Taking different roads
John was a solid player at Miami of Ohio, but he was a better student. Instead of hanging around for a fifth year so he could keep playing, he graduated in four. His mother thought he would go to law school.
In reality, he had caught the coaching bug. John took his first job as a graduate assistant for Jack at Western Michigan. He still lived at home, so father and son talked coaching every morning as they rode to work. John has said that was the most special time of his long apprenticeship.
Asked Monday if he consciously modeled his style after Jack, he said: "Of course you do, right? You see him every day of your life, and you just … He's the greatest coach we've ever been around."
John worked as an assistant at five universities, from Indiana to Pittsburgh, and then settled in for nine years as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles.
The areas he mastered, defensive backfield and special teams, weren't glamorous. But he developed a sterling reputation. Some were surprised when the Ravens hired John over bigger-name candidates. In five years, he has never failed to lead his team to the playoffs.
Jim, meanwhile, earned a scholarship from Schembechler, the same gruff legend who had barked at him for letting childhood games of catch spill onto the Michigan practice field. Schembechler had sized him up as "a cocky little guy" in Jim's words, but the coach came to love his quarterback's confidence. In his book "Bo's Lasting Lessons," Schembechler compared Jim to a more highly touted prospect, saying he had "twice the brains and ten times the heart."
"Give me those specs anyday," he wrote.
Jim was a Heisman Trophy candidate at Michigan and during the same years that John pursued his long coaching odyssey, little brother was busy playing quarterback in the NFL (including the 1998 season with the Ravens). After a 15-year-career, he entered coaching as an offensive assistant with the Oakland Raiders, working 20-hour days and going to the Super Bowl after the 2002 season.
But then he shocked just about everyone, leaving his NFL post to become head coach at the University of San Diego, a Division II program.
As usual, he made it work. In three years, with Jack as an assistant, Jim went 29-6 and won two league titles.
Drastic improvement became his trademark.
At Stanford, Jim went from 4-8 his first year to 12-1 in his fourth and final. With the 49ers, he took over a 6-10 team and led it to a 13-3 record in his first season. In his second, he's in the Super Bowl and already widely talked about as one of the best coaches in the game.
There are certain traits that unite the Harbaughs as coaches. Both like to surround themselves with older assistants. Both seem happiest with a physically punishing style of football that hearkens back to Schembechler's Michigan teams. Neither is big on public introspection.
Jim's press conferences are perversely entertaining. He might quote Ernest Hemingway and explain a player's development in terminology from the Star Wars films. Or he might go through a whole session delivering two-word answers designed to reveal as little of his inner thinking as possible. He has been known to chide reporters for asking about his feelings, and he can be downright cutting if he thinks a question is beside the point.
"Is this relevant?" he asked a reporter who queried about Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III before the 49ers' playoff opener against the Green Bay Packers. "Doesn't seem relevant to what we're trying to accomplish this week."
Informed that the question related to a piece about running quarterbacks, Jim replied sarcastically: "OK, well good luck with that story."