NEW ORLEANS — I’ll never forget my reaction upon learning the Ravens were interested in John Harbaugh as a candidate to replace the fired Brian Billick as head coach in 2008.
I wasn’t alone as many asked the same question about the Philadelphia Eagles assistant and longtime special teams coordinator of Andy Reid.
Don’t they mean Jim?
Of course, Ravens fans were familiar with former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh after his stop in Baltimore during the 1998 season, but only the savviest football fans knew anything about his older brother by 15 months. Even watching the brothers together in a press conference two days before the Ravens and San Francisco 49ers meet in Super Bowl XLVII, you get the sense the older brother is still trying to escape the younger one’s shadow.
John wore a sharp suit while the San Francisco coach wore a black sweatshirt, khakis, and a 49ers cap. It was a sharp contrast as John has embraced the media coverage of Super Bowl week — or at least tolerates it far better — while Jim has appeared disinterested in any and all questions except those about his parents and son Jay, who works as an assistant for John and the Ravens. The Baltimore head man buys into the corporate image while Jim, the accomplished former pro quarterback, looks the part of the old high school jock with nothing to prove.
It makes no difference in how either is truly evaluated as each Harbaugh brother is a terrific coach, with a combined five conference championship appearances in seven seasons between them. But John has always balanced celebrating his younger brother’s accomplishments with a tenacious desire to be as good as he possibly can despite lacking the physical tools Jim had growing up.
John played college football at Miami University of Ohio, but Jim starred for one of the biggest programs in the country at the University of Michigan. The older brother became a college coach while the younger one played quarterback in the NFL.
Even when it appeared John had finally found a way to outdo his brother by leading the Ravens to playoff victories in each of his first three seasons as head coach — including an AFC championship game appearance — Jim was hired by San Francisco and led the 49ers to the conference championship in each of his first two seasons, culminating with their teams meeting in New Orleans on Sunday.
“There are none better than Jim Harbaugh, and I mean that seriously,” John said on Friday. “There’s no better coach in the National Football League than this guy right here.”
The brothers said they would hire the other if and when the time comes that one loses his head coaching job, but the compliments flowed more freely from John’s mouth than they did from Jim, who replied to his other brother’s compliment by suggesting father Jack Harbaugh was the best coach of them all.
Being older and the more media-friendly brother, John took the lead on most questions and was asked if he still feels the need or desire to want to protect his younger brother. Even though Jim was the better athlete and became the starting quarterback on their high school team as a sophomore, it was John who smoothed things over with teammates taking issue with Jim’s cocky demeanor.
Now, however, the older brother competes directly against blood after so many battles growing up in the backyard. There’s no need to protect, even if their bond is still strong.
“No, not at all. I suspect he feels the same way,” John said. “It’s about the teams. We are fiercely loyal, there’s no doubt. We all say that. Not just of one another and we always have been. That’s definitely not ever going to change, we will continue to be fiercely loyal and protective of one another, but also of our teams.”
Perhaps the most memorable moment of Friday’s press conference was John’s description of following Jim’s 15-year playing career in the NFL while he plodded through the lesser-known collegiate coaching ranks before finally reaching Philadelphia and the NFL in 1998 — the only season his older brother played in Baltimore.
It was a glimpse into the human element of this remarkable meeting of brothers at the Super Bowl and shows how often John has been the one rooting on his younger brother, who always owned the spotlight.
“I can just remember living and dying, along with our parents and [sister] Joani, with every single snap that Jim ever took as an NFL football player, whether it was Chicago or Indianapolis, or all the other places he was at. That is how it is when you’re family.”
The time feels right for John to finally step away from his brother’s shadow and finally put to rest the notion of him being “Jim’s older brother.” We’ve known in Baltimore just how special the “other” Harbaugh is for quite some time, but Sunday will give him a chance to do what he really wants — even if he’d never admit it because of his love for his brother.
He wants to beat Jim, the man who was bigger, taller, faster, and better than him on the field despite his best efforts and many accomplishments on which he should be very proud. The sideline has become the great equalizer for the 50-year-old Ravens head coach, but one brother will leapfrog the other in that department after the Ravens or 49ers are crowned Super Bowl champions.
You can tell how badly John Harbaugh wants this based on everything he’s done throughout the week in New Orleans. He’s looked and talked the part of a champion as he has throughout his five seasons in Baltimore. He was born to be in a Super Bowl.
Both men are fantastic leaders worthy of a championship, but only one will prevail on Sunday.
“Great competitions have been won and adversity has been battled through by both teams,” John said. “For the side that comes up short, it’s going to be a bitter disappointment. That’s how football works. That’s how life is, and we understand that.”
Knowing from where they’ve come and their respective backgrounds, it’s tough not to root for John, the successful and loving older brother who never could quite do the same things his younger brother did on the field.
The timing feels right for that competition to finally swing in the opposite direction.
And maybe we’ll refer to Jim as “John’s younger brother” just this once.