Growing up in Ann Arbor, a bit of Bo Schembechler rubbed off on John Harbaugh. (Getty Images)
New Orleans — John Harbaugh stood up on a platform, illuminated by a spotlight, 72 hours before Super Bowl XLVII — and illuminated a bunch of hard-boiled cynics with his smile, his humor, his wisdom and his grace.
This is grace under pressure, as Ernest Hemingway might have written it.
John is the NFL Harbaugh who never was seen firing his headset in disgust to the turf. This is the Harbaugh who might have sassed Bo Schembechler once upon a time as a kid, but nobody ever told us about it. This is the Harbaugh who never guaranteed a victory — and produced. This is the Harbaugh who never ran around untamed like kid brother Jimmy did playing quarterback for Michigan and the Chicago Bears.
This is the Big Brother Harbaugh — the long-ago anonymous defensive back for Miami of Ohio. And then the coaching lifer who ground out his way to the top via the ladder of apprenticeship.
But like with Jim, growing up in Ann Arbor, a bit of Bo Schembechler sliced off on John. With such phrases as "grind the meat," and "rattle the molars."
"That's Bo," John said Thursday morning at the Ravens' Super Bowl headquarters just off the Mississippi River, down Canal Street from Jim's 49ers.
"That's straight Jerry Hanlon, Bo Schembechler, Michigan, Big Ten, gray skies football. That goes back to the roots."
John grinned all the while as he stirred this pot of nostalgia, especially for me.
"When Michigan would be ahead, Bo would get on the headphones with Jerry and say, 'it's time to grind some meat.' That means it's time to run the ball-four minute offense.
"They'd run an off-tackle play. 'Rattle the molars,' that's coming off the ball. That's trench warfare for football up front.
That's coach-speak — and it does go back to the roots.
Coaching in the blood
John, like Jim, is rooted in the coaching profession. Dad Jack was once an assistant at Michigan on Bo's staff along with the aforementioned Jerry Hanlon. Jack branched off as on his own head coaching mission. He was head coach at Western Michigan, and John went to work as a graduate assistant — the first unsteady step toward a Super Bowl.
"Well, like any young coach you think you know everything and you find out real quickly that you know nothing," John said.
"As you grow as a coach and you kind of go down the road, you realize you know less than that. It was a great experience being with my dad every single day. Driving to work, driving home from work … seeing the frustrations as a head coach.
"I was in charge of the cards and the computers and kind of doing all the things that young coaches do. You learn from the bottom up, just like Jim did when he went to Oakland.
"Having a chance to see my dad as the head coach and wanting so badly for him to be successful in that role, I saw some of the things that he struggled with and I think having that now in my memory bank has been a positive thing."
OK, these were deep, penetrating statements — spoken with emotional feeling — by The Other Harbaugh. The coach who never reached the notoriety in college of his kid brother.
But there was a charm to John that, truthfully, I never witnessed in Jim.
When Jimmy played so brazenly and so well at Michigan, when he at times strayed from what Bo wanted him to do, when he dashed off and ran with the football, he was fun to watch. He was the same when he played for Mike Ditka with the Bears and his other NFL teams — the Ravens among them.
I covered and watched Jim for nearly 30 years. He played charged up with rare passion and with brashness and often with some arrogance. His personality has stuck with him into coaching.
And all the while I watched him with admiration. Sort of my kind of guy, a bit too electric.
Brothers simply different
John didn't go to Michigan. Likely, Bo never offered him the opportunity. He went to Miami of Ohio. He didn't frolic as a flamboyant quarterback in college football, then in the NFL. He played without fame as a defensive back. He didn't play in the NFL. He started the upward travel through a variety of coaching jobs, ultimately reaching the NFL as a special teams coach with the Eagles.
The truth is, I never had seen John in person or listened to him without benefit of television until this Super Bowl.
They are different guys — with different personas.
Like I would never classify Jim — time to stop calling him Jimmy — as being graceful. He played and coaches and appears before us hard-boiled cynics with a razor's edge. I could never classify John as flamboyant or brash or tempestuous.
Sometime Sunday night, they are going to meet somewhere near the middle of the field in the Superdome. They will shake hands and hug as brothers do. Perhaps there'll be some tears. Hundreds of cameras will pop to catch the moment. One brother will have coached a Super Bowl winner — the champions.
But neither Big Brother nor Little Brother could ever be considered a loser.
Jerry Green is one of three newspaper writers who have covered every Super Bowl. Ed Pope of the Miami Herald and Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger are the two others.