Tuesday, January 29, 2013
SEATTLE — Let me tell you about Jack Harbaugh, the father of the Super siblings. The man is the most authentic person I’ve ever met. If he were food, he’d have an organic label on his chest.
And by authentic, I don’t mean he’s just impressively nice all the time. We often limit that description to those who are kind without being phony. But there are layers to Harbaugh’s authenticity. I’ve seen him genuinely outraged, genuinely compassionate, genuinely petty, genuinely funny, genuinely confused, genuinely singing, genuinely in tears and genuinely puckering up to lay a kiss on anyone near him.
I met Harbaugh in college, at Western Kentucky University, where he took the football program from its deathbed to a Division I-AA national championship. If you want insight into how his sons, John and Jim Harbaugh, have made history by turning the Super Bowl into a family reunion, you have to start with this gregarious 73-year-old former coach.
Jack can be as composed and charming as John, the Baltimore Ravens coach. And he can be as irascible and demanding as Jim, the San Francisco 49ers coach. Like his sons, the father is a fighter who should never be underestimated. And while you can choose whether to like him — and Jack doesn’t much care — there is no negotiating the respect he demands.
You could say my journalism career began with Jack Harbaugh. I first interviewed him in high school, during a summer journalism workshop at Western. I can still hear him interrupting me as I stammered through questions and saying, “Ask what you want to know. I’ll tell ya.” That first phone conversation lasted more than an hour. It redefined my expectations of a good interview.
Later, while in college, I would often go to Harbaugh’s office expecting a 20-minute interview and leave 2-½ hours later with an entire notebook full of quotes and life lessons. The Philosophical Harbaugh — that’s the guy I loved the most. When he started talking about how he saw the world, it was too compelling to interrupt. It was best to forget your agenda and listen to the man talk.
I don’t want to lionize Harbaugh. He had flaws. He was a very good coach, but he was fired from Western Michigan, his first head-coaching job, in 1986. He’ll tell you he was just figuring himself out back then. He was a disciple of Michigan coaching great Bo Schembechler, and Harbaugh tried to do things the Michigan way instead of his own way. He started his Western Michigan tenure with back-to-back winning seasons, but after three losing seasons, he was let go. That failure always ate at him.
Then he came to Western Kentucky and evolved while guiding the program through difficulty. In 1992, the school considered eliminating football, but after an eleventh hour save, the Board of Regents voted 5-4 to keep the sport. Despite the narrow victory, there would be hard times.
The coaching staff was reduced from six to four. Scholarships were reduced from 63 to 50. The football operating budget was cut in half, to $450,000.
Harbaugh once offered to cut his salary by $10,000 to help the program, but the athletic director said no. The Hilltoppers even tried to raise money by playing a Russian team in an exhibition game, but the Russian team’s coach wound up getting arrested and escorted from Smith Stadium in a police cruiser. The program was turning into a joke.
“Everybody thought we had won, but I thought it was going to be a slow death,” Harbaugh said.
But the program didn’t die because the coach remained committed, and his sons provided assistance. In 1994, John and Jim hatched a plan to help their father recruit better. Jim, who was still an NFL quarterback, became a volunteer assistant coach. John, who was an assistant at the University of Cincinnati, used his free time and resources to compile lists of under-the-radar recruits that Western should pursue.
With improved talent, the father wound up leading the Hilltoppers to seven consecutive winning seasons, including the Division I-AA national title in 2002. Overall, Jack Harbaugh had a 91-68 record in 14 seasons at Western.
The Harbaughs are a close family defined by coaching. Jack and his wife, Jackie (yes, Jack and Jackie), also have a daughter, Joani, who is married to Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean. If Crean, whose Hoosiers are ranked No. 3 currently, wins a championship in the same year that the Harbaugh boys go to the Super Bowl, then perhaps every coach in the family should retire and start working on a movie.
It’s a complex story that starts with a complex father. Jack Harbaugh, for all his charisma, made enemies because he had to fight for survival for so long. He has no problems expressing disagreement. He fought with athletic directors, university presidents and media members. And if you think Jim Harbaugh has a temper, then you don’t know Jack.
Even when Jack left Western, it wasn’t in storybook fashion. He left with a national championship in his final season, but he didn’t agree with the athletic department’s direction, voiced it and walked away without the parade he deserved. That’s Jack Harbaugh, always fighting, always staying true to his beliefs.
But the fight for survival is over. The Harbaughs are living famously now. The best part about the Har-bowl, as some are calling it: The permanent smile on the faces of Jack and Jackie, the proudest of parents. They’ve earned it.
Look for Jack Harbaugh’s tears Sunday. His bundle of emotions is certain to untangle. It’ll be a genuine reaction from a man who has endured the sweet and sour of the coaching profession.