ANN ARBOR, Michigan (Reuters) - Through opposite demeanors, Jim and John Harbaugh approach the game of football with the same philosophy, relying on a run-heavy offense and stout defense sown from the gridirons of the Midwest.
The Harbaughs spent seven years in Ann Arbor, Michigan under the shadow of the College Football Hall of Fame coach Bo Schembechler and the University of Michigan, where their father worked as defensive backs coach.
On Sunday they will become the first brothers to coach against each other in a Super Bowl when Jim leads his San Francisco 49ers against John’s Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans.
Their Michigan stay was the longest stop for the itinerant family. The boys, who are 15 months apart in age, shared a single bedroom they once divided by tape daring the other to cross. They played junior and varsity football together, where friends recalled two fiercely competitive individuals with very different styles.
“Jim was the guru of football, at least he thought he was at that time,” said their middle school coach, Robert Lillie.
“But I would say he was well beyond his years, and he definitely knew more than all the other kids. They took it as cockiness but he really understood the game.
“John was a lot quieter, but on the field he was a general. He directed guys in a way that didn’t offend.”
Jim Harbaugh played for Schembechler at Michigan and once publicly guaranteed a victory over Big Ten rival Ohio State. The coach said, “Hey buddy, you better be ready to back that up!” Michigan won 27-17.
“Even in eighth grade, Jim Harbaugh might have been the most competitive person I’ve ever met,” said former hockey teammate John Bacon who recalled a fiery pep talk one Sunday morning in 1978.
“He was giving all the rah rah stuff on the bench and we were barely awake!” Bacon said. “His competitive fires have been burning for a while.”
John is remembered as a tough hitter, and he went on to play defensive back at Miami University in Ohio. But he would never match the athleticism of his younger brother.
Jim graduated from Palo Alto High School after his dad became defensive coordinator at Stanford University, the school Jim would return to national prominence as head coach.
Jim was offered a scholarship at Michigan, where he was an All-American quarterback, Heisman Trophy finalist and first round National Football League draft pick.
After college, John steadily rose up the collegiate ranks as assistant coach before breaking into the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1998, and then in 2008 was named to his first head coaching position with Baltimore.
Jim catapulted the 49ers to the NFC championship game in his first season last year.
“They’re very special and it’s very gratifying now,” said Lillie, their middle school coach. “And I can say I knew those boys, but I probably didn’t teach them one thing.”
Lillie recalled a lunch with Jim during his tryout with the Detroit Lions towards the end of his 14-year NFL career.
“He said ‘Coach, I’m just trying make the team.’ I said it doesn’t matter, Jim. I know you want to be there, but if you don’t you’ll be a great coach.”
Perhaps those close to NFL quarterbacks Eli and Peyton Manning know best how Sunday will play out, that the game has to be played.
“You can’t lose, of course,” Bacon said. “But for this one, I’ll take John because he hasn’t had nearly the ride Jim has, and he’s worked his whole career for this.”
For Lillie, it seems, victory is already his.
“I could care less,” he said. “Both of them are working their tails off right now to win the game. But whatever happens, I look back and smile.”
Editing by Gene Cherry