Jim Harbaugh's drive home

Thursday, September 5, 2019 - 1:53am

Jim Harbaugh brought his father, Jack, onto Michigan's staff in 2016.

Jim Harbaugh brought his father, Jack, onto Michigan's staff in 2016. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Jack Harbaugh sat on his couch in Wisconsin, his youngest son three days removed from the end of spring practice over 300 miles away, when he felt a fist. Other than some discomfort while taking a walk, he didn’t have any symptoms — no sweating, no nausea, no pain in his arm. Just that fist. A pop right above his heart, cinching him tight, like someone grabbing and not letting go.

He looked at his wife, Jackie, who had been with him watching North Carolina and Villanova in the national title game. “We gotta go,” Jack told her, and from there, it was a straight shot to Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital Ozaukee in Mequon, Wisconsin. Years prior, John Harbaugh recalled, Jack had been on some medication but didn’t like it and never went back. At age 76, Jack didn’t have a doctor; he was on no medicine whatsoever. If he woke up with pain, he shook it off. “I mean, I was one of those guys,” he said this summer. “... You just don’t — you just don’t.”

Upon arrival at the hospital, things moved fast. The doctors performed tests, then woke Jack up at 4 a.m. to tell him he had a heart attack. He needed four bypasses. They were going to do catheterization in the morning.

Jack thinks Jackie called the kids after that was done.

Three years later, Jim Harbaugh doesn’t want to speak at length about that moment. The lines of mortality had already been converging when the call came — two months after Jack’s heart attack, Jim signed an addendum to his own contract to include a life insurance policy. He says now that the heart attack didn’t change his relationship with his father, that the only shift in his own perspective since then is rooted in his dad’s actions. Jim pivots to discussing how watching his dad work himself back into shape at the crux of his late 70s changed his perspective, but he doesn’t get profound or philosophical. As Jim talks, a chair sits outside his office. Jack resides there for a portion of each work day, within shouting distance of his son, holding a job title as special advisor to the Michigan football program. Jack has no office or designated workspace in Schembechler Hall. The chair, perched right outside Jim’s door, is all he needs.

Jim Harbaugh says his father's heart attack didn't change his perspective.

Jim Harbaugh says his father's heart attack didn't change his perspective. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

In 2004, Jim’s first year as a college head coach, Jack took a leave of absence from his job as an associate athletic director at Marquette and drove three days to join his son’s staff at the University of San Diego, as a running backs coach. They both lived in Coronado, about 25 minutes south of campus. In the mornings, Jim would swing by, pick up his dad and they’d drive to work. 

Their conversations often centered on football — the day-to-day happenings of the team — and Jim picked his dad’s brain on every aspect of running a program. As the day went on, they’d stand side by side on the field during practice, sit next to each other in meetings. When they drove home, Jack became Jim’s sounding board, a voice on his staff he could trust completely. Their conversations ascended the politics inherent in coaching. Jack could relate to every challenge, including that of raising a family with the demands placed on a football coach. If they disagreed on something, it was OK.

“It was life-changing to have that year with him,” Jim Harbaugh told The Daily.

Whatever rushed into Jim’s brain at the moment he got that call, he and both his siblings, John and Joani, dropped what they were doing and came to Wisconsin the day before Jack’s surgery. The heart attack, relatively speaking, was minor. The word minor in relation to a heart attack, though, belies the point, which John Harbaugh makes without obscurity or obfuscation. “They said that if he hadn’t gone in there,” John said, “he wouldn’t have made it through the night.”

Jack had 90 percent blockage in two of his three main arteries. Surgery was set for Thursday. Once they got there, Jim and John stayed through the night, playing chess at the foot of their father’s hospital bed, arguing over some trivial game like nothing had changed.

The family tried to keep things lighthearted. After Jack’s surgery, Jim took pictures, though his father had little interest in seeing them. Jack wanted to be out of the hospital by Monday, four days later, because the doctor told him the record was five.

“I didn’t make it. I got out in about six,” Jack said. “But it’s just — that’s the way I think. ‘Well, tell me what I have to do.’ Coachable.”

The Harbaughs have dealt with the intersection of football and family since Jack first started coaching.

