For Jim and John Harbaugh 2011 is shaping up to be a memorable year both in their professional and personal lives. The elder brother John is in his fourth year as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens and his team is tied for first place in the AFC North. All while the younger brother Jim is making his NFL head coaching debut this season with a 9-1 record, turning around one of the NFL’s most storied franchises after years of being dormant. It is fitting the Harbaugh brothers will go up against each other in the first year both are head coaches in the NFL and the game will be played on Thanksgiving night.
The game will be an NFL first for brother head coaches battling on the field. The NFL saw Rex and Rob Ryan earlier in the season coach against each other, but Rex was the head coach and Rob the defensive coordinator. In 2006 Peyton and Eli Manning went up against each other in another high-profile brother competition.
On Thanksgiving night brothers will watch the HarBowl match up knowing what it feels like inside to compete against a sibling. The intensity of the Harbaugh brothers NFL game on the gridiron is much different from the one brothers everywhere have experienced on fields and playgrounds, but still intense nonetheless. I can only imagine how it must feel for Jack and Jackie Harbaugh, the parents of Jim and John, to have their kids being rivals on the field. It has been reported that the Harbaugh's will be on the field for pregame pictures and then will leave the stadium to watch the game in private. Maybe the Harbaugh's don’t want to be seen either cheering for every score in the game by both sides or just sitting there with no emotions for either team.
The Harbaugh brothers trace their long road to becoming NFL head coaches to their father Jack who was a coach at the high school and college levels from 1964-2006. During Jack’s long coaching tenure he brought both Jim and John on as coaches for his team’s but never have all three been on the same coaching staff. From 1982-1986 Jack was head coach at Western Michigan leading the college to a 25-27-3 record. During the 1984-1986 seasons John joined the staff as a running back coaches in his first role as a coach. In 1987 while Jack was an assistant head coach at the University of Pittsburgh John was the tight ends coach. John would go on to coach at Morehead State (1988), Cincinnati (1989-1996), and Indiana (1997) before joining his first NFL team in 1998. John was hired by Eagles then-head coach Ray Rhodes as a special teams coordinator. John was one of four assistants retained by Andy Reid in 1999 after Rhodes was fired.
John knew he was destined to become an NFL head coach after years of being in the lower coaching ranks. In 2007 Reid switched John from special team’s coordinator to defensive backs coach in order to make him more attractive as a head coach. The following year John was hired to take over as head coach of the Ravens and has since led the team to three straight playoff appearances compiling a 39-19 record in three and a half seasons.
If not for Jack bringing John on to his staff he may have never joined the head coaching ranks in the NFL. John never played in the NFL but was a defensive back at the University of Miami (Ohio) where he earned a degree in political science.
The younger Harbaugh brother Jim had a different path becoming an NFL head coach but it all started with Jack as well. Jim had a hugely successful college career as the starting quarterback for Bo Schembechler at the University of Michigan from 1984-1987. In his senior year Jim had his best season leading the team to a 11-2 record, winning the Big Ten Conference Player of the Year and finished third in the Heisman voting. Jim went on to have a good NFL career at quarterback from 1987-2000 playing for the Bears, Colts, Ravens and Chargers.
From 1994-2001 Jim was looking ahead to his career after playing quarterback in the NFL. While Jim was a quarterback with the Colts, Ravens and Chargers he was an unpaid assistant coach for his father at Western Kentucky University who was the head coach. Jim first showed his eye for scouting talent by recruiting 17 players on Western Kentucky’s 2002 Division I-AA championship team.
John had been an NFL coach for five years before Jim received his first offer to the NFL. In 2002 Jim was hired by the Oakland Raiders as an assistant coach and in 2003 he was the quarterbacks coach. Under the tutelage of Jim Raiders QB Rich Gannon won the NFL MVP award while leading the team to the Super Bowl.
After two seasons in the NFL Jim received his first head coaching job at the University of San Diego which is a Division I-AA school. Jim repaid his father Jack by hiring him as his running backs coach at USD from 2004-2006. Jim led the school to a 29-6 record in three seasons winning the Pioneer Football League Championship in 2005 and 2006. At USD Jim also coached current Buccaneers backup quarterback Josh Johnson who was drafted in the fifth round in 2008. Coming from a small division school and Johnson being selected 160th overall in the draft was a big testament to how well of a job Jim can do coaching quarterbacks.
From 2007-2010 Jim turned Stanford into a football powerhouse having left in place a system proven to win and a future number one draft pick quarterback Andrew Luck.
Jim’s track record of turning football programs impressed many teams this past off-season making him the top candidate to fill a number of coaching vacancies. This season Jim has shown he has the magic touch for turning teams around at any level. The 49ers are contenders after a locked out off-season of no practices to learn the new offense and defense. Alex Smith’s performance this season in commanding the offense to eight straight wins and him becoming an asset and not a liability is because of Jim. He has also forged a new winning identity for the 49ers.
The Harbaugh brothers are products of their father having grown up around football all their lives. The paths for Jim and John in becoming head coaches in the NFL couldn’t be different however. But if you had told the Harbaugh brothers back when they first started coaching one day they would meet on Thanksgiving night as head coaches in the NFL, with one of them 9-1 in their first season, they probably would have believed you. Both had long roads to becoming head coaches in the NFL but were determined to one day reach the pinnacle of football coaching. Jim played 14 seasons in the NFL and was a coach in college for 16 years before taking over for the 49ers. John did not play in the NFL but started coaching at 22 years old and had 23 years of experience before he was named head coach of the Ravens.
The Harbaugh Philosophy created by Jack and refined by John and Jim is, be a tough and physical team that wears out, confuses and frustrates opponents into mistakes. John and Jim implement it in their own way given the different talent on their rosters. Expect fireworks on Thursday night with the intensity of the Harbaugh brothers and their desire to win. I can’t think of any better way to have Thanksgiving dinner.