Jim and John Harbaugh's shared history shaped coaching styles

Associated Press
San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh (left) and Baltimore Ravens boss John Harbaugh love old-school football.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The years remain vivid enough in Jim Harbaugh's mind to make the time seem like yesterday.

"We were there," the San Francisco 49ers coach says without missing a beat, "from when I was 9 to when I was 16."

Those years encompassed the seven football seasons during which Jack Harbaugh's family had stakes down in Ann Arbor, Mich.

That was the era -- right in the teeth of Michigan icon Bo Schembechler's "10-Year War" with Ohio State coach Woody Hayes -- that might best explain Super Bowl XLVII's central storyline, and just how we'll arrive at the Superdome next Sunday with two coaches who shared a bedroom in those days set to fight over football's ultimate prize.

The vernacular of each coach remains marked by lessons learned through the final seven years of the 1970s, when Jack served as Schembechler's secondary coach. There are motivational slogans. There are coaching methods. More than anything, there's an approach that both Jim and his older brother John consider timeless.

Any surprise that they'd aspire to one day be like Woody and Bo? Nope, because to the young Harbaugh boys, there was nothing bigger than those two.

"Iconic," John said from his office on Friday afternoon. "Bigger than the president. Bigger than any movie star. Bigger than John Wayne. Bo and Woody, they were it for us."

When asked how much of a responsibility those years bore for shaping the desire that he and his kid brother had to coach, John shot back, "100 percent."

Bo Schembechler's famous words echo in the facilities of both the 49ers (above) and the Ravens. (Courtesy the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens.)
Bo Schembechler's famous words echo in the facilities of both the 49ers (above) and the Ravens. (Courtesy the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens.)

On the way to the practice field today, John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens walk past a sign that reads "The Team, The Team, The Team," a credo that Schembechler modeled after Gen. Douglas MacArthur's line about "The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps," and which Schembechler made famous at Michigan. The 49ers have a nearly identical sign up in their team meeting room. The truth is, those years are represented by plenty of reminders -- outward like that and more abstract -- in both facilities.

Most of all, it's that in this day and age of 5,000-yard passing seasons and defenses as speed bumps, the Ravens and 49ers are outliers, grounded in blocking and tackling and physicality -- and this is no mistake.

"If people see characteristics of Bo Schembechler's teams, or the characteristics of the Baltimore Ravens in our team, then that would be something we'd be proud of," Jim Harbaugh said. "That's something that we strive to be."

Indeed, the Niners and Ravens lean on sturdy groups on both sides of the line, on strong running games and defenses, and on an ability to out-hit the opponent. If that harkens back to the chill and angry gray skies of Columbus, Ohio and Ann Arbor in late November, well, that's not by accident, either.

"That pretty much hits it on the head," John Harbaugh said. "That's what we're all about. That's what football is. Ultimately, if you don't have that foundation, you're not gonna last. It might look pretty, you might light up the scoreboard, but without that, there's nothing. That's what football is in the end. It's not the off-tackle belly that Woody ran or the power that Bo ran or Jim runs. Those are plays. It's the format. It's hard work and dedication and commitment."

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The roots for the Harbaugh boys go deeper than just the Saturdays during which they saw Woody and Bo battle up close.

Jack Harbaugh played at Bowling Green for Doyt Perry, who had previously served on Hayes' staff at Ohio State with Schembechler. John Harbaugh wound up playing at Miami of Ohio, the school from which Ohio State plucked Hayes and from which Michigan hired Schembechler. And Jim Harbaugh was a Heisman Trophy finalist for Schembechler as a Wolverine.

Still, those 1970s fall weekends in Ann Arbor were largely responsible for forming a belief system in the brothers.

Jack Harbaugh always made sure his sons had something to do on Saturdays. Maybe it was to keep them busy; maybe it was to expose them to what was out there for them. The kids were at every Michigan home game. Before some games, the boys would be parking cars. During others, they'd be handing out hot dogs in the press box.

There were also times when they'd run the phone wires for the coaches. John remembers handling those duties for Hayes, the coach wearing short sleeves in 20-degree weather and screaming at the top of his lungs.

The trade-off here was a front-row seat to history. It was surreal then for John and Jim. Interestingly enough, even with all of the experiences and success they've accumulated since, those memories remain that way for them.

