Ravens coach John Harbaugh remembers as a child converting sleeveless T-shirts into different Big Ten uniforms and competing in makeshift football games against his younger brother, Jim.
They also played basketball with a tennis ball and a wire hanger rim and threw snowballs against a tree, along with countless other contests the Harbaugh brothers would come up with.
“We both competed with each other and against each other,” said John Harbaugh during a national conference call with reporters. “I know one thing: [I] couldn't have anybody tougher to compete against or anybody more challenging to compete against every single day.”
That sibling rivalry will take on a whole new dimension at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at M&T Bank Stadium when John Harbaugh’s Ravens face Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers in the first NFL game to feature brothers facing off as opposing head coaches.
Different Paths, Same Results
The brothers took divergent paths to reach this game, but each arrives with similar results. The Ravens (7-3) are in first place in the AFC North while the 49ers (9-1) are atop the NFC West in Jim Harbaugh’s first year at the helm.
John Harbaugh, 49, is in his fourth season as head coach of the Ravens, after he spent two decades as an assistant coach at both the college and professional levels, which included 10 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles prior to arriving in Baltimore.
Jim Harbaugh, 47, was a standout quarterback at the University of Michigan before playing in the NFL for 15 seasons, including 1998 with the Ravens. He went on to be the head coach at the University of San Diego before taking over at Stanford, where he went 12-1 last season before leaving to take the 49ers job.
Both Harbaughs have also followed in the footsteps of their father, Jack, who spent more than 30 years as a football coach, which included being the head coach at Western Kentucky from 1989-2002. He won the NCAA I-AA national title there in his final season.
“It's an amazing thing,” said John Harbaugh on coaching against his brother. “To say that it's not there, that you're not thinking about it, wouldn't be real. It's an amazing thing. It's a historic thing. It's very special.”
Sibling Rivalry Renewed
John Harbaugh said during his conference call that tonight’s game would be the first time he can recall being on an opposing team against his brother since the two were teens and faced off in an American Legion baseball game. John’s team beat Jim’s squad—which was coached by Jack—1-0.
“We almost pulled off the [upset],” said Jim, whose team was formed from players that didn’t make John’s squad. “That would have been right up there with Rocky and the Miracle on Ice.”
Jim Harbaugh said he’s proud of his brother’s accomplishments, but he isn’t getting too worked up over the novelty of coaching against him. He’s more concerned about how his players are going to respond to having to fly across three time zones and play on a short week. The 49ers defeated the Arizona Cardinals, 23-7, on Sunday.
“There’s no doubt we got the short end of the straw on this one, but we’ll see if we can make history,” Jim Harbaugh said. “This is the first time two brothers have coached against each other, the first time an NFL team has traveled three time zones to play a Thursday night game after a Sunday game since the league went to a 16-game schedule.
“So there are a couple of firsts, and we’ll do everything we can to be successful.”
A Family Affair
John Harbaugh joked that while Jim got slighted with the travel, it appears he’s getting stuck with the bill for tickets to the game for all the family that plans to watch from the stands.
“Well, we've got a lot of extended family coming in to watch the game. So I'm the one who has had to get the tickets. That's been kind of an expensive proposition, but that's cool. I haven't heard from Jim. I haven't gotten an offer on buying any tickets,” Harbaugh joked.
But two people that likely won’t be in the stands will be Jack Harbaugh and his wife, Jackie. The couple plans on meeting with their sons on the field before the game and then going somewhere to watch the contest on TV.
Still, John Harbaugh said his father’s presence would be felt on both sidelines during the game and credits his father for helping him and Jim develop into the coaches they are today.
“What didn't we learn from him?” John Harbaugh said. “The list would be so long. But the one thing that strikes me about my dad even to this day, he's a man without guile.
“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.”