They have always been competitors but have never been rivals, which is why they have always been best friends. Jim glows when he talks about John's nine-year-old daughter, Alison. John is always asking about Jim's wife, Sarah, his four kids (three from a previous marriage) and a fifth on the way.
They compete against each because they love to compete and they love to be with each other. Their proudest achievement, as a family, might have come in the mid-1990s, when Jack was coaching Western Kentucky and the school reduced his scholarship allotment, slashed his budget and told him to lay off two coaches. The program seemed doomed. Then the boys went to work. John was recruiting for Cincinnati, and he compiled two recruiting lists: one for Cincinnati, one for Western Kentucky. But it was Jim who really stepped in. He took a coaching position with Jack for no salary. This allowed him to recruit for his father while he continued playing pro football.
Jim had to convince recruits that, yes, he was that Jim Harbaugh, starting NFL quarterback. He stayed on for seven years, and in 2002, just after Jim left, the Hilltoppers won the I-AA national title. Jack sums up Jim's contribution simply: "He saved us. He saved the program."
John knew Jim would save Stanford too. He had watched Jim beat out more highly touted quarterbacks at Michigan, and he knew Jim had taken a swing at former Bills star Jim Kelly after Kelly questioned Jim's toughness during a TV broadcast. John knew better than to doubt the beast.
But something did not feel right about working with Jim. When your brother is your best friend, why put that kind of stress on the relationship? Philadelphia offered John a contract extension and a chance to coach defensive backs. He stayed put.
A year later Baltimore interviewed him for the head coaching job. All those years, John had acquired friends and admirers and told himself it would all pay off someday. Now it did. One of John's NFL acquaintances called Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti with some advice: Hire John Harbaugh. That call was not the only reason Harbaugh got the job. But in the NFL it always helps to get an unsolicited recommendation from Bill Belichick.
Sometimes reporters ask John, How does the Patriots' defense compare with the Broncos'? Which team has the quicker running back, the more explosive deep threats, the more dangerous blitz packages? They are asking the wrong guy. "I've got this rule," John says. "We make no comparisons. Somebody is going to be devalued. Maybe I'm sensitive to that."
Jim apparently does not have that rule. Shortly after arriving at Stanford, he tried to tout the school's academic priorities by comparing them favorably with Michigan's; anger over that still lingers in Ann Arbor.
You want to make comparisons? O.K.: John works out regularly; Jim never gets on a treadmill. "I gotta find something where I'm competing," Jim says, so he plays racquetball and runs down to the basketball court and challenges somebody to a game of H-O-R-S-E. Sometimes at a Stanford practice Jim will line up behind center, ostensibly to teach his quarterbacks a lesson but also because "I just like the feel of the ball on [my] hand."
John says that every time he speaks about anybody, he imagines, "That person is standing right there in front of you, as is his wife, their kids, his mom, his dad." But the beast still hijacks Jim's vocal cords sometimes. Three years ago he said he'd heard Pete Carroll was on his way from USC to the NFL, which annoyed Carroll (who has since left USC for the NFL). Jim said he was just repeating what he had heard. But it was surely not a coincidence that the Trojans were dominating the Pac-10 at the time. When reporters asked Jim if he would retract his comments, he refused. "We bow to no man," he said. "We bow to no program here at Stanford University." Stanford upset the Trojans that year, then blew them out last year. At the end of the 2009 game the beast took over again: Stanford, up 48--21 midway through the fourth quarter, went for two.