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SportsTuesday Column: The making of a champion

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 22, 2013

Two weeks ago, Jim Harbaugh arranged for a small laminated sheet to be hung above every San Francisco 49ers locker.

Players from different decades, from Randy Moss to Patrick Willis to Colin Kaepernick, peered above their lockers after a team meeting to investigate. Each sheet was different. The white plaques had each player’s recruiting rankings, college logo and a grainy photo from high school.

Some, like Moss, had No. 1 rankings splashed across the sheet. Others, like Ray McDonald, were nobodies, unranked and forgotten. Harbaugh asked only that the 49ers look back at themselves and remember.

“Coach really wants us to tap into what we wanted to be at that time,” safety Donte Whitner told the Los Angeles Times. “When you look at this picture, it’s like, ‘At this moment, what did I want to be?’ ”

What they wanted to be was never in question. They wanted to be champions.

On Feb. 3, the 49ers will battle the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. On one sideline, Jim Harbaugh. On the other, John Harbaugh.

The 49ers are right where they want to be.

Harbaugh never made a laminated sheet for himself. “They didn’t have the Internet back in 1982 that I’m aware of,” he told reporters with a laugh. But he surely knows the answer to the question he asked his team: What did you want to be?

***

Jim Harbaugh wanted to be a champion.

He spent much of his childhood in Ann Arbor, around the bend from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, where he and John both starred on the dusty prep football field across the intersection from Michigan Stadium.

The sons of a journeyman assistant coach, Jack Harbaugh, who found his footing as an assistant coach under Bo Schembechler at Michigan, the boys were born to coach. When their father accepted a defensive coordinator position at Stanford in 1980, the boys parted ways, John to play defensive back at Miami (Ohio), Jim to finish his last two years of high school in Palo Alto, Calif.

Hold on. You know what happens next, sure, but just hold on. Step back and think of what you know about Jim Harbaugh right now. What is he? Who is he?

Today, Jim is one of the fieriest head coaches in the NFL. He’s gruff, he’s tough, he’s a ticking time bomb on the sideline. He has an edge. His brother is nothing like that. His father really wasn’t either.

Jim was the son of a coach, the brother of a coach, the brother-in-law of a coach. Even one of his babysitters was a coach.

But it came from somewhere else, somewhere beyond the reaches of the Harbaugh coaching tree. If we’re on the same page here, you’re thinking one thing: It all comes back to Bo. It always does.

Never a touted recruit despite his peerless coaching pedigree, Jim almost didn’t return to Ann Arbor. He isn’t your prototypical ‘Michigan Man,’ you see; maybe it’s hard to cultivate that deathless loyalty when your father coaches at five different schools since you entered grade school.

No, Jim didn’t come back for the block ‘M,’ or for the winged helmet or for the maize and blue. He came back for Bo.

“I really didn’t think I’d be back here,” Jim admitted in 1985. “But, when I came here for my visit, sitting in Bo’s office, he said he wanted me and I said, ‘OK, I’ll come.’ It was as easy as that.”

It makes sense, really. Jim was raised to understand the value of a coach, a maker of men. And Bo was the epitome of coach. He was fiery, he had sideline antics. He sure had an edge, too.

“He always seemed larger than life to me. I put him on a pedestal,” Jim said after his senior season. “Now, I view Bo more as a human being. He’s both a coach and a friend.

“I still realize, though, that I’m playing for a living legend.”

He liked Schembechler’s style, his tenacity, his demand for excellence. He once told the story of when he overslept a team meeting by five minutes during his freshman year.

“Bo was mad,” Jim recalled. “He made me go sit in the back, said I’d never take a snap for Michigan, said he was going to call my dad — which he did.

“But if I had a dollar bill for every guy Bo said would never play a down at Michigan, I’d be a rich man.”

As quarterback, Jim wanted to be a champion, wanted to give that living legend his deserved ring. After an injury-shorted sophomore season, Jim led Michigan to a 10-1-1 record, a Fiesta Bowl victory over Nebraska and a No. 2 ranking in the final polls in 1985 — the highest ranking in Schembechler’s tenure.

That wasn’t good enough. Jim bolted into the Heisman Trophy conversation after rattling off nine consecutive victories to begin his senior season.

But the wheels fell off on Nov. 15, 1986 and the dream came to an end. The lights on the Michigan Stadium scoreboard blinked: Minnesota 20, Michigan 17. The wild-eyed Harbaugh was beside himself. Two days later, he made a guarantee. He had to.

