-- OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- John Harbaugh retrieved a basketball in his backyard and asked a visitor if he wanted to shoot. His half court included a glass backboard and an asphalt surface marked by regulation free throw and 3-point lines. In other words, it was a place for competition -- not passing the time. It's the Harbaugh way, you know.
Set back from a winding country road and protected by towering trees in the front, his property has the feel of an upscale obstacle course. You see a badminton field on one side of the home Harbaugh shares with wife, Ingrid, and daughter, Alison, and a wall and net for the shooting and gathering of lacrosse balls on the other. You find a pingpong table next to the swimming pool and billiards, shuffleboard, air hockey and video games inside the renovated barn near the basketball court in the back. You face one test of skill and will after another at the Harbaughs' house, and on this day, one of four coaches in NFL history to win 10 postseason games before suffering his first losing season (Don Shula, Joe Gibbs, and George Seifert are the others) was not acing his.
Under a hot, midsummer sun, Harbaugh wasn't making as many perimeter shots as the writer there to interview him. The head coach of the Baltimore Ravens must've been counting because soon enough, he quit muttering about his aim and moved the competition to a more favorable location, the upstairs shuffleboard table, where his touch was reminiscent of an in-his-prime Tiger Woods on the Augusta National greens.
Harbaugh turned on the electric scoreboard, and with his old NFL Special Teams Coach of the Year trophy stationed on the nearest window sill, he began deftly sliding his red discs from one end of the table to the other while blowing the novice guest and his blue discs right out of the barn. It was 2-0, 5-0, 7-0, 9-0, whatever, before the visitor started wondering when his host would stop keeping score. Every time Harbaugh won a round, he walked by that damn scoreboard button and pressed it. He was up 14-0, two touchdowns, before he applied the mercy rule and decided it was time to sit and talk.
"You're 2-0 against your brother, Jim," he was told, including a regular-season victory over San Francisco in 2011.
"I'm 3-0," Harbaugh corrected, including his preseason victory over San Francisco in 2014.
It's funny how this has played out, the story of the only brothers ever to stand as opposing head coaches in the championship game of a major American team sport. If you asked someone entirely unfamiliar with the NFL and college football to spend a few months on social media monitoring discussion of the Harbaughs, he or she would emerge with the distinct impression that the former San Francisco 49ers and current Michigan Wolverines coach is by far the more decorated brother and John is the one who still hasn't quite figured it all out.
Jim is sleeping over at a recruit's house. Jim is climbing a tree in a recruit's yard. Jim is tweaking the Ohio State athletic director over the tattoo scandal that ended the Jim Tressel era. Jim is defending his sweeping satellite-camp tour and nuking the suggestion from Alabama coach Nick Saban that such camps could lead to NCAA violations by tweeting a reminder that Saban's program had already broken NCAA rules. Jim is starring in a video with the rapper Bailey, shouting "Who's got it better than us?"
The correct answer, actually, isn't "nobody." John Harbaugh, 53, is a better football coach than Jim Harbaugh, 52, even if John swears Jim is better and even if Jim has nearly 660,000 Twitter followers, while John doesn't own a Twitter account.
"John is the best coach I know, the best I've ever come across or competed against," Jim said. "I'm envious of the grasp he has of the entire game. I think offensively and with quarterback play, I'm right there with him. But I've got a ways to go in terms of special teams and understanding defense the way he does. I'm half as good as John is, but I'm trying."
Jim spoke of how his older brother knocked hurdles down for him, from Little League through the NFL, yet John accepts why their family tale is often built around the younger son of Jack Harbaugh, the coaching lifer who has recovered from a quadruple bypass surgery in the spring. Jim was the full-scholarship quarterback at Michigan and an NFL starter who spent 10 years as a college and pro assistant before becoming a college head coach. John was the partial-scholarship defensive back at Miami (Ohio) who rarely played and spent a quarter-century as a college and NFL assistant -- never rising to the level of offensive or defensive coordinator -- before he landed his first head-coaching job in Baltimore.
When Jim speaks passionately about this or that, he takes on the look of an agitated hawk bearing down on you, if an agitated hawk can have a superhero's square jaw. John? His features and mood swings are more benign.
