One son, Jim Harbaugh, just coached the University of Michigan to a national championship and was hired as new coach of the Chargers.
The other, John Harbaugh, is leading the Baltimore Ravens into another AFC championship game.
Life couldn’t be much better for parents Jack and Jackie Harbaugh, who are so much more at ease now than they were 11 years ago when John’s Ravens beat Jim’s San Francisco 49ers on the NFL’s biggest stage.
“That Super Bowl, once the ball was kicked off and was rolling down the field, Jackie and I looked at each other and it all took on an entirely different meeting,” said Jack, 84, a longtime college assistant coach.
“We knew that one of them would be crowned the champion, and the other locker room … as a former coach I know what that’s like. I’ve been in far too many of them in my career.
“But this is entirely different, each of them separately on their path. What’s transpiring now is tremendous support from the entire family for both of them.”
Jack and Jackie, married for nearly 63 years, have been staying in Baltimore with John, their eldest child, so they could attend last week’s AFC divisional playoff game against the Houston Texans and Sunday’s conference title game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Their middle child, Jim, has been zig-zagging the country for NFL coaching interviews. His odyssey ended Wednesday when the Chargers hired him as their new coach. He was on the sideline with friend Peyton Manning before the Ravens’ game against the Texans.
Joani, the youngest of the Harbaugh siblings, lives in Florida with her husband, college basketball coach Tom Crean, and is an ardent supporter of her brothers. Whether it’s Jim or John, there’s no criticizing coach Harbaugh around Joani.
“No question about it,” Jack said. “Joani’s got her mom’s temper when it comes to that. You don’t say anything about Jackie’s kids.”
These days, it’s primarily high praise of the Harbaugh boys, as John is two wins away from his second Lombardi Trophy and Jim prepares to re-enter the league he left after he and the 49ers parted ways following the 2014 season.
This year’s Rose Bowl was particularly meaningful to the Harbaughs, who went to that game three years in a row — 1977, ’78 and ’79 — when Jack was a Michigan assistant under Bo Schembechler. The Wolverines lost all three of those, then lost again in 1987 when Jim was Michigan’s quarterback.
“I remember Bo Schembechler saying once about bowl games that they’re like the cherry on top of an ice-cream sundae,” Jackie said. “Because you work so hard to get there and that’s a culmination of all the hard work that you did. So I think that even though I wanted my team to win, when we didn’t I thought, `Well, look what it took to get here. We should be happy about that.’ ”
Still, in light of their history, there was trepidation for the couple when they arrived at the Pasadena stadium this year for Michigan’s game against Alabama.
“Walking into that stadium, we didn’t have very good memories,” Jack said. “But then the way the game ended [with a 27-20 victory for the Wolverines], and the fact that Michigan won, kind of wiped that all away for us.”
Parents notice the little connections. In the national championship game, Michigan beat Washington, 34-13. The Ravens matched that winning point total last week with a 34-10 victory over the Texans.
“What does that portend, I’d like to know,” Jackie said.
“What it tells me is to buy a lottery ticket,” Jack said. “Find a ticket that’s got a 34 on it.”
It was Chiefs coach Andy Reid who gave John Harbaugh two early breaks in NFL coaching. First, after he took over as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999, he retained the young assistant who had spent a season on the previous staff. Harbaugh was the special-teams coordinator at the time.
Harbaugh wanted to be a head coach, but it was highly unusual for a special-teams coach to make that kind of leap. So in 2007, Harbaugh’s final season with the Eagles, Reid gave him the opportunity to bolster his resumé by assigning him the defensive backs under legendary defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.
“John does a phenomenal job. He knows the whole game,” Reid told reporters this week. “He was a great special-teams coach, a great secondary coach and he’s been a great head coach. Very proud of him and all he’s done and accomplished.”
John is 15 months older than Jim, and though they battled like typical siblings, they were fiercely supportive of each other too.
Jack vividly remembers when John was in 11th grade at Pioneer High in Ann Arbor and a talented cornerback. Jim was a ninth grader, too young to play on varsity, watching from the stands.
“I can remember the play like it was yesterday,” Jack said. “They threw an out-route against John, and he jumped all over it. He knocked the ball loose, knocked the receiver down. Great play and the crowd was excited.”
No one was more excited than his brother, who sensed an out-and-up route was coming, one he feared might fool John.
“Jim said, `Dad, the out-and-up, the out-and-up,’ ” Jack said. “I said, `Well, go down and tell him.’ So Jim sprinted down the stands and got to the fence separating the stands from the field and said, `John! Out-and-up! Out-and-up!’ ”
Big brother was one step ahead.
“Sure enough, they ran the out-and-up,” Jack said. “John was all over it. Covered it like a glove. Jim walked back up the stands and had this big smile on his face. He was supporting his brother.
“They talked about it afterwards, and of course John said, `Jim, I was all over it. I knew exactly what they were going to do.’ ”
Jackie’s favorite memory from those years is more succinct. It came the following season, when Jim was a sophomore starting at quarterback and John was a senior receiver.
“During the game there was a call,” she said, “and the announcer said, `Harbaugh to Harbaugh!’ I thought, `Oh my gosh, it doesn’t get any better than that.’ ”
Jack calls the memories of those years “magical.”
“That was the Super Bowl for us at the time,” he said. “What I try to share with others is, you as parents are sharing that with your children now. Enjoy it. Don’t be caught up in looking at the next step or the next five or 10 years. Enjoy the moment you’re in and enjoy that experience with your children.
“You see so many times parents — and we’ve got grandchildren now going through Pop Warner, Little League and travel teams — and I believe many of them are looking, `Will this mean he or she will have a chance to play college basketball? Does this mean there might be a pro career?’ Just enjoy the moment, and the next moment and the next one.
“Whether they go to the NFL or play high school football, or it all ends at the junior high school, those moments are the ones that you’ll be sharing over the dinner table and laughing about and remembering with your family.”
In truth, Jack Harbaugh doesn’t remember a lot of the details of those games his sons played in their youth. What he recalls much more clearly are those times traveling to and from the games.
“I can’t remember who won or lost,” he said. “I can’t remember how many hits they got or how many tackles they made. I remember the rides to the game. I remember turning off the radio in the old days — you didn’t have a cellphone — and just sitting with them and you’re riding to the game.”
On Sunday, Jack will hop in John’s car a few hours before kickoff and ride to the AFC championship game with him. Son behind the wheel, dad in the passenger seat.
The father knows the drill.
“He kind of turns off the radio,” Jack said. “We flash back to where now I’m the kid and he’s the dad. I’m trying to say nothing that’s going to cause any kind of consternation with him. So I’m very guarded. I answer no questions unless I get a question. It’s a reversal of the points we had when he and Jim were growing up.”
Just another chapter of memories provided by their kids.
“It’s been marvelous, and it’s been great, and they’ve allowed us to be a part of what they do and what they’ve accomplished, and we’re both really grateful for that,” Jackie said.
“They’ve included us in this journey that they have made.”