Commentary

Like father, like sons

In football's new first family of coaching, the headsets don't fall far from the tree

Originally Published: April 28, 2010
By Eddie Matz | ESPN The Magazine
Kyoko Hamada for ESPN The MagazineThis photo hangs in the family home.

This article appears in the May 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

In the fall of 1971, a green '62 Chevy Biscayne pulls up to an elementary school in Iowa. Jack Harbaugh throws the car in park, leans back and barks at the two boys in the front seat beside him. "Okay, men, grab your lunchboxes." First-grader Jim Harbaugh and third-grader John Harbaugh dutifully comply.

Jack isn't quite done. "Now go out there and attack this day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind." Those last four words emerge from his mouth slowly, each one a little louder than the last, as if uttered by William Wallace as he rallies his troops before a battle. "Enthusiasm ... unknown ... to ... mankind!"

Jack Harbaugh spent 42 years as a football coach. That's nearly half a century of teaching, preaching and demanding enthusiasm. In the locker room before games, in recruits' living rooms and at team banquets, he coaxed and cajoled with funk-lifting, soul-inspiring tales pulled out of his back pocket like a handkerchief. So when John was hired to be the Ravens coach, in 2008, who else was he going to ask to address the team during training camp? And when Jim was preparing for his first bowl game, as the Stanford coach last December, of course he asked Dad to address the alumni dinner. By the end of that one, the Cardinal faithful were all belting out the fight song -- Bowling Green's fight song, in honor of Jack's alma mater.

"I could have been a player or a coach," Jim Harbaugh says. "My brother John could have been anything he wanted."

If you're looking to build football coaches, listening to what Jack Harbaugh has to say is a very good place to start. Since he retired as headman at Western Kentucky, in 2002, after winning a I-AA national title, his tree has arguably grown taller than those of the Bowdens, the Holtzes and the Ryans in the forest of successful football families. "You remember driving your kids to Little League, and they're nervous about making the team, and you're encouraging them," he says. "Forty years down the road, we're having the same conversation. Only it's about the Ravens and Steelers, or Stanford and Cal."


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