"But John has every bit as much pure toughness as Jim does," said their brother-in-law, Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean. "It just comes out in a different way."
Jim was fired by San Francisco after four seasons (because of his relationship with the front office, not the results) while John's kinder, gentler, lower-maintenance approach has survived and thrived in Baltimore for eight seasons and counting. John has confronted enough devastating real-life dramas in recent years -- the Ray Rice case, the riots in Baltimore, the death of Tray Walker -- to understand why this attempted recovery from his first losing season, a 5-11 campaign shaped by one serious injury after another, seems like a trivial pursuit.
That's his job right now: leading the Ravens back to the top of the AFC. You can make a decent case that Harbaugh is the NFL's second-best coach, behind Bill Belichick (more on that later). The beauty of Baltimore's 2016 season is that Harbaugh gets his best chance yet to prove it. Cutting a lean, athletic figure in his casual shirt, shorts and running shoes, perpetually looking like a guy itching to start a 10K race, Harbaugh is ready for the grind.
There's a lot to talk about first. His five-year fight to win control of a defense that belonged to a man who wanted his job, Rex Ryan. His in-house struggle with Terrell Suggs over locker room protocol. His complex relationships with Ed Reed and Belichick. His annoyance at Tom Brady?and how Brady made it right. His post-Rice feelings on domestic violence. His desire to someday stand alone as the best coach in the league.
And, of course, his Super Bowl XLVII conquest of his brother and best friend. To the victor go the spoils of reliving Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, in New Orleans, the day John showed more than 100 million people that Jim isn't the only Harbaugh who came out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, knowing how to attack a day with enthusiasm unknown to mankind.
JIM DIDN'T WANT TO talk to John as the Ravens and 49ers warmed up in the Superdome. As soon as John approached, Jim headed the other away. So John decided to have a conversation with 49ers kicker David Akers, whom he had coached as an assistant in Philadelphia. Jim didn't want that meeting to happen, either.
"Quit bulls----ing with my kicker," he told his older brother.
"I'd rather talk to you, but you don't want to talk to me," John recalled responding. "Jim, I know we're playing a football game, but you know what? I don't know how many millions of people are watching us right now, but maybe we can just have a little chat here before the game."
Jim laughed. He'd spent all week fighting his feelings for his brother, who helped him land his first NFL job with Oakland in 2002 by recommending him to Raiders executive Mike Lombardi. Over time, John helped Jim with his charts, his punt protection schemes, his kickoff coverage, his secondary play, you name it.
"If I could wish anything for anybody," Jim said, "it would be to have a brother like John."
But John wasn't Jim's flesh and blood on this day; he was the opposing coach. The Harbaughs made small talk about preparations, about the relatives who had flown in for the occasion. Jim tried to exit the conversation with a quick getaway handshake, but John grabbed his arm, pulled him in for a hug and told his younger brother he loved him.
John better grasped the anxieties of Super Bowl week and how long and draining the entire spectacle could be. He worked for the Eagles when they lost Super Bowl XXXIX to New England. John kept reminding his players to enjoy themselves, and he practiced what he preached by publicly embracing the angle of a loving family feud. After their parents, Jack and Jackie, conducted a joint pregame news conference, John and Jim did the same, with John dressing in jacket and tie and Jim in a team cap, sweatshirt and khakis. John opened with a 184-word statement about the honor of the opportunity and the excitement of having family members, including their 97-year-old grandfather, in the crowd. Jim followed with two words: "I concur."
John knew then that Jim had made this a business trip and nothing more. Although people close to the situation said they felt John tried to coach his brother through the week and tried to get him to loosen up, the devoted time and energy didn't adversely impact the Ravens.
"The thing that impressed me about John that week," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said, "is you would've never known that we were playing against Jim Harbaugh."
The Ravens held a 28-6 lead when the lights went out in New Orleans. The power outage caused a 34-minute delay, and with play about to resume, John showed just how badly he wanted to prevail.
"We're getting ready to start, and Jim's got his offense out there," he said. "He's got like 14 players in the huddle, and he's in the huddle talking to his team with his play card, going through his play options. I go to the referee, 'Is he allowed to be in the huddle? Can I go out there in my defensive huddle right now? I know he's not allowed to do that. Get him out of there.'"
