He worked for 13 years around the edges of his dream, at a range of Division I schools—Pitt, Morehead State, Cincinnati—until he was finally hired as defensive backs coach and special teams coordinator at Indiana in 1997. Fifteen years after his younger brother had made the Big Ten, John did too. He and his wife, Ingrid, looked at the lawns and limestone buildings, and it didn't matter that the Hoosiers were paying rent in the league basement. To the Harbaughs, this was Versailles.
"I remember saying to Ingrid, 'Look at this place! We're in the Big Ten,'" John says. "'We will be here for a long time.'"
They were there a year. The Eagles called and made John their special teams coordinator. Seven years passed. Eight. Nine. John wondered if he would be an assistant for life. "All along the way you have these frustrations," he says. "[As a college coach] you always wonder, Why can't I get to Ohio State or Michigan? Man, I'm still at Cincinnati. Or [in the NFL], I'm still a special teams coordinator. I loved being a special teams coordinator, but when is a special teams coordinator ever going to get a shot?"
The older John got, the more people thought he was Jim's younger brother. He longed for his own team. He interviewed for college head coaching jobs but never got hired. He felt slighted but refused to say so. People could label him less athletic and competitive and more studious than Jim, but nobody could say John Harbaugh was bitter.
Every time somebody rejected his résumé, he went out and made new friends he could add to his list of references. Then, in January 2007, John's phone rang with a once-in-a-lifetime offer. But the call didn't come from a college athletic director or an NFL general manager. It came from his brother.
Jim had beaten John yet again. While John worked his way up a very crowded ladder, Jim found a ladder that nobody else could see. He'd left the Raiders at the end of 2003 to become head coach at the University of San Diego, a Division I-AA program. Everybody he trusted was against it. "It's USD, Jim, not USC," grumbled Raiders owner Al Davis. They said he'd never get out of Division I-AA.
He went to San Diego, brought his father out of retirement to be his running backs and assistant head coach and won two I-AA national titles. Never get out? It took him three years to get to Stanford.
That is when Jim asked John to be his defensive coordinator. The job made no sense—nobody leaves the NFL to be an assistant for a Pac-10 team that just went 1--11. John could not possibly say yes. And yet ... he didn't want to say no either. He told Eagles coach Andy Reid, "It's not like it's a regular job. It's my brother." But even that didn't explain it; Jim and John are not typical brothers.
Sometimes, when the Harbaughs are on vacation together, Ingrid tells John, "I can't believe you grew up like this." If John and Jim are teaching kids how to blow bubbles, they have to see who can blow the most bubbles. Every bike ride becomes a race. If the family is eating hamburgers and there is one left on the serving plate, John and Jim will race to finish theirs so they can grab the last one. "They can't cut it in half," Ingrid says. Sometimes Jim will point at John's plate and ask, "Are you going to eat that?" and John will say, "Yeah! I'm taking a breath."
Ingrid has known the brothers for 25 years, so the question must be asked, How many times has she seen them argue? "Never," she says. "Ever."