level, wishing – as she told me in 2011 – that the game could somehow end in a tie.
But no matter who wins or loses, make no mistake. These are two proud parents of two proud football coaches with a relationship built around love and respect. But like they did on Thanksgiving Night in 2011, John and Jim will look across the field and see that guy they grew up with. And then for the next three hours, they’ll try desperately to do whatever it takes for their team to win the game.
And sometime before kickoff in New Orleans, all of the Harbaughs – Jack, Jackie, John, Jim and Joani – will likely take a moment, look around, and repeat the same thing to themselves.
“Who’s got it better than us?” NOOOOOO-BODY."
• Jeff Arnold is a sportswriter for The Northwest Herald. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @NWH_JeffArnold.