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 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 San Francisco 49ers are 9-1 and could clinch the NFC West with a win coupled with a loss for the Seattle Seahawks. John’s Baltimore 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 keep-away.
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.
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.”