The Harbaugh bowl: A family affair on Thanksgiving

Brothers Jim and John Harbaugh go head to head in the first NFL game with sibling head coaches on each side of the field. The brothers have always liked to compete, and it can’t get much better than this.

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Talk about your coaching families. Jack Harbaugh coached football for 46 years, ending his career in 2009 as running backs coach for Stanford. His sons, John and Jim, are both NFL coaches. His daughter, Joani, is married to Indiana University basketball coach Tom Crean.

Now, John and Jim are poised to become the first brothers to face off as head coaches in an NFL game — because they’re the only brothers to be NFL head coaches simultaneously.

Both brothers have said they competed in everything they did in childhood, while remaining very close. John, the older by two years at 49, also preceded his brother into an NFL head coaching job by two years, and Jim, 47, has said he made frequent phone calls to John seeking advice about NFL coaching after he took the 49ers’ job.

But there have been no phone calls this week.

Their childhood experiences shaped both men in their coaching careers. Because Jack Harbaugh was coaching in the Midwest through 1979, John grew up in the region and has spent his entire playing and coaching career east of the Mississippi.

But in 1980, when Jim was a junior in high school, Jack took a job as an assistant at Stanford. Jim graduated from Palo Alto High School and worked at Stanford in the summers.

He went to college at Michigan, which was a mixed experience for him. He has talked many times of what he learned about football from Bo Schembechler, but he aired his disappointment over the school’s “two-track” policy toward athletes when I interviewed him for a San Francisco Examiner column shortly after he was hired as Stanford’s head coach. Despite frequent media speculation that he would return to his alma mater as head coach, he never had any intention of that.

In fact, Jim Harbaugh’s total coaching experience has been in California. Like many of us who were born elsewhere, he’s learned this is the best place to live. He started coaching with the Raiders, one year as an offensive assistant, the next as quarterbacks coach, and then went to the University of San Diego as head coach, ignoring the advice of Al Davis to stay with the Raiders. Harbaugh was next named head coach at Stanford, succeeding Walt Harris, who had gone 1-11 his final year. He built the Cardinal into a national power, ending his time with a win in the Orange Bowl, and then signed a contract with the 49ers.

Jack Harbaugh obviously taught his sons well because success has followed both of them.

John got an earlier start on his coaching career because, unlike Jim, who played 15 years as a quarterback in the NFL, he wasn’t good enough to play professionally. He started off as a collegiate assistant before going to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1998.

Again, the brothers were shaped by their earlier experiences in their coaching careers. Because he played quarterback, Jim has been offensive minded from the start. He is especially good at working with quarterbacks, as he proved with Josh Johnson at San Diego and Andrew Luck at Stanford. This year, he has revived the career of Alex Smith with the 49ers.

John was a defensive back in college and he has specialized in defense in his coaching. He made an almost unprecedented leap from defensive backs coach with the Eagles to head coach of the Baltimore Ravens in 2008. He has justified that hiring by taking his team to the postseason for three straight years, with records of 11-5, 9-7 and 12-4.

Jim Harbaugh, in his first season as an NFL head coach, has revitalized a 49ers team that hadn’t had a winning team since 2002, winning more games in half a season than the 2010 team won in a full one.

Predicting who will win today’s game is impossible, but it’s easy to predict that it will be well-coached on both sides. That’s the family tradition.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on Email him at

Good first impression

How Jim and John Harbaugh fared during the first season of their first NFL head-coaching jobs:

Record 9-1 11-5
Winning percentage .900 .688
Playoffs TBD 2-1
Offensive rank 7th 11th
Defensive rank 1st 3rd

* Through 10 games

Walsh’s model helping Harbaugh thrive with 49ers

Jim Harbaugh followed Bill Walsh’s model in putting together a team, which is why he’s been successful while every other 49ers coach since 2002 had failed.

Walsh believed in having strong assistants, most notably George Seifert, his defensive coordinator. Walsh was his own offensive coordinator, but he depended on offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick to design running plays, and he had good offensive help from Paul Hackett and Mike Holmgren, both later head coaches.

Similarly, Harbaugh has a superb defensive coordinator in Vic Fangio, who was also an assistant at Stanford, and he also brought over Greg Roman, who fills the same role that McKittrick did for Walsh. Special teams coach Brad Seely is also superb.

In contrast, Mike Singletary fired offensive coordinator Mike Martz and insisted that his assistants all follow his lead. Since Singletary’s football knowledge is so limited, that was a recipe for disaster.

Mike Nolan had two good offensive coordinators, Mike McCarthy and Norv Turner, but both left after a year to become head coaches. His other assistants were mediocre.

But mediocre was a step up from Dennis Erickson’s staff. Erickson hired friends, none good coaches. “I didn’t realize how much coaching you have to do at this level,” he confessed to me. His assistants weren’t up to the challenge.

Walsh fit his system to his players. The first team he had was totally bereft of defensive talent, so he had quarterback Steve DeBerg throwing often to put points on the board. DeBerg set team passing records, but the 49ers were only 2-14 in his first season. The second season, the Niners were 6-10, but the last three wins were with Joe Montana at quarterback.

The 49ers drafted defensive backs Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson in the 1981 draft, to go with the signing of free agent Dwight Hicks, so they suddenly had a defense. That allowed Walsh to go to the controlled offense he preferred, with Montana throwing short- to middle-range passes that “moved the chains.”

Similarly, Harbaugh inherited a team with more talent on defense, so he has coached a usually conservative offensive system, emphasizing not turning over the ball with interceptions or fumbles, and with a strong running game.

Walsh faced media criticism in his first two losing seasons. Frequent losses haven’t been Harbaugh’s problem, but his media critics have often focused on a less than spectacular offense. But like Walsh, Harbaugh never changes course because of criticism. That’s made him — and the 49ers — a success. — Glenn Dickey


Piloting the ship

A look at how 49ers coaches have fared since the Bill Walsh era:

Jim Harbaugh, 2011 9-1 .900
Jim Tomsula*, 2010 1-0 1.000
Mike Singletary, 2008-10 18-22 .450
Mike Nolan, 2005-08 18-37 .327
Dennis Erickson, 2003-04 9-23 .231
Steve Mariucci, 1997-2002 57-39 .594
George Seifert, 1989-1996 98-30 .766
Bill Walsh, 1979-1988 92-59-1 .609

* Interim coach

The Harbaugh coaching tree

Coaching runs in the family for the Harbaughs. Father Jack has coached through five decades while sons John and Jim have had success coaching at the highest level. Here’s some highlights of the family’s coaching experience:

Jack Harbaugh
2004-06: University of San Diego running backs coach
1989-2002: Western Kentucky coach
1987-88: University of Pittsburgh assistant coach
1982-86: Western Michigan coach
1980-81: Stanford defensive coordinator
1973-79: Michigan defensive backs coach
1971-73: Iowa assistant coach

Joani Crean
Married to Indiana University men’s basketball coach Tom Crean

John Harbaugh
2008-present: Ravens coach
2007: Philadelphia Eagles secondary coach
1998-2006: Philadelphia Eagles special teams coordinator
1997: Indiana University special teams coordinator

Jim Harbaugh
2011: 49ers coach
2007-10: Stanford coach
2004-06: University of San Diego coach
2002-03: Raiders quarterbacks coach
1994-2001: Western Kentucky assistant coach

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