"Those two men -- Bo and Woody Hayes -- in my young mind, and in my old mind today, and every year in between, those two are larger than life," Jim Harbaugh said, wrapping up another practice day with a Super Bowl ahead. "I spent a great deal of time thinking about those men and how they approached the game, how they approached teaching, and then tried my very best to be like them."

Maybe the best example of how that manifested begins with the first Michigan-Ohio State game that Jack Harbaugh and his sons were a part of, in 1973. Both teams entered unbeaten. The game ended in a 10-10 tie. Ohio State came in with a quarterback who had a broken thumb and threw just one pass. Michigan rolled up a grand total of 90 yards through the air.

By today's standards, the game was as modern as a telegram. But it was played in a way that the young Harbaughs learned as the right one.

"To me, those days, that's the No. 1 foundation for us," John Harbaugh said. "Not the style necessarily, because that changes. But if Bo or Woody were around today, I bet they'd play like the Niners or the Ravens. They'd be creative and all that. But just the foundation, that's the same. Putting the team first, playing field position, good defense and special teams, no turnovers. That's the football part we took, it's what we observed, and it's stuck in there."

Indeed, John can still remember the athletic directors of the Big Ten voting Ohio State -- and not Michigan -- to the Rose Bowl after the 10-10 tie, and the reason why: Wolverines quarterback Dennis Franklin had broken his collarbone, thus making the Buckeyes seem like better representatives for the conference in Pasadena. The Ravens coach also remembers a picture of Franklin throwing the ball appearing on the front page of the New Year's Day edition of the Detroit Free Press -- which validated, in the kids' minds, the notion that their dad's team had been wronged.

As John Harbaugh said, some things stick with you.

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The 2012 playoffs have once again validated the hard-nosed style of play that Schembechler and Hayes subscribed to, and that Harbaugh and Harbaugh continue to advance.

But it also goes back to that old saying.

"The Team, The Team, The Team," Jim Harbaugh said, smiling broadly. "Most certainly."

Despite a rash of injuries that hit the Ravens' defense like the plague, Baltimore held a succession of offenses led by Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to a total of four touchdowns in three playoff games. Up-and-down quarterback Joe Flacco made plays when it mattered most. The reshuffled offensive line came together.

Meanwhile, the Niners' defense dominated Aaron Rodgers and the offense ran the option all over the Green Bay Packers in their divisional-round matchup. And after falling behind 24-14 at halftime of the NFC Championship Game, precocious quarterback Colin Kaepernick led San Francisco back while the defense got its act together, shutting out the Atlanta Falcons over the final 30 minutes.

Along the way, both Harbaughs had difficult decisions -- Jim benching veteran quarterback Alex Smith, John firing former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron -- validated.

In the end, that provided even more affirmation of everything they'd picked up over their childhood.

"The whole thing -- pretty close to 100 percent -- is from then; everything we think comes from that time," John said. "I remember dad would tell us about Bo's decision making, that Bo never slept on a decision. He'd say the right thing should be obvious, and you do the right thing and move on. You don't think about ramifications, you only think about the right thing, the best thing for the team. That's it."

Niners linebacker Tavares Gooden is the one position player on either roster who has played for both men. He said there are differences, but that the similarities -- in style, competitiveness, principles and the way they handle players -- are uncanny. The makeup and image of each team, he adds, very much reflects each coach.

The simplicity of that might best explain how yesteryear is carried on.

The Harbaughs love those elements of their family's story. "From the third stool to the Super Bowl," John said, explaining how their immigrant grandfather used to sit on the third barstool at the Crestline, Ohio branch of the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Jim starts his explanation of the bond with Bo by saying the coach "provided our family's father with a job, put milk and food on the table and a roof over our heads."

So it really is no wonder, given all this, that the Niners and Ravens look alike in many ways.

It's obvious that these brothers have the same past. But this is more about how the lessons of that past impact how their teams are put together.

"If anyone compares us to the 49ers, that'd be a compliment," John said. "On tape, there were so many times, going back to last year when we played them, where we'd look at that team and say, 'That's what we want to be, that's what we want to look like.' It's about what players they have, and how they tailor it to what they do well. And I'd like to think if the two staffs flipped teams, they would look the same, within close parameters. We'd look the same. They'd look the same."

After this week is over and done with and a champion has been crowned, the Ravens and 49ers will continue to evolve and change. San Francisco will grow around Kaepernick. Baltimore will undergo a shift in leadership, with Ray Lewis retiring.

But the foundation will remain.

After all, it's not like that part is anything new.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.