One of these two brothers is going to win an NFL championship on Sunday: Ravens coach John Harbaugh, left, or younger brother Jim Harbaugh, coach of the 49ers.

Doug Mills, New York Times

Souhan: Familial scenario is playing out predictably

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN
  • Star Tribune
  • February 2, 2013 - 11:57 PM

NEW ORLEANS - John Harbaugh wore a suit. His dress shoes gleamed. He took the microphone and took command, greeting the crowd, pointing to family members, cracking jokes, spinning a 176-word monologue that won over the room.

Jim Harbaugh wore running shoes and his usual coaching uniform: 49ers ball cap, 49ers pullover, khakis. After his brother finished speaking, Jim pursed his lips and said, "I concur."

Yes, you have known for a dozen days that brothers would coach against each other in the Super Bowl, but you didn't know how the Harbaughs would handle the first all-brothers news conference in Super Bowl history.

As boys, they built hockey goals with chicken wire and smashed all the garage windows. "Mom called Dad in on that one," John said.

Even as adults, they would find themselves wrestling in the pool during family vacations. John was two years older, more mature, but with a devilish streak. Jim is intense to the point of paranoia, with a wild look in his eyes that might have been put there by one of John's early-life triumphs.

That they're related by blood is old news. That they're related by methodology is the story of their teams' seasons, and might turn out to be the story of the Super Bowl.

They're related in terms of fearlessness.

Many NFL coaches avoid risk. Heck, most people avoid risk. The Harbaughs embrace it. Both took chances that could have ruined their seasons, perhaps even damaged their careers, risks that certainly could have kept their teams from spending quality time together in New Orleans.

On Nov. 19, after backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers to a 32-7 victory over Chicago, Jim knew his starting quarterback, Alex Smith, would be available to play the next week after recovering from a concussion.

Jim opted to stay with Kaepernick, a second-year player with one NFL start to his credit. The previous season, Smith had led the 49ers to within a couple of muffed punts of the Super Bowl. The 49ers were 7-2-1. Jim opted to stick with the unproven quarterback with the greater physical skills.

On Dec. 9, John's Ravens lost 31-28 to Washington. The next day, John fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replaced him with Jim Caldwell. The Ravens were 9-4 at the time.

Two NFL coaches of powerhouse teams en route to the playoffs made changes at two of the most important positions in an NFL franchise. That's how the Harbaughs came to be sharing a stage and quoting Shakespeare on Friday.

Asked which brother took more risks when they were young, and how that related to their decisions this season, Jim offered a 200-word filibuster that avoided the question. John smiled and said, "I concur."

They worked with their father, Jack, when he was the head coach at Western Kentucky. Their sister married Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean. Jim's son, Jay, worked as an intern with the 49ers in 2011 and now works as an intern with the Ravens, prompting Jim to say that he texts his son but has avoided speaking with him for fear of making Jay look like a spy.

"I think that may well tip the scale," John said with a smile. "That may be our edge."

John remembered watching Jim during the most embarrassing moment of his career. It occurred in the Metrodome. In 1992, Jim, quarterbacking the Bears, threw an interception that Vikings safety Todd Scott returned for a touchdown, helping the Vikings to an improbable comeback victory.

As Harbaugh returned to the sideline, Bears coach Mike Ditka lambasted him.

The brothers' memories of that moment tell you they were coach's sons destined to become sons who coach.

John said when, years later, he heard Ditka express regrets, "I gained so much respect for Coach Ditka. ... And the way Jim handled that moment was just rock solid."

Again, John went on, treating his brother's embarrassment as a teachable moment for all.

Again, Jim listened to his brother while fidgeting, then cut to the chase. "It was more than fair," Jim said. "I shouldn't have thrown the interception."

All these years later, on the cusp of his first Super Bowl, Jim Harbaugh sat next to his brother and shook his head. "Still kicking myself for that," he said.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. •

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