The Harbaughs — and Their Godfather

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Even those who don’t follow sports probably know the Super Bowl is a week from Sunday.  And, for the first time ever, in any major American sport, the opposing head coaches are brothers.  More important for Michiganders, they are the Harbaugh brothers, John and Jim, who went to Ann Arbor Pioneer High School.  So, you’ll probably start to hear lots of stories from the folks who met them along the way.

Well, count me in.

Their dad, Jack, coached under Michigan’s Bo Schembechler in the 70s.  His oldest son John played football at Pioneer High and Miami of Ohio, then worked his way up the ladder until he became the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens in 2008.  He told the Washington Post he’s based his coaching philosophy on Bo’s coaching philosophy.

John’s younger brother Jim has had a complicated relationship with Michigan, but not with Bo.  Jim is my age, and when we were 12 he was Michigan’s ball boy —which made all of us envious.  I played against him in baseball, and with him in hockey.  That was my best sport, and I was just barely better than he was – that’s my claim, anyway – and hockey was his fourth sport, which he played on the side during basketball season.  Guess which one of us became a sports writer?

Even in eighth grade, Harbaugh might have been the most competitive person I’ve ever met – and in my business, I have met a few.

He played four sports every year, specialization be damned.  In his first year in high school, he was Pioneer’s starting quarterback, starting point guard, and starting pitcher.  That is an athlete.

When his dad started coaching at Stanford, Jim finished high school in Palo Alto, but even Stanford didn’t offer him a scholarship.  Late in the recruiting cycle, only Wisconsin – then a Big Ten bottom feeder – offered him a full ride, until Schembechler saved him with a scholarship at the eleventh hour.

What happened next is the stuff of legend.  Jim Harbaugh started his sophomore year, until he broke his arm trying to recover a fumble mid-season.  The team finished 6-6, Bo’s worst season.  The next year, a healthy Harbaugh led Michigan to a #2 final ranking, the highest of Bo’s career.  In Harbaugh’s last season, the Wolverines were undefeated, ranked second in the nation, with a real chance to win Bo’s first and only national title, going into their last home game – which they lost, to a mediocre Minnesota squad.

Everybody was distraught – but not Harbaugh, who immediately and publicly guaranteed victory over Ohio State.  Nobody ever said the man lacked confidence.  Then he backed it up with a gutsy 26-24 victory.  That’s what most fans remember about his Michigan days, but that’s not what Harbaugh remembers best.

When Bo passed away in 2006, just as we were finishing his last book, I solicited stories from his former players.  Harbaugh had just been named Stanford’s head coach, which obviously made him a little busy, but he dropped everything to send me this.

“To this day,” he wrote, “I remember almost all of my encounters with Bo in great detail.”  But the most memorable, he said, occurred a few days after the 1985 Ohio State game.  Bo called him into his office, and told him to sit down.  Then Bo stood up, planted both fists on his desk, looked Harbaugh right in the eye — and told he had played one of the finest games he had ever seen a Michigan quarterback play.  Then he fell back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling.  “What it must feel like,” he said, “to have a son play the way you did!  To stand in that pocket with the safety bearing down on you unblocked, and hit Jon Kolesar to seal the victory. UNBLOCKED!”  He chuckled, and said, “I’m proud of you, Jim.”

Harbaugh wrote, “I felt as loved and appreciated as I have ever felt, like I was one of Bo’s sons.  In reality, I was one of Bo’s thousands of sons.”

Next Sunday, in the Super Bowl, it’s not just two brothers facing each other, but two of Bo’s sons.  We don’t have to wonder if Bo would be proud.

* * * * *

Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are profane or insane, and who include their FULL name. 

Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit, Flint, 104.1 Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later,  I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on, 1050 AM.  And on Sunday mornings, from the start of football season to the end of March Madness, I co-host “Off the Field” with the legendary Jamie Morris on WTKA from 10-11 a.m.  And yes, there will be a quiz, so “stop what you’re doing, and listen!”

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“Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” can be ordered now, in hardcover or paperback.

My next book, “Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football,” will be published by Simon & Schuster in September, 2013.




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3 comments Leave a comment  

  • Ed January 25, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    Really enjoyed “Three and Out” It was a fasinating look a at the Rodriguez years, and more important a inside look at college football .I look forward to your next book because college football is headed for some interesting changes, that frankly worries me. This year I have decided to give up my season tickets , the cost has surpassed pro prices with the ” contribution” tacked on to the cost of the tickets, enough!

  • Joe Battocletti January 26, 2013 at 11:19 am

    Thanx for a great post. Am I a victim of false memory or did Jim show up late for one of his first U-M meetings to be told by Bo: “YOU’LL NEVER PLAY A DOWN OF FOOTBALL AT MICH AS LONG AS YOU LIVE!”?

    “Three & Out” was a virtuoso work of reporting and writing. I hope its sales have reflected its quality. I talked it up to my football fan friends…even ones who are “Green”. I think RichRod was a victim of “square peg-round hole”, and he will achieve whatever vindication might be necessary at U-A. And this is from a lifelong WVU fan who understood that if he had been 2-11 the same people who screamed about “treachery, etc” would have been leading the “RichRod must go” mob.

    I knew from my pals in WV that there was more backstory surrounding his departure from Morgantown than came out at the time. That’s another reason I found “Three and Out” to be such an enthralling read. I am looking forward to “Fourth and Long”.

    I think the tradition started by Murray Sperber & Michael Oriard of academics writing thoughtful and entertaining books about college football is in good hands with you.

    Joe Battocletti
    Roscommon, MI

  • James F. Epperson January 29, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    I remember watching that 85 game–on the network broadcast, the camera didn’t switch to show Kolesar make the catch, it showed Harbaugh get drilled, and it was momentarily unclear whether Musberger was calling a pick-6 or a Michigan TD. So my heart—which was a young one then—skipped a few beats 😉


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