NEW ORLEANS -- Whichever Harbaugh brother hoists the Vince Lombardi Trophy tonight will be claiming the family's second national title. Jack Harbaugh got the first by capturing the Division I-AA championship with Western Kentucky in 2002.
Jack did it with strategic creativity, a tough-love approach and some catchy locker room phrases. In short, he did it in a style that will echo throughout Super Bowl XLVII.
"When you see Baltimore and San Francisco -- tough, physical teams -- you're seeing Jack," said Jason Michael, the quarterback for that Western Kentucky title team. "That's the Harbaugh family message. They're just hard-nosed people who are going to do anything to win, and they make the players feel that way."
You might have heard already that 49ers coach Jim and Ravens coach John are siblings. But only those who played under, or coached alongside, Jack during his 43-year career recognize just how much these Super Bowl teams owe to papa's playbook.
It's not just that the boys have his DNA.
They have his X's and O's.
"I was watching the NFL Network the other day and saw Jim telling his team, 'Who's got it better than us?' and the players saying 'Nobody,' " said David Elson, a Western Kentucky assistant who now is the New Mexico State defensive coordinator. "That just brings it all back to when Jack first said that to me. You see now how it's all been handed down [with] the success of Jim and John. It's just fun to watch."
The brothers often say that their dad has the football brains in the family. They call him for advice, even while going a combined 26-10-1 this season.
"He was a go-getter, the best motivator I've ever heard," John Harbaugh, the older brother, said this past week in New Orleans. "He's talked to our team and Jim's team a number of times."
Jack, now 73, was a quarterback and defensive back who played one year at Bowling Green -- where he met wife Jackie -- and one year in the old AFL before embarking on a nomadic coaching career. He coached two high school teams before landing a string of jobs at college staffs that included a transformative stint under legendary Bo Schembechler at Michigan (1973-79) and a brief stay as Stanford's defensive coordinator (1980-81).
As a head coach, Harbaugh had a combined record of 116-95-3 at Western Michigan (1982-86) and Western Kentucky (1989-02).
His boys were a constant presence at dad's practices in those days, and the influence shows. Jim changed the 49ers' starting quarterbacks at midseason, while John swapped Ravens offensive coordinators. Once upon a time, Jack was so open to change that he scrapped Xenia (Ohio) High's entire offense to implement a power-running game.
"But we still won the championship," said Gregg Cross, the quarterback for Xenia's 8-1-1 team.
But by the early 1990s, the man who had instilled a zest for life into his kids was struggling. The Western Kentucky program was struggling, too, with its budget cut in half, its scholarships slashed by 13 and its coaching staff reduced by two. By 1994, the Hilltoppers had their fourth losing seasons in five years.
"We were in desperate trouble," Jack said recalled. "I figured my coaching career was pretty much over. I am sitting in my office, my head down. I am feeling sorry for myself. I am pouting, acting not very professional, I guess."
And in walked Jim. The brothers had a plan. Jim, still an NFL quarterback, became an unpaid assistant. John, then a University of Cincinnati assistant, would help dad by drawing up recruiting lists.
Jim's first recruit was Willie Taggart, a multithreat quarterback who promptly led a turnaround of the program.
"The thing I remember the most is that coach Harbaugh had a sign that said, 'Those who stay will be champions,' " said Taggart, now the University of South Florida coach. "And that's what happened. But coach Harbaugh taught more than football. He changed lives. He really cared about the players and pointed a lot of us in the right direction."
Michael, the quarterback who now serves as a San Diego Chargers assistant, said Jack unleashed his best motivational ploy right before the national title game. Jack showed the team clips of Muhammad Ali's 1967 fight against Ernie Terrell. Every time Ali hit Terrell -- who had continued to call him by his given name, Cassius Clay -- late in the fight, he taunted, "What's my name?"
"So, Jack made that motto for the national championship game," Michael recalled. "Nobody expected us to be there. So he said we're going to hit them in the mouth and ask them, 'what's our name?' That's why I say I see those things in both how Jim and John approach their jobs."
Western Kentucky beat McNeese State, 34-14, for the title. Not long after winning the title, Jack retired.
The brothers have asked Jack to tell that Ali story to both the Ravens and 49ers squads -- and, in Baltimore, the Champ himself made an appearance, too.
It's just another example of how, in a manner of speaking, Jack will be on both sidelines today.Steelers