HOUSTON — Eighty-four-year-old Jack Harbaugh stood in a pile of championship confetti. He was beaming with pride, just as a father should.
His youngest son, Jim, had just coached the Michigan Wolverines to the national championship. All around him inside NRG Stadium, a party was erupting. Among the celebrants was Jack’s oldest son, John, coach of the Baltimore Ravens, who are entering the NFL playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They host the Houston Texans on Saturday.
Could Jack envision a February repeat at the Super Bowl in Las Vegas? Could he and his wife, Jackie, end a single football season with one son taking the college crown and the other the NFL’s?
“Can you imagine?” Jack asked.
Well, if anyone can, it’s you, he was told.
“No, I can’t,” he said, laughing. “I’ve got to have some time [to consider it], but I know John is locked in, and they have a very good team, and they are playing very, very well as a team. There’s a chance.”
Until last week, no pair of brothers had ever combined to coach college and pro football champions, let alone in the same season. John already has a Super Bowl to his credit; his Ravens defeated San Francisco 11 years ago. The coach of that 49ers team? Jim, of course.
It’s all part of a winding, complicated and mostly successful football life for the Harbaugh family. Jack was a longtime coach himself, a Michigan assistant under Bo Schembechler before stints as head coach of Western Michigan (1982-86) and Western Kentucky (1989-2002).
John spent three years as an assistant to his father at Western Michigan. When Jack was at Western Kentucky, Jim, then a quarterback in the NFL, was deemed a “volunteer assistant” for the program and spent his offseason recruiting for the Hilltoppers. John, then an assistant at the University of Cincinnati, provided recruiting lists and scouting reports for Jim.
Jack eventually led WKU to the 2002 Division I-AA national championship.
That meant Jim was the final member of the Football Coaching Harbaughs to win a championship.
“I can now sit at the big person's table in the family,” Jim said. “They won't keep me over there on the little table anymore. My dad, Jack Harbaugh, won a national championship, and my brother won a Super Bowl. It's good to be at the big person's table from now on.”
The entire Harbaugh family was in Houston to celebrate with Jim earlier this month. This, they all agreed, was a better situation than that tense Super Bowl in New Orleans.
The idea of two brothers coaching against each other for football’s ultimate prize was a fun storyline for fans but an emotional minefield for the family. Tom Crean, their brother-in-law and then the head basketball coach at Indiana University, spoke about the situation with NBA coach Doc Rivers prior to the Super Bowl. It was Rivers who imparted a profound bit of parenting wisdom.
“You are only as happy as your least happy child,” Rivers told Crean.
The elder Harbaughs both embraced it and then braced for it. They knew that in addition to the unmitigated joy that would come from seeing a child win a Super Bowl, they’d also have to endure the heartache of a son losing a Super Bowl.
That’s what made Michigan’s victory — and any potential Ravens Super Bowl — so much fun, they said. It was all positive.
“This is much better,” Jackie said. “You are so happy for the one that won, but you know how the other one is feeling.”
And that’s what would make another Baltimore Super Bowl so special. In some ways, they never got the full celebratory experience for John because there was consoling to be done for Jim.
First, though, comes the Texans. Then a potential AFC Championship Game, and then the big one. It’s never easy, not even when you have Lamar Jackson going for you.
“Baltimore is really playing well,” Jack noted, clearly beginning to think about the possibilities.
Jackie — after decades as a coach’s wife and coach’s mother — was having none of it. Two titles in one season?
“One game at a time,” she said. “You guys all get ahead of yourselves. That’s the problem. You have to go one game at a time.”
Harbaugh Championship Mission, Part 2 begins Saturday.