In the old days, John Harbaugh hitched rides to work with his father, and as they rode, the young coach listened.
Jack Harbaugh was the coach at Western Michigan University, and in 1984, he hired his elder son as a graduate assistant. John lived with his parents after graduating from Miami of Ohio, and while he pondered his future, he took the lowest position on a college football coaching staff.
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.
Jack Harbaugh did not give his son any special breaks: “Just because you’re my son doesn’t mean you’re going to do less. You’re going to do a little more,” said Mike Hankwitz, the team’s defensive coordinator, who now has the same job at Northwestern University.
John tried to emulate his father, which sometimes was a poor fit. Jack is a fiery man, and in his two seasons in San Francisco, Jim has shown a similar attitude. John was more reserved, Szabo said, and more thoughtful.
So when three consecutive penalties were called against Western Michigan, John remembered this week, he did what his father might have done, tearing off his headset and throwing it down the sideline. Only Jack didn’t like this, and he made John retrieve the headset, a walk of shame made worse by the fact that he had to pass the opposing student section.
“It was a pretty good lesson early on,” John recalled.
Throughout that season and in the following years, John Harbaugh honed his coaching philosophy, fitting it to his personality. Jack moved him to defense in 1985, a plan designed to help his son understand the game from all angles.
John spent three seasons on his father’s staff before he took a job at Pittsburgh. He developed a knack for coaching special teams and made such an impact as the Philadelphia Eagles’ special teams coordinator that Baltimore hired him as head coach in 2008, despite John never having coordinated an offense or defense.
Some of the men from the Western Michigan staff have gone on to become coordinators and head coaches at major conference schools. Before John Harbaugh became the Ravens coach, Szabo wondered whether the curious youngster might have done something different with his life, putting that intelligence to work in a more traditional occupation.
“I always thought John might’ve been a guy who walked away from football and did something else, because he was bright and articulate,” Szabo said. “Maybe, in some ways, I’m mildly surprised. Now, one thing I’m not mildly surprised about is that he’s successful.”
This week, as John sat at Super Bowl media day, he was asked about those modest first seasons as a coach. His brother would become a first-round draft pick, a starting quarterback in the NFL and a man whose career seems charmed.
John, though, said he wouldn’t change anything.
“I think the best way to start out as a coach is to start at the bottom,” he said. “Learn how to do every single thing from the bottom up.”
That was his father’s plan in exchange for a free ride on a college coaching staff. It wouldn’t be easy, and no promises were made. And when the days ended, no matter how it went or what was accomplished, Jack and John returned to the car for the trip home.