On a national conference call to discuss the historic matchup of their sons playing against each other in Super Bowl XLVII, Jack and Jackie Harbaugh, along with daughter Joani Crean, displayed everything that makes the family so unique.
Caring for one another, outgoing enthusiasm, a unique sense of humor and unwavering passion – all of those traits were demonstrated by the family as they answered an hour’s worth of questions from members of the media and even “John from Baltimore,” who turned out to be John Harbaugh, himself.
It just so happens, the very same characteristics have been instilled in the sons that will be leading the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens into action on Feb. 3.
“They both have a love and passion for their work,” Jack declared.
It’s easy to see where it came from.
Both brothers were inspired by their father, a long-time coach, who had the family move 17 times, a result from various coaching positions he took.
In Jack, they saw a passionate patriarch, someone who was insistent upon being both a teacher and a leader. They also witnessed their father being selfless, making sure everyone in the family was content at all times.
Jack’s positive outlook was often manifested in lessons he told the boys. Jack shared the genesis of two of his favorite sayings, “Don’t take any wooden nickels” and “Attack this day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”
In fact, it was Jack’s father who coined the nickel phrase.
Jack first shared the saying back in 1972. The father had his two boys in the backseat of his car on the way to school and noticed the boys looking down in the dumps.
“They didn’t look happy,” he said.
“Our thing was attack this day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind and don’t take any wooden nickels.”
“I have no ideas what wooden nickel means…”
The phrases have often been re-used by Jim in his dealings with the media.
From his vantage point, Jack was moved to see his sons take up the coaching profession, even if it meant sharing family sayings.
“I took great pride and joy in that’s what they wanted to do,” he said on the conference call.
For Jim, the 49ers head coach set to make his Super Bowl debut in his second season, a yearning to follow in his father’s footsteps dates back to his high school days.
“Jim in high school talked about playing as long as he could,” Jack noted.
Football and athletics have always been prevalent in the Harbaugh household. Crean, the younger sister in the bunch and wife of Indiana Hoosiers basketball coach Tom Crean, detailed how she would play pickle with the brothers and would end up cutting up coaching footage for her father at the age of 10.
Everyone chipped in that household to ensure the family would be successful on gamedays. But as Jack pointed out, Jackie was the true superstar in the group. When the family moved, Jackie sold the home, bought the next one, and still had time to take the kids to football practice.
“Jackie did all the heavy lifting in our family,” Jack noted. “She deserves all the credit.”
The Harbaughs were a team, and they did everything to help the team be most successful.
That mentality has trickled into the brothers and how they coach their respective clubs. Both the 49ers and Ravens have “The Team, The Team, The Team,” as part of their way of lives. The saying, coined by Jack’s former boss and Jim’s college coach, Bo Schembechler, is prevalent in their dealings with their respective NFL clubs.
“It’s incredible seeing how hard they work and how they believe in the team,” Jack said. “Everything they’ve done has reflected the best interest in putting the team together.”
In San Francisco, that involved changing starting quarterbacks 11 weeks into the regular season. In Baltimore, that encompassed changing offensive coordinators in December.
Both brothers had to make challenging choices that greatly impacted their football teams. Both never wavered on doing what they felt was best for the team. For those decisions, they’ve been rewarded with a trip to the Super Bowl.
“That’s what the business is about,” Jack detailed, understanding that making the call as a head coach is never easy. “I’m proud of both of them. The team is the focus of what they were trying to do.”
The Harbaugh brothers take the team concept so seriously, they were both able to help their father during his stint at Western Kentucky.
Football was nearly taken away from the school, but somehow it managed to survive. The program was still hit hard from budget cuts, the loss of coaches and scholarships. Jack wondered if he would be able to continue leading the program.
“I figured my coaching career was pretty much over,” he said.
In walked Jim to change everything. “This doesn’t sound like you,” the 49ers coach told his father. “How can I help?”
“It was almost divine intervention,” Jack said.
The younger brother decided to help out as an unpaid assistant. He also became the school’s top recruiter. Jack recalled Jim’s first recruiting call was to William Taggart (who would go on to be the best man at Jim’s wedding).
John also helped the Western Kentucky program. With his sons helping the staff, Jack capped a remarkable coaching career with a FCS National Championship in 2002.
When the brothers coach against each other in the biggest game in professional football, the football family plans to stay as neutral as possible. Wardrobe, cheering, all that comes with the game will be even.
And if Jackie Harbaugh had her way, the final score would be the same.
“I want it to end in a tie,” the proud mother said. “Can the NFL do that?”
Truthfully, the parents know that it’ll be a tough moment for one side of the family, but that won’t spoil the experience.
When the family visited Baltimore last Thanksgiving for the first “HarBowl” the outcome of the game didn’t matter to them as much as family pride did.
“It was the epitome of how the family feels about each other and how everyone tries to raise each other up,” Jackie noted.
In essence, that’s what makes the Harbaugh family what it is today.