Who has it better than them?: The untold story of John and Jim Harbaugh


After each victory (and there were a lot of them this season), Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh gathers his players in the locker room for a celebration chant. “Who has it better than us?” he queries. “Nobody!” the players answer in jubilancy.

The phrase has been the family mantra of the Harbaughs for years. Growing up in Calif, Jack and Jackie Harbaugh would regularly ask their two boys that same question over and over.

It’s hard to imagine Jim and big brother John knew just how good they had it. They were destined for success and now find themselves days away from standing on opposite sidelines in the Super Bowl, the crowning achievement of every head coach. But while they grew up together and are siblings, they took very different paths to Super Bowl Sunday.

Jim, 49, is the more celebrated of the coaching brothers and it’s been that way since their high school days. The younger sibling by a year was the star QB at Palo Alto High school, just minutes away from Stanford University where their father was the defensive coordinator. When Jim transferred to Palo Alto from Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Mich. (which John attended for all four years) he was already a big kid: 6-foot-3, 190 pounds.

His first year at Palo Alto, he led the team the Vikings to a 9-1 season, bringing his team all the way to the championship game (which they eventually lost to Live Oak). Jim also excelled at other sports, putting up 20 points per game for the school’s basketball team as well as a pitcher and shortstop for the baseball squad. His senior season, the team went just 5-4 amid an upheaval of talent with graduating seniors.

After graduation, Jim quickly committed to the University of Michigan. His father was close to head coach Bo Schembechler from his time as an assistant on the staff two years earlier. He was a three-year starter at the school and finished in the top five in school history in many passing categories: passing attempts, completions, completion percentage, passing yards and touchdown passes.

He guided the Wolverines to a 10-1-1 record as a junior while leading the nation in passing efficiency. The team defeated Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl and finished second in the nation in the Division 1-A polls.

His senior season in 1986, the team finished 11-2 while earning a berth to the Rose Bowl. Jim finished third in the Heisman voting and was named the Big Ten Conference Player of the Year.

Jim was drafted in the first round of the 1987 NFL Entry Draft, going 26th overall to the Chicago Bears, taken as the heir apparent to quarterback Jim McMahon. His first full season as a starter didn’t come until 1990 when he led the Bears to the NFC Central Division crown. He ended up missing the final two games of the season as well as the playoffs with a shoulder injury, though. The banner year of his playing career came in 1995 with the Indianapolis Colts. He led the Colts to the AFC Championship Game amid reaching career highs in completion percentage, passer rating and touchdown passes. He garnered honors as the NFL Comeback Player of the Year, while being named to the AFC Pro Bowl squad and coming in second in the MVP voting. He also played for Baltimore and San Diego before retiring after the 2000 season.

Big brother John has always been in Jim’s shadow. John, 50, played for Miami University of Ohio as a defensive back (where he was roommates with future WWE legend Brian Pillman), a far cry from the crowds and glamour of being signal caller at Michigan. While his brother enjoyed a 14-year professional career, John never made it to the big leagues.

Unable to play in the pros, John turned his eye to coaching. While earning a master’s degree at Western Michigan University, he was an assistant on the football team, getting his first taste of sideline action. He then jumped around the college coaching ranks, taking stints at Morehead State, Cincinnati and Indiana.

He got his big break in 1998 when he was hired by Philadelphia Eagles head coach Ray Rhodes to be special teams coordinator. Rhodes was fired after the season, but John was kept around, one of four assistants retained by new head coach Andy Reid for the 1999 season.

John’s special teams unit excelled and in 2007 he got his wish to be defensive backs coach for the team, a position he wanted since it leads to head coaching jobs more frequently than special teams coach does. The very next year, John’s foresight paid off when he was hired as the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens after Brian Billick’s ouster.

For the first time, John was front-and-center and was the more notable brother. He immediately made his mark on the NFL coaching ranks, leading his team to the playoffs and an 11-5 record as a rookie head coach. He led his team all the way to the AFC Championship game, losing to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s one the best head coaches in recent memory, as he’s had a winning record each season and has yet to miss the playoffs, going 54-26 in 5 seasons with the Ravens. A Super Bowl victory would cement his legacy.

Younger brother Jim got his coaching start uniquely enough while playing in the NFL as an unpaid assistant on his father’s Western Kentucky staff. He did this for the final eight season of his NFL career, setting up a life for himself after his playing career. His last year in the NFL and as an assistant was in 2001 and he was immediately thrust into an NFL coaching position, earning the Oakland Raiders quarterback coach job in 2002. He held the position for two years before taking the head-coaching job at the University of San Diego. He finished with a 29-6 record before jumping ship for the greener pastures of Stanford University. He was the head coach at Stanford for fours years, compiling a 29-21 record culminating with a 12-1 season in 2010 and a victory in the Orange Bowl. The stellar season spring boarded him to the NFL, where he became the Niners head coach in 2011.

He quickly turned around the once-proud 49ers franchise, which hadn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2002. Jim led the team to a 13-3 record in his first season, making it to the NFC Championship game behind a stout defense and an innovative offense. In his sophomore campaign, he once again led his team to the playoffs and now faces the biggest game of his life where he will stare down his brother, sideline-to-sideline, in the Super Bowl in New Orleans.

The Harbaugh brothers have faced off just once before, on Thanksgiving Day 2011, deemed “Harbaugh Bowl” by the press. John and his Ravens came out victorious on that day, winning 16-6 behind a franchise record nine sacks.

With the ultra-mobile Colin Kaepernick now behind center for the Niners, there surely won’t be that many sacks this time around, but the coaches certainly learned something about each other’s coaching tendencies during that game. With the Niners now running the read option offense, the Ravens are sure to get a different look and opened as four point favorites in Vegas.

No matter who comes out on top on Sunday, they say it won’t affect their relationship one bit.

“We will continue to be fiercely loyal and protective of one another,” said John. The band of brothers will be the brothers on the sideline.”

After all, who has had it better than them?

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