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Showdown put loyalties to test for Harbaugh parents

By Larry Fine

(Reuters) - Like all caring parents, Jack and Jackie Harbaugh do not play favorites when it comes to their kids, who just happen to be the rival coaches for the upcoming Super Bowl in New Orleans.

For them, the February 3 title game between John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers led by Jim Harbaugh has no perfect outcome.

"We are neutral in the Super Bowl!" proclaimed Jackie Harbaugh in a conference call on Thursday, refusing to pick between her sons.

"I really would like it to end in a tie. Can the NFL do that?"

The Niners and Ravens, of course, will play to a finish no matter how many overtime periods may be needed to produce a winner.

"I'm proud of both of them. Very proud," said Jack Harbaugh, a veteran of 43 years in coaching, primarily on the college level.

Jack remembered how hard it was for him and his wife when the Ravens beat the 49ers on Thanksgiving Day of 2011 in the NFL's first game coached by rival brothers.

"We peeked into the Ravens' locker room and saw them ecstatic, guys jumping up and down, the smile on John's face," the father said. "I thought 'we're really not needed here.'

"We walked across the hall and went into the 49er locker room. Quiet, somber. Finally I saw Jim all by himself...hands on his head, and realized that's where we were needed to be.

"The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. We know we're going to experience that next week."

That thought did not curb the Harbaughs' enthusiasm about victories by their sons' teams that lifted them to the Super Bowl.

"After the (conference) championship games was a joyful moment for our family, a great, great feeling of joy," said Jackie. "The Super Bowl is the ultimate accomplishment."

The boys, separated by 15 months in age, grew up in a close-knit family immersed in the gridiron game.

Jack instilled a sense of enthusiasm and dedication in his sons, recalling how he would send the boys off each day.

"Attack this day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind," he told them before dropping the boys off at school each day.

FAMILY THEME

The Harbaughs have always been there for each other, and the parents believe this has been fundamental to their coaching success.

"The main lesson has been about family and making their team part of their own family, and bringing their teams together as a family," Jackie said. "That's what really makes me proud, and Jack proud."

Dad remembered how the boys came to his rescue when the Western Kentucky football program was in jeopardy after some severe cutbacks while he was head coach there in the 1990s.

Jim, who was playing quarterback in the NFL, offered to help his father and passed a certification test to become an unpaid assistant coach to help recruit players from Florida, where he had a house.

John, at the time an assistant at the University of Cincinnati, turned over names and film on Florida recruits that Cincinnati was not interested in but who could help the smaller division Western Kentucky team.

"It was almost divine intervention," said Jack Harbaugh, who turned things around and won the 2002 (NCAA Division I-AA) championship with the Hilltoppers.

Midway through the conference call came an unusual query.

"Question from Baltimore. Is it true that both of you like Jim better than John?"

"Do not!" shouted Jackie from the background, before her daughter Joani jumped in after recognizing her brother's voice.

"Is that John Harbaugh?" said father Jack. "Mom was ready to come right through this phone. I'm so happy that Joani recognized your voice."

"Got the fighting spirit up, that's the way it should be," John Harbaugh said with a laugh. "That's all I needed to hear."

(Editing by Gene Cherry)

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