The Harbaughs have dealt with the intersection of football and family since Jack first started coaching. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Michigan Athletics

Jim Harbaugh says he’s tried to hire his dad every single year at every single head coaching job he’s had. After that first year, 2004, Jack politely declined, driving back to Milwaukee with Jackie. His answer stayed the same as the years passed, first due to his duties at Marquette and then because he had retired. He was happy to visit or offer advice, and did so with regularity. Besides the 2009 Sun Bowl, when he briefly joined Jim’s Stanford staff to coach running backs because of a departure, he never took a job on the payroll.

In the wake of his heart attack, though, Jack opened up to the idea. Tom Crean, Joani’s husband, had moved from Marquette to coach Indiana basketball by then. Moving to Ann Arbor would put him closer to all three of his kids. “I remember making that argument,” Jim Harbaugh said. “And maybe resonating.” Players Jack had coached in the ‘70s, and his colleagues on Bo Schembechler’s staff, still lived in the area. He could live next door to his grandkids and see them every day.

Making the decision, Jack thought about the sacrifices he made while his own kids grew up. Famously, Jim Harbaugh grew up going to Michigan football practices when his dad coached defensive backs. Less famously, Jack brought his kids to practices at other stops along the road. Almost never talked about is that during those practices, Jack was doing his job, not being a dad. 

At Iowa, he made time with his kids by occasionally bringing them on Friday night recruiting trips to Cedar Rapids. In the car, he’d ask the questions parents ask their elementary school-aged kids — who’s your best friend, how’s school. He’d turn the radio off and listen as they told him about the lives he sometimes felt he was missing. Those are the moments he values now, but that time with his kids, he freely admits, was often scant.

This, he decided, was a chance to make up for it. In July 2016, he moved to Ann Arbor, quietly taking a job as senior advisor to the head coach.

“I look back on my years of coaching, it goes 46 years and there were days I would leave at 6 in the morning, come home at 11 at night,” Jack Harbaugh said. “The head coach of our family was Jackie. And now I got a little time on my hands to make up for those times that I wasn’t around, maybe around my kids. I’m getting a second chance, and I’m not gonna, hopefully, screw it up.”

Jim doesn’t see his father as an absentee parent. He remembers Jack stopping whatever he was doing to help him with math homework or throw a ball around with his sister. “I just want to be exactly like him,” Jim said. “... The kind of dad that takes you to ballgames, plays catch with you, believes in you.” Jackie always made sure they lived close enough to wherever Jack was coaching that he could make it home for dinner, even if just for an hour. During the offseason — recruiting being less than the all-encompassing job it is now — he could spend more time with the family.

When Jim and John played Ann Arbor rec baseball, Jack coached. He took the job seriously, going on a recruiting spree and picking off talent from around town. Years later, John rattles off half the roster from memory — a left-handed pitcher from Ypsilanti, a catcher who couldn’t start on a different team, a third baseman who no one else wanted. “We were like a magnet for all the misfits,” John said. “We won.” 

A local baseball team made up of castoffs winning its league brings with it an element of clichéd romanticism, but there’s something to it. Jim pitched, usually the three-inning maximum “and usually it was nine pitches,” John said. Unlike the kids’ Pop Warner football games, which usually fell on work days for Jack, this was time the family could spend together.

One year, Jim and John wanted to try out for a hockey team and were told they couldn’t because football season was still going on. Jackie says she told the person in charge that her kids were 12 and they would never be told to give up something they wanted to try. Football, she wants to make clear, was never a preordained fate.

At the end of that Pop Warner season, she says, a host of players including her sons tried out for the hockey team and made it anyway. She woke up at 5 a.m. to drive them to practice and sat behind the net, away from the other parents who complained about their kids’ playing time. Jack managed to get to the games on occasion and the team won its league with Jim as a first-line forward.

Still, football practices were formative. Anyone who has spent time around the family agrees to that. There’s a reason they were written about ad nauseam when Jim took the Michigan job in 2015. Jim and the rest of the coaching staff’s kids played around on a side field while the team practiced and their fathers coached. Jack drove his kids home for dinner and they’d recap the day, Jim and John enamored by their interactions with star players.

Even before that, Jim’s first memories are going to one of his dad’s practices. “About five years old,” Jim said, “And car rides home from practice.”

