John didn't have his brother's success. A promising baseball player, he chose football, only to have his senior season in high school cut short by a knee injury. He played defensive back at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
When both brothers expressed interest in coaching, their father didn't discourage them. He and his wife, Jackie, were proud to hear it.
"My father was a railroad engineer for 35 years," Jack Harbaugh said. "His friends said he was one of the best that had ever been around. But I don't think he ever went to work with a smile on his face or came home with a smile on his face. I wanted a job where I could go there with a smile on my face and come home with a smile on my face, and that's what I got. That doesn't mean there weren't a lot of bumps and bruises."
Working their way up
John started his coaching career in 1984, at age 21, as a graduate assistant at Western Michigan, working for his father.
"We'd ride to work together. We'd ride home together, and we'd talk about football," Jack Harbaugh recalled. "That's as much fun as I ever had in coaching." The football discussions were allowed to continue at home, he said, because Jackie actually leads them. "There's never enough football for her," he said.
Jim Harbaugh got a jump-start on his coaching career while still an NFL player by scouting and recruiting for his father as an unpaid assistant coach. After retiring as a player, he spent two seasons as the quarterbacks coach of the Oakland Raiders. He became a head coach at the University of San Diego in 2004 and moved on to Stanford in 2007.
After leading the Cardinal to an Orange Bowl triumph this season and developing quarterback Andrew Luck into a top pro prospect, he became the hottest commodity on the coaching market this year. He remained in the Bay Area and signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the 49ers, who fired Mike Singletary late in their 6-10 season. The once-proud 49ers have missed the NFL playoffs in eight straight seasons.
Luck stayed at Stanford rather than entering the NFL draft and the school tried to keep its coach as well. Jim Harbaugh, who turned 47 in December, also had other NFL options. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross pursued him.
Throughout his deliberations, Harbaugh said, his advisers included his father and brother.
"I would never make a huge decision in my life without the input of my brother and my dad, with the love they have for me," he said.