John and Jim Harbaugh brought their family story to the cusp of an incredible climax Sunday when they coached their respective teams, the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers, to victories that set up a brother-against-brother showdown in Super Bowl XLVII. The 49ers defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 28-24, and the Ravens beat the New England Patriots, 28-13.
It’s a unique and improbable plotline, sure to dominate the two-week build to the game in New Orleans. John Harbaugh was already asked about it last week as he prepared his Ravens for the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. Had he and Jim thought about meeting in the biggest game on the planet?
“If we have, we’d never admit,” he said, grinning.
The brothers, separated by only 15 months in age, spent their childhood in football locker rooms, learning the game by watching their father, Jack, a longtime college coach. Jack Harbaugh was an assistant to the great Bo Schembechler at Michigan and went on to win a Division I-AA national title at Western Kentucky. He still watches his sons’ games from the sidelines and ranks as their greatest coaching influence.
The whole family is steeped in coaching, from the boys’ mother, Jackie, to their sister, Joani, who is married to Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean.
Though the Super Bowl never hurts for viewers, the Harbaughs have demonstrated the ability to draw record numbers for their brand of brotherly combat.
When their teams met on Thanksgiving night 2011 in the league’s first brother vs. brother coaching matchup, the NFL Network drew 10.7 million viewers, the largest audience in its history.
John’s Ravens mauled Jim’s 49ers 16-6 in that contest at M&T Bank Stadium. The brothers were also on the cusp of meeting in last year’s Super Bowl, but the Ravens and 49ers lost in their respective conference championship games.
Regardless, the Harbaughs have achieved a startling level of performance in their combined seven seasons as NFL head coaches. In a league known for parity, neither has suffered a losing season nor failed to make the playoffs. Both took over proud franchises that were in the dumps and turned them around rapidly.
They have remained tight throughout, talking by telephone multiple times a week and mailing game film to their father so he can offer pointers.
For all their closeness, however, the Harbaughs took different roads to NFL coaching success.
Jim, the younger brother, was always the brasher personality and better athlete. He played 15 seasons as an NFL quarterback, including one with the Ravens in 1998. And he served only two seasons as an NFL assistant before jumping to a head coaching job at the University of San Diego. His meteoric success there led him to Stanford, where he engineered another rapid turnaround that set him up for the 49ers job. After barely more than a decade in coaching, he is often talked about as one of the best in the profession.
John, by comparison, paid his dues for more than 20 years as an assistant at five colleges and with the Philadelphia Eagles. Though widely respected for his acumen as a special teams coach, he had begun to wonder if he would ever get a head coaching job when the Ravens called in 2008.
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