NEW ORLEANS — Here’s a little something I’m not sure many football fans realize that’s worth talking about as we crank up the hype machine for Super Bowl XLVII between the Ravens and 49ers. Jim Harbaugh is not simply the laser-focused, hyper-intense, at times seemingly maniacal NFL head coach he is often painted as; he is, in fact, a really good guy.
John’s a great guy, too, but for various reasons, people readily accept the Ravens’ head coach, reasonably described as the more polished of the rapidly ascending legendary NFL coaching brothers, as potentially also the guy next door. To too many NFL fans, Jim is often seen as almost other worldly. It’s a bum rap. With Jim you just have to dig a little deeper.
At the root of Jim’s perception issues are his pre-game rituals of pounding on his quarterbacks, his unfortunate misunderstanding with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz in 2011 and his kryptonite-piercing stares when things aren’t going the 49er way. But there is so much more to him than that.
Now, I am admittedly biased. Jim Harbaugh has been a friend for 25 years. In 1987, I began an 18-year run as a color commentator on the Chicago Bears radio network, and that April, he was the Bears’ first-round draft choice. That we are both Michigan alums, were neighbors during his seven-year stint with the Bears and I proudly supported his significant charitable efforts for underprivileged kids in the Washtenaw County, Ann Arbor, Mich. area during his 14-year playing career are all further, full disclosure. But I can assure you, I’ve also known a lot of Michigan alums, neighbors and charitable types I couldn’t stand. If you knew him, you’d like Jim, too.
I hadn’t talked to Jim in a while when I arrived at the 49ers' team press conference on the Wednesday before the Super Bowl, and witnessed something I’d never seen before. Traditionally, the head coach speaks to the media from a lectern on a riser in front of theatre-style seating for a few hundred media members, and Jim did the same. Upon finishing his Q&A, the head coach exits the press conference as quickly as possible while his players enter an adjacent room to give the assembled media their shot at them.
Just as the player portion of the session was beginning, in walks Jim Harbaugh to the middle of the room, unaccompanied by the usual P.R. staffers, to stand there and survey the scene. I made my way over and apologized for not having kept in better touch recently. Jim greeted and forgave me warmly and we stood there in the middle of it all and just visited. No filters, no harsh stares, no security to keep the masses away or guard against the unwanted questions or subjects; Jim was just a huge football fan truly savoring the moment.
When I kiddingly asked if he was going to attend his mom and dad’s press conference — a first of its kind at any Super Bowl — he seriously asked me when it was in the hopes of making it. Of course he couldn’t, but he told me, “You know, they’re doing great and I think they’re really enjoying this. When I called my dad last night, he and my mom were on a carriage ride in the French Quarter, and I was like, ‘really?’" He was just a guy talking lovingly about his parents.
Jim Harbaugh is definitely a student of the game. He mentioned how in awe he was of the size of the media contingent, and I told him at my first Super Bowl, XIII, there were no more than 300 or 400 media members. Now there are 4,000. He just looked at me and said, “Wow, only 400? XIII was Pittsburgh and Dallas, right?” Keep in mind, in January of 1979, Jim Harbaugh was finishing junior high school. He isn’t as over-the-top intense as you think, but he approaches nothing without doing his homework.
We talked about what it meant to him to be here, and he said, “You know, I didn’t get it before, but I really get it now. This isn’t just a football game to win. When I went to the Green Bay and Pittsburgh Super Bowl, I didn’t really even want to be there.” He had just been named head coach of the 49ers, and if he wasn’t playing or coaching the game, he didn’t see the point. “But now that I’m here I understand what this means to everybody; our players, the coaches, the fans,” he said. “This is a celebration of our game, of pro football and it’s really cool!” This was Jim Harbaugh, the kid in the candy store.
We visited a bit more and I said I had to get to work, but realized as I went to move on I hadn’t yet congratulated him on the birth of his new son. Harbaugh has six children, three boys and three girls, and at the mention of the youngest, Jack, who’s named for his grandpa, the iron-jawed coach’s face lit up like a Christmas tree and he said, “What’s today, man, what’s the date? Yeah, Monday the 4th, he’ll be five months old.”
It was what Harbaugh did next that impressed me most. As I went about my business, I noticed that Jim stayed through almost half the press conference making his way from player table to player table. Not to see the stars who were surrounded by media; he was checking on his bottom-half-of-the-roster guys who were sitting quietly, perhaps hoping to be interviewed, and making sure they were enjoying the experience as much as he was. It was almost like this wasn’t Jim Harbaugh the head coach — it was Jim the teammate.
What I think is the most impressive thing of all about this unprecedented meeting of brothers as head coaches in the Super Bowl is, yes, the Harbaughs are a coaching family — you do know Jim’s and John’s brother-in-law is Tom Crean, the head coach of the Indiana University basketball team, don’t you? — but the operative word is family, not coaches.
I don’t know John well, but one of my favorite stories is how I got to know their dad, Jack. It was 1991, and Jack was in just his third year as the head coach at Western Kentucky, building his program and taking a few lumps (he would go on to win a Division I-AA national title 11 years later). 1991 was the Bears’ last playoff team under Mike Ditka, and Jim started all 16 games. Somewhere around mid-season we were broadcasting a Bears game, and late in the game, the Bears scored a touchdown, and Ditka had to call a timeout to decide whether to go for the two-point conversion. My broadcast partner, Wayne Larrivee, said Ditka must not be able to find “the list” all coaches keep as to when to go for two. I kiddingly replied, “Wayne, we’ve all heard about the list, but has anyone actually ever seen it — does the list really exist.”
Later that week, I got a letter in my office. It said, “Hub, we don’t get a lot of Bears games on TV here in Bowling Green, and the only way we can really follow Jim is we drive up to the top of the hill near the stadium on Sundays and listen to your broadcasts on the radio in the car. You’re always very fair to him and we really appreciate it so I’ve enclosed my copy of the list for you to use. Please let me know if there’s ever anything else I can do to help. Best — Jack Harbaugh.” We visited on rare occasions after that, and what was always first on Jack’s mind — more than what Jim was doing — was that he was doing it the right way.
Jack and Jackie Harbaugh raised their boys to be football coaches and they are some of the most competitive people you will ever meet. But the one thing that is more important to all of them than winning — not just including Jim, but especially Jim — is family.
Clearly, the sky is the limit for both Harbaugh brothers, and come Sunday, one will have his first ring. The two short years it has taken Jim to get here has taught him more than just who he wants to be; it seems to have shown him who he is. Get to know him a little bit and you’ll really like who you see.