The 49ers almost came all the way back. But down 34-29, they couldn't convert on Colin Kaepernick's fourth-and-goal pass to Michael Crabtree. The officials ignored Jim's anguished pleas for a holding call on Jimmy Smith, and in victory, John didn't know how to act.
"Should I have a Bill Parcells or Jimmy Johnson moment?" he said. "No, I can't act like that. I've got to go shake my brother's hand."
Jim met him at midfield, hand extended. "There will be no hug," the loser told the winner. The Harbaugh family was up in the commissioner's box, unsure how to feel.
"It was painful," said the coaches' sister, Joani. "You wanted to jump up and scream and shout because you just won the Super Bowl. But you just lost the Super Bowl too."
Archie, Olivia and Cooper Manning watched Peyton and Eli go at it, but never on the sport's biggest stage. Jack Harbaugh, former assistant to legendary coach Bo Schembechler at Michigan, led the family down to the field, through the confetti and into his older son's ceremony and news conference.
The Harbaughs celebrated on John's side of the Superdome, then made a difficult walk to Jim's side, powering down just as clearly as the building had in the middle of the game. Jack had won a Division I-AA national title at Western Kentucky in 2002 -- his sons helped him recruit players along the way -- but he'd seen his share of losing locker rooms over more than four decades of college coaching. This was different. This was the Super Bowl. Jim didn't want to talk to anyone or revisit the game's difference-making plays.
Jack later recalled walking around New Orleans when Crean got a text from his friend, Doc Rivers, who delivered the line that Jack felt perfectly captured his emotions: Parents can be only as happy as their unhappiest child.
Jim had allowed Jack, Jackie, Joani and Crean to ride back to the hotel with the 49ers. The family members were already on the bus when Jim boarded and took a window seat a couple rows in front of them. Jim's teenage son, James, sat down next to him, put his head on his father's shoulder and began to cry as Jim wrapped an arm around him. "It was heartbreaking," Crean said.
Born 15 months apart, John and Jim shared a bedroom for 16 years and competed over everything (they once ran tape across the middle of the room to separate one's belongings from the other's). Jim was the bigger, stronger, better athlete, yet when they played their boyhood game of "Chicken" -- firing a football at each other from closer and closer range until someone dropped it or quit in pain -- John wouldn't let Jim's velocity or his own arm bruises rule the day. "I won as many as he did," John said.
Jim was always just as stubborn. He didn't talk to the Ravens coach until the Thursday after the Super Bowl. John was on a train bound for New York and an appearance on the "Late Show with David Letterman" when his cell phone buzzed; John believes Jim called out of fear that his older brother would tell Letterman the 49ers coach had gone radio silent.
"He's still ticked off to this day about the game," John said, "but he was great on the phone until he brought up the official's call. Jim said, 'You know that was defensive holding.' And I told him, 'No, I don't think your receiver ran the right route, and what's the corner supposed to do, get out of the way? And what about Joe Flacco getting hit 4 yards out of bounds, and they didn't call a personal foul there? And how about Akers getting that 5-yard penalty against us [on a missed field goal]? Either one of those two plays ends the game, and you don't even have that late drive.'
"Silence on the other end. So it was a classic Jim and John Harbaugh conversation."
Some family and friends were unnerved by the whole experience. One uncle criticized John for running up the score on Jim before the outage hit. Chuck Ritter, the Harbaughs' high school coach at Pioneer in Ann Arbor, said he wanted John to win because he felt Jim "would have other chances, and I wasn't sure John would."
That's OK. John was used to the sentiment. But he wanted people to realize that he never envied his kid brother's accomplishments.
"I just wanted to do something too," he said. "I wanted to uphold my end of the bargain."
John upheld the honor of older brothers everywhere, but that was four seasons ago -- a lifetime in an unforgiving business. Now Jim is off creating havoc all across college football, and Baltimore is just another 5-11 NFL team. John believes he is tough enough to make the Ravens whole again, to return them to the top of the AFC. He has the scars to make his case.
JOHN HARBAUGH EXTENDED?his middle finger, broken in high school, to show how it still dog-legs above the knuckle. He pointed to an old incision along the inside of his right knee, a reminder of a college injury and a nondescript playing career that left him only one route to the big leagues.
