Father, sons and football: Thanksgiving for Harbaugh family at M&T Bank Stadium

Ravens coach John Harbaugh, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, will use lessons imparted by their father, Jack Harbaugh, on Thursday night

November 23, 2011|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

Every Tuesday morning during football season, a few minutes before the clock in his living room hits 10 a.m., Jack Harbaugh will step out his front door and soak up the cool air as he stands on his porch in Mequon, Wisc. Try as he might, he cannot resist fidgeting. Every few minutes, he'll glance up the street, eager to spot the FedEx truck the moment it materializes.

Harbaugh turned 72 this year. He worked more than 40 years as a football coach, a job he treated more like a calling than a profession, but he has spent the past few autumns trying to relax and enjoy his retirement. The game, though, is in his blood. Certain rituals feel as important as going to mass. So when he spots the white FedEx truck in the distance, he cannot resist a smile. The best part of his week is about to begin.

He and the driver, Tim, have been on a first-name basis for several years, and by now the driver knows exactly what Harbaugh is looking for.

Barring a delivery delay, Tim will hand Harbaugh two packages.

One will contain the coach's film from the Baltimore Ravens' most recent game.

The other contains the coach's film from the San Francisco 49ers' most recent game.

Jack Harbaugh can hardly wait to descend into his basement, and click on his television — the same one he's had since 1987 (he has no plans of getting a new one.) He'll spend the next few hours blissfully taking notes.

His two sons, John and Jim — who will make NFL history on Thursday when they become the first brothers to face one another as head coaches — are always curious to hear what he thinks. Jack Harbaugh will never volunteer his thoughts unless his boys ask him first, but they almost never forget to ask. It's become an important part of their week as well. Because even at 72, he'll see something they might have missed, or propose something they may not have considered.

It might be small, but both Harbaugh boys know that no detail is truly minor in the eyes of a good football coach. That philosophy is one of the reasons they've thrived at the highest level of coaching.

"Jim and I say it all the time, but he's the best coach we've ever been around," John Harbaugh said. "Now, we're biased maybe, but I've seen the guy coach. ... I've been around a lot of coaches over the years. There's never been a better coach. I've never been around a better coach, a better teacher, than Jack Harbaugh. I can tell you that."

For all they've accomplished, and for all the wisdom they've acquired over the years, the one football mind 49-year-old John Harbaugh and 47-year-old Jim Harbaugh cherish the most still belongs to their dad.

Like father, like sons

If you really want to understand how two Ohio boys with granite chins who once shared a bedroom grew up to become two of the NFL's best head coaches, all you have to do take a closer look at the man they most admire.

"The one thing that strikes me about my dad, even to this day, he's a man without guile," John Harbaugh said. "He's as honest and straightforward a person as I've ever met in my entire life. If there's one thing that Jim and I have both taken from that, and there's one thing that I'd like to be on my gravestone, it would be that. You know where he's coming from."

If you think this Thanksgiving clash between the Ravens and 49ers will be emotionally difficult to handle for John and Jim, imagine then what it will be like for Jack, as well as his wife Jackie.

"My original thought, when the schedule first came out, was I wanted get as many time zones away from the game as I could without disappearing into the ocean," Jack Harbaugh said.

That wouldn't fly, however, with his sons. So after some playful negotiations, a compromise was reached. There will be a brief gathering on the field before the game, a picture taken to hang on the mantle or tuck in a scrapbook, and then Jack and Jackie Harbaugh will quietly slip away from the field and into a private room at M&T Bank Stadium to watch the game.

"I think if we were sitting in the stands and something happened, you react in a certain way and it becomes a distraction," Jack Harbaugh said. "It would take away from the game. It's going to be better if we can get somewhere and watch the game and not have to worry about being a distraction."

"He knows if cameras caught him cheering, he'd be getting a call the next day from one of us saying 'I always knew you loved him more!'" John Harbaugh said.

But the Harbaughs don't have to be in the stadium for their presence to be felt. So much of what the Ravens and the 49ers do today mirrors what Jack Harbaugh did when he was coaching college football, whether it was in Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, California or Kentucky. John and Jim both like to say they get their passion and their intensity from their mother, but their sense of purpose and unwavering focus can be traced back to Jack.

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