Jack said Wednesday that he didn’t think his son was paid, but John wanted to be coach, and so there was value in those drives.
“Probably the most meaningful three years I had in coaching or my life,” John Harbaugh said this week, as he prepares to lead his Baltimore Ravens into Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers.
John’s opposing coach on Sunday is, of course, his brother, Jim Harbaugh, whose ascension to this stage has been swift. Jim, who is 15 months younger than John, was a longtime NFL quarterback who spent only two seasons as an assistant coach before getting his first head-coaching job, at the University of San Diego. Now in his second season with the 49ers, he’s one win from being a Super Bowl champion.
John took a longer, more traditional path, spending time at faraway outposts, moving often and developing a style that began with a few hard lessons.
“John did it the old fashioned way,” said Brian Billick, who was John Harbaugh’s predecessor in Baltimore.
It all started one night at dinner. John Harbaugh sat with his parents and told them he wanted to go into the family business. Jack Harbaugh, a longtime assistant at schools such as Iowa and Michigan, became Western Michigan’s head coach in 1982. Two years later, John said he wanted to be part of it.
Jack, a gregarious man, was delighted. John’s mother, Jackie, had a different reaction.
“I’m embellishing this story a trifle,” Jack said Wednesday as he told the story. “But Jackie went face-down in the mashed potatoes. ‘Coaching? You’ve got to reconsider this.’ ”
John had a political science degree and aspirations of attending law school. Now he wanted the unsettled, uncertain life of a coach? This was no fleeting desire, Jackie learned. Her son had made up his mind.
“I saw that look in his eyes,” she said. “My feeling was you have to do what you want to do. If you want to try this and see where it takes you, that would be great.”
So when it was official, Jack and John climbed into the car each morning and drove the 30 minutes to campus in Kalamazoo, Mich.. Jack said his son asked him about football, and others on that Western Michigan coaching staff remember a 21-year-old who wanted to absorb as much as could.
“He listened. He watched,” said Steve Szabo, who was Jack Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator. “He was really intent on becoming a very good football coach.”
They worked long hours, and John saw the unglamorous side of coaching, without hints of someday running his own team or coaching in America’s biggest game. In those days, Szabo said, film study had to be done the hard way; digital video was still years away. One of John’s jobs was to cut selections from 16-millimeter film and group them into watchable footage. Game breakdowns were done by hand, with a pen and paper.