Nothing ever came easily to the older brother, despite his last name. "The greatest thing about John," his father said, "is he never once said, 'Why not me?' When all those good things were happening to Jim in football -- becoming a star at Michigan, playing in the NFL, getting a head-coaching job first -- John never said, 'Why but for the grace of God am I not walking in my brother's footsteps?'"
In his fourth college job, John spent eight years coaching special teams at Cincinnati. In his first pro job, he spent nine years coaching special teams at Philadelphia before he asked Andy Reid to give him the defensive backs. He had to try something different. He'd twice failed to get the head job at Cincinnati. He'd lost out at Boston College, and he thought he had the job at UCLA and a chance to fight Jim at Stanford for control of the West Coast before the Bruins hired Rick Neuheisel.
When he got called in for an interview with the Ravens after the 2007 season, Harbaugh felt he connected with Newsome and Baltimore owner Steve Bisciotti. They wanted to hire Jason Garrett, but after Garrett decided to stay with Dallas, and after Belichick called Bisciotti in the dead of night to recommend Harbaugh (they'd met while Belichick was scouting John's players at Cincinnati), the Ravens picked the Eagles assistant over their own defensive coordinator, Rex Ryan.
"Bill Belichick doesn't give out recommendations for everybody," said Newsome, who had worked with him in Cleveland. Harbaugh's first five seasons ended in five consecutive playoff appearances, yet he had to navigate his share of conflict to gain complete control of the team. The Baltimore defense was about as loyal to Ryan as the 1985 Bears defense had been to Rex's old man, Buddy, and Harbaugh didn't have the gravitas to change that dynamic. Even though Harbaugh promoted Ryan to assistant head coach in 2008, the defense had put up a wall.
"We were divided," Harbaugh said. "I think everybody knows that."
Harbaugh credited Ryan for making emotional pleas to his players to respect Harbaugh's authority, but the following season, as head coach of the Jets, Ryan said he thought it was "B.S." that Baltimore didn't hire him. Problems remained long after Ryan departed. Harbaugh and Ed Reed went weeks without speaking to each other. With Ray Lewis injured in 2012, Yahoo! reported that the Ravens had a contentious meeting with their coach in the middle of the 2012 season that featured player grievances over what they viewed as Harbaugh's negative and inconsistent tone. Harbaugh acknowledged that the meeting happened; he declined to name the Ravens most critical of him. He said some of the criticism turned personal, some defensive players were upset about the offense and this anything-goes intervention reflected what he called his open-mic policy of letting his players say whatever's on their minds.
"This meeting we just had," Harbaugh recalled saying as the therapy session ended, "would happen in no other meeting room in the National Football League. There's no other coach who would tolerate what was said in here."
Three months later, the Ravens found themselves sitting on the winning Super Bowl bus. Reed was in Harbaugh's seat, and Harbaugh was in Newsome's seat. Nobody cared about protocol and control anymore.
"Coach, now I see it," Reed said. "I didn't get it before. I never saw it for five years, all those things you were saying and preaching. Now I see where you're going with it. Now I see how it works."
That conversation with Reed, Harbaugh said, "was one of my greatest moments as a coach."
Reed left for Rex Ryan's Jets, and Lewis retired, and everything changed for Harbaugh the moment his supposed model citizen of a running back, Ray Rice, was arrested for assaulting the woman who would become his wife. The league and the Ravens badly mishandled the case, offering too much in the way of support and not enough in the way of punishment until TMZ aired the second, inside-the-elevator video that showed the world what domestic violence looks like.
Harbaugh defended his support of Rice, saying he stood by everything he said and did in the wake of the assault. "People got mad," the Ravens coach said, "when I said Ray was a great guy. 'Well, how can he be a great guy?' Relationships are nuanced and complex and complicated, and so are human beings. You become a family in football, and you don't throw somebody under the bus, even though he did wrong. ...There's going to be a consequence for that wrong thing, and the guy is going to be punished severely. And yet his wife, his kids, they're all still together. They're a great family right now."
But ESPN's "Outside the Lines" reported that Harbaugh had been horrified enough by the images on the first, outside-the-elevator video -- the one that showed Rice dragging his unconscious fianc?e out of the elevator -- to tell management he wanted the running back released, a recommendation that was dismissed. (Rice was cut after the second video surfaced). Harbaugh maintains that there was a condition attached to his initial recommendation that Rice be terminated.
