John Harbaugh and Jim Harbaugh, a bond unbroken by competition

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 12:24 AM

The house in Ann Arbor, Mich., had a tiny front yard, with a strip of grass perhaps five feet wide, Jack Harbaugh remembers. The back yard was another matter entirely. It was expansive, and mowing the lawn on that side of the home was an assignment that required quite a bit more time and effort.

Harbaugh's sons John and Jim, separated in age by 15 months, took turns cutting the backyard grass. Or at least that was how it was supposed to work.

"One week one would cut the little front yard and the other would cut the big back yard, and then the next week they were supposed to switch," Jack Harbaugh said. "But it was amazing how many times they'd forget whose turn it was to cut the big back yard, and we'd have these heated discussions full of explaining and politicking."

All of that explaining and politicking served the young Harbaugh boys well. It's part of what both now do for a living. They followed their father into coaching football, and now they are believed to be the first set of brothers to be NFL head coaches. Jim was hired in early January as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and John just completed his third season with the Baltimore Ravens.

"We both thought the world of my dad," Jim Harbaugh said. "We went to practices. Friends of the family were coaches. There was a cycle to the year that revolved around football and family. We saw it all the time. We saw the good. We saw the bad."

The two are close, "brothers in every sense of the word," Jim Harbaugh said. Their bond was reinforced in recent years by frequent phone conversations. The question is whether that practice will continue uninterrupted now that their teams are scheduled to play one another next season.

"We'll still be brothers," said John Harbaugh, the Ravens coach and, at 48, the elder brother. "We'll still talk football. We'll probably be a little more careful with what you share. We won't be talking about injuries, I know that, before we play that week. But it's just a great thing. I couldn't be more proud, more excited. It's very cool. I know our parents feel great about it."

The business they've chosen

Jack Harbaugh played football in college at Bowling Green State University and was drafted by the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League in 1961, then spent more than four decades in coaching. He won a Division I-AA national championship in 2002 as head coach at Western Kentucky and was head coach at Western Michigan. There also were college assistant-coaching stops at Pittsburgh, Michigan, Iowa, Stanford, Bowling Green State and Morehead State. It was a nomadic existence for his family.

"When I look back now, I don't see it as a negative," Jack Harbaugh said during a recent telephone conversation. "They made friends all over the country. They had the ability to adapt."

They also learned to rely on each other. Whenever they went to a new place, they had each other as friends and teammates. "We shared the same room for 16 years, best friends," Jim Harbaugh said. "John was my role model and someone I wanted to emulate." The two have a younger sister, Joani, who is married to Indiana University men's basketball Coach Tom Crean.

The family's longest stretch in one place was a seven-year stint in Ann Arbor. Jack was the defensive backs coach for legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler between 1973 and '79. Schembechler would allow the Harbaugh boys to hang around the team.

Jim was, by far, the more accomplished athlete. He was an all-American quarterback playing for Schembechler at Michigan and a first-round draft choice of the Chicago Bears in 1987. He played 15 NFL seasons for the Bears, Indianapolis Colts, Ravens, San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers, throwing for 129 touchdowns and more than 26,000 yards.

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.

John Harbaugh had to coach for 24 years before earning his first head coaching opportunity with the Ravens in 2008. He'd been a highly successful special teams coach for the Philadelphia Eagles between 1998 and 2006 before spending one season as the Eagles' secondary coach. Even so, he'd never been an NFL offensive or defensive coordinator when the Ravens hired him. The move came only after Jason Garrett, then the offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, withdrew from consideration.

"Here's Jim, who had his college career and went on to the NFL, and he got a head coaching job before John did when John had done all the grunt work," Jack Harbaugh said. "But never once did I hear John utter, 'Why not me?' He's always been so supportive of Jim. And Jim is the same way. I've heard him say he hopes he one day possesses the coaching skills that John has."

The Ravens have made the playoffs in each of John Harbaugh's three seasons as their coach, reaching an AFC semifinal this season before squandering a two-touchdown halftime lead to lose at Pittsburgh. The Steelers have advanced to next weekend's Super Bowl in Arlington, Tex.

"Obviously he's meshed pretty well," Ravens tight end Todd Heap said recently at the club's training complex. "Just look at our success the last three years. It's fun to be part of a team that's going to the playoffs and winning. That's kind of what you play the game for. We've had a great time, and he's been a big part of it."

The 49ers and Ravens are scheduled to play each other next season in Baltimore, the coaching equivalent of the Manning brothers quarterbacking against one another in an NFL game. The date is not set.

"It will be competitive," Jim Harbaugh said. "The NFL is a 10 out of 10 on the competitive scale. . . . There is a professional component to the job that has to be adhered to. There won't be anything shared between us that breaks the confidentiality of both of our organizations. But I don't see that as changing our relationship."

Not all the interested parties will be on hand. The coaches' parents feel, at least at this point, that the event will be too much for them to handle in person.

"Jackie and I have already discussed it," Jack Harbaugh said. "We will not be within two time zones of Baltimore that day."

Perhaps the loser should have to travel to Ann Arbor, find the old family house and mow the grass in the back yard.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company