Jack Harbaugh couldn't help but get choked up as he stood on the sidelines of LP Field last Saturday evening. His son's football team had just won a hard-fought contest against one of the best teams in the NFL, and as the clock ticked down to zero, the father and son embraced one another as a nation of fans watched the Ravens advance to their second AFC Championship in franchise history.
Exactly one year after John Harbaugh was hired as the third head coach in Ravens history, he will lead his team in the conference title game with a berth in the Super Bowl on the line. But Jack Harbaugh can't help but reminisce about the path his son took to get to here.
Or of how the entire Harbaugh family has helped shape that path.
"We're all just so proud of him," the elder Harbaugh said for himself and his family. "We've watched him throughout his career. We've worked on football, had discussions about football and had discussions about life. He's paid his dues to get here."
Jack Harbaugh recounted how his son started his career as a graduate assistant under him while he coached at Western Michigan, how he moved up the ranks at Pittsburgh, Morehead State, Cincinnati and Indiana, how Ray Rhodes took a chance on him at the professional level with the Philadelphia Eagles, and how Andy Reid decided to keep him around when he was hired one year later.
"It's been a real emotional journey to watch him up to now," Harbaugh said.
Son of a Coach, Father of a Coach
Jack Harbaugh was an assistant under legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, who served as an uncle figure to John and his brother Jim as they grew up. Schembechler often allowed coaches' kids to be around the practices every day, though as Jack Harbaugh joked, "If a ball rolled onto the field during practice, I would think 'Please dear God don't let that be one of my kids.'"
Jack Harbaugh gives his wife Jackie most of the credit with helping foster that environment for his kids. She would often take them to the practices where their father was working with the students in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As the boys got older, John Harbaugh's brother Jim gained attention as a quarterback, became a four-year letterman for the Wolverines and would have a successful career in the NFL (including a one-year stint with the Ravens in 1998). Despite the accolades his brother got, John always gave him total support.
"He never said 'Why not me," Jack Harbaugh stated, describing the closeness of his family and the dynamic football has helped create. Nevertheless, the elder Harbaugh insisted they are a normal family.
"We share football, no question, but we're no different than any other family," he said.
With the two sons growing up around so many players, close relationships were formed.
After the game on Saturday, former Michigan quarterback Ricky Leach called Jack Harbaugh to congratulate the family, asking "How's Johnny doing? How's Jimmy doing?" Wolverine defensive end Curtis Greer has also checked in from time to time to see how the family and the brothers are doing, who were just kids when he played in college.
There are other influences of Schembechler on the Ravens that should be noted. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron started his coaching career as an assistant under Schembechler, and assistant offensive line coach Andy Moeller was a player for Schembechler, serving as captain along with John's brother for a time.
"They developed a real passion for the game that has become a foundation for them," Jack Harbaugh said about his sons.
He acknowledged the difficulties, however, of raising a family and being a coach.
"You leave in the morning when it's dark, and you come home when it's dark sometimes and the kids are in bed," he said. "There are ups and downs, and as the kids grow up they see the ups and downs. They see when you come home after losing by 3 and you look like you're in a coma."
Still, he feels it gives him some credibility to see his children enter coaching.
"You take a certain satisfaction in knowing that your kids saw it, saw it all, and decided to follow in the profession," he offered.
This weekend's match-up with the Pittsburgh Steelers may strum up memories of the fierce rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State. But for Jack Harbaugh, he can't help but recall another AFC Championship where a Harbaugh was facing the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Jim Harbaugh was the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts the year they lost the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh. Jim Harbaugh was one Hail Mary throw away from quarterbacking his team to the Super Bowl, but he came just short.
Jack Harbaugh hopes history doesn't repeat itself this weekend.
What's Our Name?
John Harbaugh's influence on this team should be evident, considering his team is playing this weekend while 28 others are not. But Jack Harbaugh's influence has been apparent, as well. It was Jack who shared the story of boxer Muhammad Ali's match with Ernie Terrell, who refused to call Ali by name. By the time Ali was finished fighting Terrell, he knew his name.
Jack Harbaugh had originally used the anecdote when he coached at Western Kentucky in 2002, the year they won the Division I-AA national football championship. Western Kentucky was the tournament's 15th seed, and had to play their way through the rounds. Jack Harbaugh instilled in his players the need to gain respect, to command it instead of expecting it.
"I thought the Ravens might have the same identity crisis," he noted, and how the concept could also be applied to Baltimore in general. "I think it's very appropriate for the city and the team to adopt this slogan."
What's Our Name? has now became a notable mantra for Ravens fans throughout the playoffs.
Football and Family in Charm City
Jack Harbaugh talks with his son at least once a week, and will attend practices when he can. Often when they speak over the phone, it's just to catch up. His son may not call for advice on football, but Jack Harbaugh thinks he often looks for affirmation in their conversations.
Like his father, John Harbaugh credits his wife Ingrid for helping him lay a strong foundation. The devotion to family is very present throughout the Ravens' facility, especially at Saturday morning practices when coaches often bring their kids, just as Schembechler allowed when John was younger. Jack commented how one morning there were about 22 different youngsters.
"For Coach Harbaugh to do that created a [great] atmosphere," said kicker Matt Stover, who has three kids of his own. "The kids get to know you better, and the [other players] get to know you better. My kids will treasure that forever."
"It's neat," added assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. "My youngest Seth will come to the games and the practices. It's a great experience for him."
Ryan, who is also the son of a coach, grew up in a similar background, which helped affirm his future as a coach.
It was fitting for Baltimore to get a head coach who understands that bond and who uses it when coaching.
"I had [a] powerful feeling on the sidelines, sharing that moment with my son, and it's still happening now," Jack Harbaugh said, sensing how united the team is as it prepares for the AFC Championship.
"To me, I'm just so proud of how he's handled himself," he continued with a smile. "He's light years ahead of where I was."
Jack Harbaugh sees deeper into the father/son bond that can be forged from football. He related how coming home from Nashville there were thousands of fans waiting to cheer on the team. He could not help but notice how many of them were fathers with their kids.
He noted how his family's time in Baltimore has helped them develop a strong understanding of the city, how so many fans today were taken to Baltimore Colts games when they were younger, and now have the opportunity to do the same today at Ravens games.
Jack understood immediately as he saw all of the father/son combos.