"What I said at the time was that if he punched her, he needed to be released," Harbaugh said. "We didn't mess with guys with domestic violence before that and ... afterwards we haven't done anything with guys with domestic violence. You hit a woman, that's a line you can't cross."
With the league and franchise brands damaged, and with the case casting a grim shadow over the 2014 season, Harbaugh tried to reboot his program. The Ravens beat the Steelers in the playoffs, then took two 14-point leads over the Patriots in their divisional-round game in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Harbaugh entered that game as the only coach to have beaten Belichick in two road playoff games, and he'd barely missed beating him a third time in Foxborough in the 2011 AFC Championship Game.
Belichick ran three plays in that January 2015 game with normally eligible skill-position players reporting as ineligible, and the formations baffled the Ravens, inspired Harbaugh to take an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty (he should've called a timeout) and dramatically altered the momentum of a game the Patriots won 35-31. Harbaugh is still upset about it and still insistent that referee Bill Vinovich -- who announced the primary Patriot who was ineligible, Shane Vereen, as a player the Ravens shouldn't cover -- didn't give his defense enough time to adjust.
"Maybe those guys gotta study the rule book and figure it out," Tom Brady said afterward.
Harbaugh didn't appreciate the comment. "I was pissed off," he said. "It was uncalled for. And the rules are deeper than that, and I know the rules, and I stand by why that play shouldn't have been allowed. ... So yeah, that should never have been said."
Brady made it up to Harbaugh five months ago, when they shared a private plane ride back from Michigan, where the two attended Jim Harbaugh's national signing day event on Feb. 3. They didn't discuss Brady's "rule book" dig or suspicions that Baltimore might've tipped off the Indianapolis Colts about potentially under-inflated footballs before the 2015 AFC Championship Game. (The Ravens said their kicking consultant, Randy Brown, sent a text to Colts coach Chuck Pagano complaining that officials working Ravens-Patriots didn't let their kicking ball into the game). Brady talked about the endless work he put in on the journey from part-time Michigan starter to NFL greatness, and Harbaugh's daughter, Alison, a promising lacrosse player along for the ride, took in every word. "We'll go to practice now, and sometimes she'll say, 'I'm gonna Brady 'em today,'" Harbaugh said. "Which means, basically, 'I'm going to win everything in practice.'"
Yet there remains lingering bitterness from that divisional-round defeat -- directed at the officials but not at the Patriots. Harbaugh entered Gillette Stadium that day with a chance to challenge Belichick's standing as the league's best coach; since his hiring in 2008, Harbaugh held leads on the New England coach in postseason victories (10-4), Super Bowl victories (1-0) and head-to-head postseason victories (2-1). Belichick outmaneuvered him in the second half and won his fourth ring, and all the Ravens could do was lobby to have the league rules changed to make any such future formations harder to mask.
The Patriots returned to the AFC Championship Game last season, while the Ravens came undone. They lost six of their first seven games and lost Flacco, Justin Forsett, Terrell Suggs, Steve Smith Sr. and others to season-ending injuries. They had an absurd 20 players end up on injured reserve, the most since Harbaugh's hiring. The Ravens coach said he admires Belichick and likes him and sometimes lunches with him at league meetings, and he "regrets we are unable to be the kind of friends I think we would be if we weren't rivals in our conference. ... I think I'd be riding around on his boat if we weren't such rivals right now."
In the end, Harbaugh is less concerned about enhancing the relationship and more concerned about reestablishing his team as a viable threat to Belichick's extended dynasty.
"There was a thing that just came out that I happened to catch, the 25 worst villains of the Patriots," Harbaugh said of a MassLive.com ranking. "I think I was like 20th or 21st [19th]. I think that's a little low. I plan on making that higher in the future."
JACK AND JACKIE HARBAUGH were Kennedy Democrats, and they regularly talked politics, social issues and world events with their children, who were strongly encouraged to voice their opinions at the dinner table.
"You're going to get a straight scoop from us," Jackie said. "We don't like to mince words."
John remembered these dinnertime discussions as the free-flowing soundtrack to his childhood.
