SI Vault
Michael Rosenberg
October 18, 2010
Ravens coach John Harbaugh and his younger brother, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, grew up competing at just about everything, but they are each other's staunchest supporters
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October 18, 2010

Beat, Play, Love

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Ravens coach John Harbaugh and his younger brother, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, grew up competing at just about everything, but they are each other's staunchest supporters

When Jim Harbaugh was a boy, he threw a football over his family tree. The tree, which stood in the front yard of his home in Ann Arbor, Mich., was a big evergreen, bigger to the Harbaugh boys than to anyone else: an enormous measuring stick in a childhood full of them. Jim was 15 months younger than his brother, John, but that didn't matter. Jim was taller, he was stronger, and he was the only kid in the neighborhood who could throw the ball over that tree. "It used to drive John crazy," Jim says. "He couldn't do it."

The Harbaugh boys are head football coaches now, two of the hottest in the country. Jim, 46, is on the West Coast, at Stanford, where he took the Cardinal from 1--11 to 8--5 in three years. Now his name is mentioned for every high-profile college position that opens up, and some NFL jobs too. Jim has been labeled the bulldog of the brothers, and a loud one; he ramps up the energy of any room he enters. "He's not your average football coach," Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck says. "He is very hands-on. It's almost like he's playing a little."

John, 48, is on the East Coast, in Baltimore, where he led the Ravens to postseason wins in each of his first two seasons. He is considered the more cerebral brother, the one who always chooses the right word at the right time. "After games, especially after disappointing losses, he is able to say things that would [normally] require you to sit [and think] on it overnight," Baltimore special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg says. "I've said to him a number of times, 'How do you do that?'"

Jim and John both seem to have been born to coach—or maybe they were raised to coach. Their father, Jack, was a longtime college coach who loved taking his kids to the office. In the 1970s Jack was an assistant under Bo Schembechler at Michigan, and the boys would sometimes throw a football around on the sideline while the Wolverines practiced. Their younger sister, Joani, learned to hot-splice game film by the time she was 10. Joani is the only Harbaugh child who did not become a coach, but she did marry one: Tom Crean, now the basketball coach at Indiana.

This makes Jack proud. His kids saw the coaching profession up close, all the tumult (Jack and his wife, Jackie, have moved 16 times), the long hours and the stress, and they dived in anyway. Jack was a hell of a coach himself—probably the best public speaker of all the Harbaughs and the winner of a Division I-AA national championship, with Western Kentucky in 2002.

But this story is not about Jack. It's about that tree.

When the boys were growing up, they shared a room, and life was one game after another: wrestling, on-the-knees one-on-one football, games that were barely even games: You try to get to that spot, and I'll try to stop you. "Jim is the greatest pure competitor, by far, that I ever met in my life," John says. "At everything."

Jim's classmates and teachers found out the hard way: He did not have an off switch. One time when the boys were in grade school, Jackie found out there was a problem at recess: The games meant too much to Jim. Was that, she wondered, a problem? Hell, Jack Harbaugh had exhorted his boys to approach every day with what he called "an enthusiasm unknown to mankind." What was he supposed to do now? Demotivate his middle child? Jackie said the U.S. education system was falling in love with "mediocrity—let's not let anybody be better than anybody else."

Being better than anybody else was Jim's reason to live. Better, faster, stronger, higher, louder, more—whatever more was. There was a beast in him that he could not contain.

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