It was 1993, and Jack Harbaugh figured his coaching career was finished.
Western Kentucky, where he was the head coach, had decided to drop the football program, and Harbaugh had been informed that the university wouldn’t even conduct a spring practice. With a lot of years of coaching in the bank, Harbaugh was getting ready to announce his retirement.
His son-in-law, a Western Kentucky assistant basketball coach named Tom Crean, didn’t think that was such a good idea.
On Thursday, Harbaugh retold one of his favorite stories on a national conference call to discuss the upcoming Super Bowl matchup between Harbaugh’s coaching sons, John (Baltimore Ravens) and Jim (San Francisco 49ers).
“I remember Tom saying, ‘You and I need to take a walk,’” Harbaugh said. “So we took a walk around the block with my dog, TD. Tom hates dogs.
“The program was lost, and I told Tom, ‘This is it. I decided I am going to retire.’ He said, ‘You are a young man. Do you have any plans what you might do?’”
Crean reminded Harbaugh that he wasn’t making a lot of money as a basketball assistant at Western Kentucky. “He said, ‘If you think Joani and I are going to support you, you might think about making this thing work.’”
Harbaugh paused for a moment and laughed.
“That’s a pretty good story,” Jack said.
The message was clear. This is a family, and let’s fight through things together. We can find a way. Good coaches always do.
Jack’s wife, Jackie, talked about how the family, including Crean, became immersed in football program fundraising. Jim Harbaugh joined his father as an unpaid, full-time assistant at Western Kentucky to help with the effort. John, who was an assistant at Cincinnati at the time, did whatever he could to help, and that included pointing his dad and brother toward a few recruits. Eventually, a streamlined budget was put together, the program was saved, and Jack Harbaugh continued there until he won a I-AA national championship in 2002.
When you take a close look at the Harbaughs or Crean, two things stand above everything else. One, obsession. Two, family.
It wouldn’t seem the two would blend together, but they really do. When any unhealthy obsession takes over, the love of family can bring a person back to earth.
Covering college football and basketball more than 20 years, I have seen the unhealthy side of coaching obsession, the long hours and nights sleeping at the stadium. It can lead to divorce, the loss of friends, even despair.
To understand Jim and John Harbaugh — and you can throw Tom Crean in there as well — you have to understand that a devoted family allows them to function with a drive that destroys many.
“The one thing about it, the rock of our family is Jackie,” Jack said. “She did all the heavy lifting. In 43 years of coaching, we moved 17 times. (Coaches) leave early in the morning before the sun comes up and come home in the evening after the sun went down. She deserves all the credit.”
Jackie, along with the wives of John (Ingrid), Jim (Sarah) and Tom (Joani), realize their husbands are obsessed with coaching. They have to make sure their little slivers of time together are quality.
As a 10-year-old, Joani learned to splice football film together to be part of her dad’s world. Then there were other ways. “We would sit down at the kitchen table, I would color his scouting report,” she said.
Afternoon with dad might mean a few minutes on the football field during practice.
But that lifestyle rubs off on family members, even if they have “no athletic talent.”
When she landed a part in the “Wizard of Oz” play as a Munchkin, Joani learned everyone’s lines. “I was offended I wasn’t Dorothy or Glinda,” she said. She learned the other lines just in case somebody came down with the mumps.
It was a coaches’ world.
Understanding the Harbaugh household leads to understanding Jim and John and why they have become the first brother combination to coach against each other in the Super Bowl.
“They understand that the main lesson has been making their team part of their own family and bringing their team together as a family,” Jackie said. “Joani and Tom have done the same thing with their basketball team.”
Jack knows it is going to be hard watching his sons face each other again as they did on Thanksgiving Day 2011, a game that the Ravens won.
“Watching both John and Jim, and Tom at Indiana, has been incredible ... how hard they work and how they believe in the team, the team, the team.
“But at the end of the game, it still is about family and the feelings we have for one another,” Jack said.
A voice, John from Baltimore, popped into the conference call. “Is it true you both like Jim better than John?” was the question.
Then Joani realized it was her brother.
“Mom was ready to come right through this phone,” Jack said. “She grabbed my arm and was reaching for the phone. It was a good thing Joani recognized your voice.”
John Harbaugh took a break from the second-most important thing in his life to visit with the most important, family. “I have to go to practice now,” he said.
“Love you both,” he said to his parents. “Love you, Joani.”
Jay Heater is the Republic sports editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or 379-5632.