“I guarantee you we’ll beat Ohio State and be in Pasadena on New Year’s Day,” Jim said. “People might not give us a snowball’s chance in hell to beat them in Columbus. But we’re going to.

“We don’t care where we play the game. I hate to say it, but we could play on the parking lot. We could play at 12 noon or midnight. We’re going to get jacked up, and we’re going to win.”

Despite Schembechler’s furious efforts to dismiss the guarantee, Jim’s words were plastered throughout the football building at Ohio State. In front of 90,674 frenzied faithful in Columbus, Jim threw for 261 yards and engineered an offense that — thanks to a 210-yard rushing effort for running back Jamie Morris — gained a total of 529 yards against the Buckeyes.

Michigan leapt Ohio State in the Big Ten standings with a 26-24 victory and punched its ticket to the Rose Bowl.

And, most importantly, Jim’s statement held.

“I’d have said it myself if I had any guts,” Schembechler told Sports Illustrated the next week.

***

The Harbaugh boys never were champions.

They took vastly different routes to the mountaintop — one carving out a lengthy NFL career, the other was following a more difficult route, climbing the winding coaching ladder — but that one, final victory eluded both.

Jim finished third in the Heisman voting. He spent 15 years in the NFL. He was one play away from the Super Bowl with Indianapolis in 1995. But he was never a champion.

After injuries hampered his career at Miami, John took to the sidelines. The mild-mannered older brother was an assistant coach for five college teams in 10 years before landing in the NFL as special teams coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles. He spent a full decade with the Eagles in that position. But he was never a head coach. Though the pieces were in place, he was never a champion.

Neither was Bo, you’ll remember. The Harbaughs were ballboys for him, they’d throw on the sideline during practices when their father was an assistant coach at Michigan.

But they’ve been fighters, innovators, winners every step of the way.

If you look at Jim’s résumé, you’ll see that he was an assistant coach for Western Kentucky from 1994 to 2001. It doesn’t match up, does it? He was in the NFL then, suiting up for Indianapolis and Baltimore and San Diego and Detroit and finally Carolina before retiring in 2001.

Jim was never on the sidelines for the Hilltoppers, but he and his brother shaped the program. Their father, Jack, was the coach, and in 1994 his program lost funding, scholarships and had to dock two coaches.

As they told Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated in this, the definitive story of the Harbaugh brothers, they picked up the slack. John, working for Cincinnati, helped create recruiting lists from afar while Jim signed on as an assistant coach to help scout and recruit.

“(Jim) saved us,” Jack told Rosenberg. “He saved the program.”

It was Jim’s first taste of coaching. But he never won that championship. Jack did, but only on account of his sons. The Hilltoppers won the NCAA Division I-AA title in 2002, when Jim was a quarterback coach with the Oakland Raiders.

Jim jumped into the head-coaching vacancy at Stanford in 2007 after just three years as head coach at the University of San Diego, a Division I-AA program, and took a 1-11 Cardinal team to 12-1 in just four years. He walked to his own beat. He ruffled some feathers, spoke his mind just like he did before that game against Ohio State.

Bo wouldn't necessarily have liked the content, but he would have liked the conviction and, most importantly, the thick skin.

After leading the Cardinal to an Orange Bowl victory in 2011, Jim bypassed jobs like the Michigan head-coach position to take the helm of the 49ers.

And now the Harbaughs are here, arrived at the summit of the sports world. It should be no real surprise.

John and Jim were brought up with the perfect mixture for a coach — raised on football, raised by a coach, and babysat by a coach. Yes, babysat. Dave McClain, a longtime Wisconsin coach, was Jack’s teammate at Bowling Green, where their wives were also roommates.

In 1984, when preparing to face a Michigan team quarterbacked by first-year starter Jim Harbaugh, McClain grinned and remarked, “I babysat Jim Harbaugh. I hope he remembers his old buddy.” Jim remembered, but he still bested the Badgers, 20-14.

Heck, even their sister, Joani, married a coach — Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean.

The Harbaughs learned from the best, taught by legendary coaches from the beginning.

There’s no reason to think they would have ever failed. And they haven’t. Failure isn’t in their pedigree. No NFL team has missed the playoffs with a Harbaugh as head coach.

So, what did you want to be?

These Ann Arbor boys only wanted to be champions. Now that’s only a step away.

— Nesbitt can be reached at stnesbit@umich.edu or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.