SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jack Harbaugh has watched his sons go at it for nearly five decades.
From pounding football games on their bedroom floor to timed races up the stairs from the basement and many, many bumps and bruises in between.
That’s why he sees no need to be there in person for Thursday’s matchup — an NFL first — between brothers John and Jim Harbaugh when the coaches face off from opposite sidelines with their division-leading teams.
Jack and Jackie Harbaugh plan to swing by the stadium for a quick visit and photo with their sons, then go to John’s house to watch the game on TV — in private.
All they want to do is allow the stage to be John and Jim’s, Jack said.
The love of competition was bred into the brothers. Sons of a football coach, living room couches were rearranged so they could dive over the coffee table and use cushions for tackling practice. Coat hangers were bent to become basketball hoops and yarn transformed into homemade nets. There were hand-written scorecards and scoreboards. The brothers devised their own games and, creatively, became announcers to introduce each other before they started.
“Starting at forward for Michigan, standing 4-feet-5, wearing No. 23, Jim Harbaugh!” Jack said, recalling one of those announcements.
Come Thursday night at sold-out M&T Bank Stadium, there’s no make believe about it.
Jim’s resurgent 49ers are 9-1 and could clinch the NFC West with a win coupled with a loss for the Seahawks. John’s Ravens are 7-3 and leading the AFC North.
“We know it’s going to be emotional, we’re just not sure what emotions we’re going to experience,” Jack said. “It’s such uncharted waters. We’ve experienced it in this business being married for 50 years and coaching 43 years myself. And football and basketball and all the other things we’ve had in our family. This is such uncharted waters to see two in our family competing at this level on this stage. We’ve just never experienced anything like it. It’s not one of those things you go into and you have anything that you can possibly measure it with or against.”
This week, Jack’s longtime catch phrase of “Who’s got it better than us? Nobody!” seems as fitting as ever for this family.
The slogan has been a huge hit out West, where 49ers players have made their own T-shirts featuring those words.
“I’m sorry that he got to it first,” said the 49-year-old John Harbaugh. “I should have thought of that before him. We should have made some T-shirts, too. I think it’s really cool.”
Aside from the game, there’s another special moment the family will celebrate: Jack and Jackie’s 50th wedding anniversary on Friday. Everything has come together in one special, whirlwind week for this sports-crazed family.
Jack and Jackie Harbaugh don’t remember a single serious fight between their sons. Sure, there were arguments, like the common debate over chores — such as who had to mow the more challenging, sloping side of the lawn. If somebody had a beef with the boys, they would always team up. Each time the family moved as their father changed jobs, they left friends behind but always had each other.
And don’t forget their tag-along sister, Joani.
Five years younger than Jim, she would run around in the middle as the boys threw a football during backyard battles of the keep-away game, pickle.
Joani Crean — married to Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean — will cheer them both from afar, thrilled that each earned a much-deserved path to the NFL on his own despite being the son of a successful coach.
“There are so many eyes watching this game, it’s going to be nice just to get it over with, too. Move forward,” said Crean, who planned to attend but is sorry she won’t be able to make it because of multiple family commitments at home in Bloomington, Ind. “This is one of those moments when, whether they’re a Ravens fan or a 49ers fan or a John or a Jim Harbaugh fan, they will watch this game just for the pure joy of the moment that it will be.”
Crean’s 12-year-old son, Riley — a middle child with a sister on each side — admires both of his uncles.
“Riley just thinks both of his uncles and his grandfather and his father hung the moon, all four of them,” Crean said. “He absolutely is into what his uncles are doing, and you never hear a negative story. That’s a testimony to both of them.”
Jackie Harbaugh taught her children to be themselves and take accountability for their successes and failures, to go after what they wanted. She also let them experience things on their own.
Her mantra: “Don’t do for your kids what they can do for themselves.”
“We are excited for both of them to be at this point in their careers,” Jackie Harbaugh said. “I think they’re both very excited and appreciative of where they are at this point in their life. I think when it is all said and done that day, it’s going to come down to the teams on the field, and that’s what we’re both hoping for. For me, once the practices are done and the preparations are done by both coaching staffs, it will come down to the players on the field. Besides that, which is apropos for us, it’s Thanksgiving. John and Jim, Joani, Jack and I, we all have a lot to be thankful for in our lives. … And the fact that we’re going to celebrate our 50th anniversary the next day.”
The parents — and Joani, too — are proud that both men reached this point on their own, without relying on a recommendation or push from Dad. If anything, John campaigned for Jim. “Knocking down hurdles,” as Jim, 47, puts it.
“No question about that,” Jack said. “Jackie and I were just talking today and we were trying to recollect back and I can’t recall at any time that I called anyone and suggested that in the case of them being athletes that they recruit John, Jim or Joani. I never can recall calling anyone on the phone and saying you need to hire John or Jim as a football coach. We never participated in that process. Everything they’ve achieved, it’s been on their merit. And once they got those particular jobs they were judged on their merits and strictly ran on their effort.”
Jim is quick to point out that he doesn’t much care if he has any friends in the league aside from those he works with every day, and his brother. His quick handshake and backslap with Jim Schwartz enraged the Lions coach after San Francisco’s win at previously unbeaten Detroit last month. No big deal to Harbaugh, who did acknowledge he would work to improve his postgame etiquette.
“They are who they are. They express themselves in a way that reflects that,” Jack Harbaugh said. “And I’m proud of that. I think you find so many different people that try to emulate others — they try to walk or talk or express themselves in ways they think they should be perceived. The thing I’m most proud of of our kids is that when they express themselves it’s sincere, genuine and it’s them.”
As the game nears, Crean has a hard time envisioning how meaningful the day will be for her family.
“I can’t. It is kind of hard as you do get a little closer to it: ‘Gosh, my goodness, all this stuff kind of came together, why? Isn’t that coincidence?” she said. “I just think everything coinciding together is kind of a sign that we’re all doing what we’re supposed to be doing. This is what’s meant to be.”