OWINGS MILLS, Md. — In the past 30-plus years, John Harbaugh holds a 1-0 record against his brother, Jim, in all things competition.
The Harbaugh brothers were in their teens the last time the two went head-to-head. John made the premier baseball team in Ann Arbor, Mich., sponsored by Baskin-Robbins. Younger brother Jim was forced to create his own team after failing to make the squad.
Jim was at the forefront to create the Sheriff’s All-Stars, a team composed of those who didn’t make the Baskin-Robbins team. Their father, Jack, a longtime college football coach who won a Division I-AA championship with Western Kentucky, coached the Sheriff’s All-Stars. That meant he had to coach against his oldest son, John.
The Sheriff’s All-Stars lost 1-0 to John’s Baskin-Robbins team.
“That was a big game, an exciting game, heartbreaking for the Sheriff’s All-Stars, because we almost pulled off the upset,” Jim Harbaugh said. “That would’ve been right up there with ‘Rocky’ and the ‘Miracle on Ice.’ “
Based on John’s voice, he still holds bragging rights to this day.
“We won, that’s what I remember about it,” John Harbaugh said. “I think I had the game-winning home run, too, if I remember correctly. At least as far as everyone here knows, right?”
Jim, in his first season coaching the San Francisco 49ers, will meet John and his Baltimore Ravens on Thanksgiving evening to renew their brotherly rivalry. As children, they turned just about everything into a competition — throwing footballs through trees, or simulating a basketball game in their bedroom with a tennis ball and stretched-out coat hanger.
“How could I possibly have it any better?” Jim said. “I have a brother 15 months older that liked to do all the stuff I liked to do. He was always taking us to play ball or basketball, out in the yard to play catch. I had somebody to do the same stuff I liked to do. How could I possibly have it better?”
When the game kicks off, history will be made. It’s the first time in NFL history that brothers will oppose each other as head coaches. Each has taken a different path.
Jim’s success as an NFL player for 15 seasons helped him land a job coaching quarterbacks in Oakland once he hung up his cleats. He then took over at the University of San Diego from 2004 through 2007 before landing his first big-time gig as coach of Stanford. He turned the Cardinal from Pac-10 cellar-dweller to a national contender in four seasons, culminating in a 40-12 win over Virginia Tech in the 2011 Orange Bowl.
While rumors suggested Jim was a frontrunner for the job opening at the University of Michigan, his alma mater, he elected to take the 49ers job shortly after Stanford’s Orange Bowl victory.
John, on the other hand, never saw a snap in the NFL. He played defensive back at Miami (Ohio and went into coaching after college. He spent 14 years as an assistant coach in the college ranks, including stops at Western Michigan, Pittsburgh, Morehead State, Cincinnati and Indiana. His first NFL gig came coaching special teams with the Philadelphia Eagles, which he did for nine years beginning in 1998. He became Philadelphia’s defensive backs coach in 2007 before landing the Ravens head coaching job the following year.
Jim had a much easier road to becoming an NFL head coach and received more of the spotlight during his playing days. It could have been easy for John to become jealous, but that was never the case. John, who considers his brother and father his two best friends, was always by Jim’s side.
“If you can’t root for your brother, I don’t know who you could possibly root for in the world,” John said. “I was always just so proud of what he was doing. I probably felt like he was the most underrated quarterback that ever played. I felt like he never got enough credit.”
While the attention surrounding the Harbaugh Bowl — as it’s unofficially been dubbed — has focused on the coaches, the brothers have tried to deflect attention from themselves. Jim said John is only the other team’s coach for this week. John told the Ravens players that this game isn’t about their childhood rivalry.
“There’s no better team to go against than your brother,” Ravens cornerback Chris Carr said. “[John’s] highly competitive. Even though he may not talk about it, he wants to get this win more. We want to get the win for him. But for us, we are treating this like another game.”
49ers tight end Vernon Davis said he’s well-aware of the bragging rights and is hoping his team can give Jim a win.
“Our coach is a hard worker,” Davis said. “He’s very disciplined. He’s one of those coaches you love having on your side. I wouldn’t trade him for nothing in the world.”
Their parents, Jack and mother Jackie, plan to watch the game on a television in an office at M&T Bank Stadium. They will participate in pregame festivities before isolating themselves from the action. The elder Harbaughs don’t want to be captured on camera during their sons’ game.
“It’s a historic thing,” John said. “It’s very special. I couldn’t be more proud for our parents or for Jim. I just think it’s really neat. I’m really hopeful that if there’s a message out there that people can kind of connect with somehow some way, it’s basically some kind of a family message, some kind of thought that really anything is possible.”