When fall weekends came in Ann Arbor, Jack would stay at the team hotel and Jackie would bring Jim and John to the stadium. They both had jobs on game days — Jim moved plugs from one electrical outlet to the other. But while Jim was on the sideline, Jack sat in the press box. They didn’t interact during games. “In fact, I don’t even remember driving home with him,” Jack said.

Jim eventually made a career for himself as an NFL quarterback and later a coach. His schedule aligned with Jack’s, though it was just as busy. The family lived in separate places surrounded by separate teams, but they had the offseasons, and when Jim played for the Colts, it was only a 3-hour drive to Western Kentucky, where Jack coached, short enough that he could come on staff as an unpaid recruiting assistant for the cash-strapped program.

Jim had no office at Western Kentucky’s football building, the same as Jack at Michigan now. He’d spend three or four weeks during the winter on the road recruiting Florida. For one or two of those weeks, Jack estimates, they’d go out together, waking up at 7 a.m. and driving across the Route 4 corridor — Orlando to Tampa Bay, and all the talent-rich high schools in between. They’d go until 11 or so, then get up the next day and do it again, building the nucleus of Jack’s program together.

Jack put in 14-hour days running Western Kentucky until leaving for an administrative job at Marquette after the 2002 season. It’s impossible to know the effect coaching for over 40 years had on his health, but it’s easy enough to infer that it wasn’t good. When he told Jim after the 2004 season that he wouldn’t return to his San Diego staff, he put it in terms of letting the bird fly away from the nest. He says now that the game had passed him by. 

Still, though, he watches practice tape of both Michigan and the Ravens and offers both sons advice. When asked to posit why, Jackie calls to her husband, sitting nearby playing euchre on an iPad, to get a direct answer. He falls back on that cliché: that he’s just trying to catch up to a game that outran him. She laughs. “Well that’s not a true answer.”

“... I think that he really does it because he loves the game,” Jackie said. “And he is learning by doing it. And if he has suggestions — he always says he never gives suggestions unless he’s asked — but I’ve known him to give suggestions when he sees something.”

The specifics of those conversations, though, remain private between father and son. Jack says he tries to be a fly on the wall when sitting in Michigan’s football meetings, and every player interviewed for this story backed up that description.

His presence in Schembechler Hall is fairly quiet. Jack is around for support, sitting in his chair and willing to talk with anyone. Players catch him sometimes in Jim’s office, deep in conversation, and know he holds some influence, but as far as they’re concerned, he’s something like a friend.

“Guys just come in and out and are able to talk to somebody about what’s going on in their lives,” Noah Furbush, a linebacker from 2015-18, said. “You see that a lot with Jack.”

Once Jim took the job at Michigan, Jack spent a lot of time around the program, even before he moved. He’s always been a presence in his sons’ football lives — at Stanford, Jack was known to find an empty office to go over practice tape when he came through town. Michigan’s players noticed little change when his job became formal and he started living in Ann Arbor, spending days in a chair by Jim’s office.

The Jim Harbaugh of 2015 looked more like an overgrown child than someone considering mortality. He’s commonly caricatured as someone focused solely on football, oblivious to the rest of the world and tuned in only to competition, and at no time in his life was that image more prominent. In his first meeting with the team, wearing his signature Michigan pullover and khakis and standing in front of an auditorium full of players, Harbaugh said he didn’t care about the rules Brady Hoke had regarding what people could wear or say — all that mattered was producing on the football field. When they traveled to Utah for the opener, then-defensive end Mario Ojemudia said Harbaugh was stopped at the door of the Mormon Tabernacle Church because he was wearing cleats. At one point, he pulled a hamstring demonstrating how to run a route.

At a meeting the week of that year’s Ohio State game, walk-on Drew Berube recalled, his team about to play its biggest game, Harbaugh read aloud a passage from Shakespeare’s Henry V in which King Henry rallies an outmanned English army to beat the French in the Battle of Agincourt, a speech famous for its references to brotherhood. “We were just like, what is this even about?” Berube said. “... But it got us all fired up.” Before the game, Harbaugh told his team that no matter what they said or did, he’d have their backs. In the locker room, it felt like a crescendo building to a finish. On the field, the Buckeyes shellacked the Wolverines, 42-13.

