Adapted from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, October 18, 2010, and January 28, 2013
SUPER BOWL STORY LINES TEND TO OVERWHELM THE GAME ITSELF. THIS YEAR, THOUGH, THE STORY LINE WAS WORTHY. TWO MEN WITH THE SAME mom and dad, who were born a little more than a year apart and spent much of their childhoods living in the same room, coached against each other on the biggest stage in American sports.
The Harbaughs have turned the classic coaching success story on its head: While many succeed at the expense of family, the Harbaughs succeed because of it.
Jim, 49, and John, 50, both cite their father, Jack, a longtime college coach, as their most important role model, and they have tried to copy him in so many ways. They 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 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 now the two hottest football coaches in the country. Three years ago Jim led Stanford to its first BCS bowl game and this year led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in his second season with the team. Jim has been labeled the bulldog of the brothers, and a loud one; he ramps up the energy of any room he enters.
John has guided the Ravens to post-season wins in each of his five seasons as coach, leading the team to the brink of the Super Bowl in 2011 before this year's big game. He is considered the more cerebral brother, the one who always chooses the right word at the right time.
Jim and John both seem to have been born to coach—or maybe they were raised to coach. 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 more than a dozen 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.