"That's probably why we are the way we are now," he said. "Some people think we're argumentative, but we enjoy that. We like to duke it out."
Sometimes not as figuratively as others. Jim once broke his hand punching former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, and as an Oakland Raiders assistant coming to the defense of his beleaguered boss, Bill Callahan, Jim engaged in a heated argument with Callahan critic Charles Woodson that a source said turned physical and needed to be broken up.
Although John is often cited for being more user-friendly than Jim, he isn't afraid of what he sees as necessary confrontation. Late in his Super Bowl-winning season, citing a need to improve team chemistry, John fired his offensive coordinator and friend, Cam Cameron, who had hired him at Indiana University 15 years earlier. They've texted a few times since but haven't talked. "It was brutal," Harbaugh said. "Hardest thing ever."
He took on the locker room caste system that granted stars such as Lewis and Suggs the privilege of occupying two lockers instead of one. Lewis willingly surrendered his extra locker when Harbaugh explained that the optics didn't jibe with his team-centric philosophy. Years later, after he had an equipment guy board up Suggs' extra locker, the outside linebacker was less cooperative. He tore down the boards and moved his gear right back in.
"Suggs doesn't say anything to me," Harbaugh recalled. "It's one of these classic, under-the-radar struggles that's going on. I said, 'Well, just put it back up.' So this goes on for four weeks. I board it up, Suggs tears it off. I board it up, Suggs tears it off. I board it up, Suggs tears it off. He and I never have a word about it. It's, 'Hey Siz, how you doin'?' 'Hey Harbs, how you doin'?' It's business as usual. Finally, he gets tired of tearing the boards off, and it stands the rest of the year, and we're fine."
Supporters like to call Harbaugh a problem-solver, and the problem he now faces comes in the form of two very good AFC North teams in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and three very good AFC North coaches in Mike Tomlin, Marvin Lewis and his former assistant, Hue Jackson. How quickly will Flacco and the rest of the injured stars fully recover to help the team? How much of that 5-11 was about injury and personnel, and how much of it was about coaching mistakes Harbaugh has to correct?
"We might've gone 5-11, but we shouldn't have," he said. "There's no way in the world we should ever be 5-11, so we have to be a lot better than we were last year as coaches and players. We did what we do every year -- look at everything -- except we did it much more aggressively this year. ... We looked at everything, with our diet, our sleep training, practice plans, the way our offense is built, the way our defensive pressures are designed -- everything."
In their manic quest to improve, the Ravens broke league rules by putting rookies in full pads in minicamp, which earned Harbaugh and the organization fines totaling nearly $500,000 and cost them three forfeited organized team activities. Harbaugh said he misinterpreted an amended provision in the collective bargaining agreement; his Ravens were also docked a week of OTAs in 2010 after multiple players reportedly complained to the union about meetings that ran late and practices that ran long.
But in this election cycle, last year's record -- not this year's violation -- caused Harbaugh's drop in the polls. Recent rankings by NFL.com and USA Today listed Harbaugh as the league's seventh-best coach. Harbaugh has the most postseason victories of anyone since his hiring, and only two coaches with at least 15 games of postseason experience (Belichick and Joe Gibbs) have better all-time win percentages than his (.667). Also, he has done his winning with a good quarterback, not a great one.
The man raised to have an opinion was asked if he thought seventh was low for him. "You know I'm not going to answer that," he said with a laugh. "But everything motivates guys like me, right? ... So you always want to be the best. If you don't want to be the best, then what are you doing it for?"
Asked if it mattered to him to be known as the best coach in the NFL, he said, "Sure. Absolutely. But I would rather be the best coach in the NFL. I'm working for that. I'm trying to get there."
Jim Harbaugh said his brother is already there, and John's people skills separate him from his peers. Newsome said his coach has the requisite passion and football IQ but needs to win one or two more Super Bowls to earn a serious place next to Belichick in the conversation.
Until then, this much is already certain: John Harbaugh will compete for that place just as relentlessly as he competed against his higher-profile sibling Jim in the Super Bowl. The best of the Harbaugh brothers wants to be the best -- period -- whether he's working his shuffleboard table against an overmatched novice or trying to be a more opportunistic villain worthy of New England's contempt.