BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers have thrived this season because they are physical, relentless and combative.
Just like their coaches.
The no-holds barred sibling rivalry between John and Jim Harbaugh moves to the national stage tonight, when they make NFL history by becoming the first brothers to compete on opposite sidelines as head coaches.
John Harbaugh is seeking to take the Ravens (7-3) to the playoffs for the fourth time in as many years at the helm. Jim Harbaugh has turned the 49ers (9-1) into Super Bowl contenders in his rookie year as an NFL coach by instilling his unyielding work ethic into a workmanlike offense and the league’s stingiest defense (14.5 points per game).
The brothers received much of their football knowledge from their father, Jack, a longtime college coach. Their competitive spirit was honed during endless duels in almost every game imaginable – including a few they invented just so they could butt heads for boasting purposes.
“We would play tennis-ball basketball on a coat hanger rim,” big brother John recalled. “We were throwing balls between tree branches, I guess, throwing snowballs against trees. It was whatever we could think of.”
Sometimes, things got a bit out of hand.
“We have never had a fight as adults, maybe since we were 25 or something,” John said. “But we had some knock-down drag-outs when we were younger. I can remember my mom screaming, wailing and crying, ‘You’re brothers! You are not supposed to act like this!’ There are probably a lot of mothers out there that can relate to that.”
John, 49, and Jim, 47, aren’t the only pair of brothers who have dueled while growing up.
“It goes back to how hard both of them worked to get to where they’re at today,” said Joani Crean, their younger sister.
“Nobody said, ‘Oh, you’re Jack Harbaugh’s son, why don’t you come do this job?’ They both started out in their professions at the bottom rung, so to speak. They both worked their way up.”
Their players know how important this game is to each brother.
“They’re both competitive. We’re competitive as a team,” 49ers running back Frank Gore said.
The last time John and Jim Harbaugh competed against each other in a sporting event was during an American Legion baseball game when both were teenagers.
John was part of the an elite team and Jim wasn’t, so little brother created a team of his own. Jim can remember virtually all of his teammates and the final score: Jim lost 1-0.
John’s recollection of the game is not quite as precise, or so it would seem.
“We won. That’s what I remember about it,” he said.
“I think I had the game-winning home run, too, if I remember correctly. At least as far as everyone here knows, right?”