Like most caricatures, kernels of truth are embedded within that depiction — Harbaugh is deeply competitive, laser-focused. Better put though, he has learned that any time he spends outside of football must be spent with family, a necessity when two things of that magnitude of importance play a role in your life. “When he’s not doing football,” said Willie Taggart, who called on Jim as his best man at his wedding, “typically he’s with them.” Thus, Jim’s public life lends itself to interpretation while his private life remains deeply guarded, their intersections dissected largely in football terms.

If Jim Harbaugh underwent, or was even in need of such a change, those around him remain unconvinced — they back up his assertion that Jack’s April 2016 heart attack didn’t change his outlook. Jim has always spent time with his family, and if all the madness of that first year wore on him, he gave little outward sign. He’s known the importance of balancing family and football since childhood. “If you’re going for the, ‘Oh, this opened my eyes,’ coaching angle, ‘I got my values straight,’ or something like that,” John Harbaugh said, “it’s not even close to being true.”

Jack Harbaugh usually sits in the stands for Michigan football games.

Jack Harbaugh usually sits in the stands for Michigan football games. Buy this photo
Alexandria Pompei/Daily

Jack, now 80 years old, has grandparenting figured out. His job, for all its importance in both sentimentality and actuality, is largely ceremonial. He doesn’t have a formal contract with the University and a 2018 salary disclosure listed his 12-month pay at $49,686, with his appointment lasting for half that time.

He comes to practices, and on Fridays before games, he’ll give his son a clap on the back and a hug before Jim goes off to the team hotel. “Nothing any parent wouldn’t say before a game,” Jack said. “There’s nothing, any deep insight going on.” The next day, if it’s a home game, he usually sits in the stands with his wife. They’re in section 24, about the 25th row. The seats are above the 40-yard line and overlook the home sideline. Jack likes being a part of the crowd. When Michigan plays on the road, he stays at home to babysit.

Jack sits outside Jim’s office and gives feedback on practice tape. That’s not why he’s in Ann Arbor.

Jim still puts in long hours — Jack drives to and from Schembechler Hall alone because he can’t do the same — but the pull of living next door to his parents and seeing his kids grow up in the same place he did is real for him, just as the pull of spending each day with family is everything for Jack. After Michigan’s win over Middle Tennessee State last week, as Shea Patterson sat at a Crisler Center podium taking questions, Jim entered the room from the back, seeing his family before anyone else. He whispered “Hi,” sharing the moment as everyone around them focused on a meaningless game of football. 

Jim is on his second marriage and became a grandfather in the middle of last season. (Jay Harbaugh, Michigan’s running backs coach, joked to reporters at the time that his paternity leave lasted from 3 a.m. to noon). Four of Jim’s seven children — Addie, Katie, Jack and John — are still growing up. He tries his best to spend time at home and by all accounts, does a good job. This summer, he bought a lawnmower and cut his own grass.

“I’m so proud of him for doing that,” Jackie Harbaugh said, “because I love yard work anyway, but he’s enjoying it. And I see him enjoying it. And he will, I’m sure when Jack’s old enough, teach him how to do it.”

Jack and Jackie try not to hover over their children or grandchildren. They just leave the backdoor open. When the grandkids come down the hill — which tends to happen a lot in the summer — they’ll give them a bowl of ice cream and talk, asking the same questions Jack did on Friday nights driving to Cedar Rapids.

Jim opens up Michigan’s facilities to the coach’s families at times, attempting to replicate the access he had as a child, but tries to go beyond that for his own kids. When Jack asks him to pitch or Katie asks for help drawing pictures, Jim wants to dive straight in. During the season, he tries to make it out to dinner with his wife, Sarah. The hours he spends at Schembechler Hall, though, remain long and unyielding. 

When one of the kids has a game of their own and he can make the time, Jim drives down the hill to pick up his parents in his blue Ford pickup and it becomes a family outing. Sometimes it’s as close as Huron High School and sometimes travel teams demand an hour long trip. Once they get there, something will happen in the game and Jim and Jack will give each other a look. “Like, haven’t we been here before?” Jack said.

On the ride home, Jack usually sits in the backseat with his namesake as the family laughs and goes over the game. His voice lights up when he talks about it. The windows are up, the phones are silent. The only noise comes from family.