published Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

Wiedmer: No one has it better than Harbaugh family

David Elson had just come to Western Kentucky University in 1996 to join football coach Jack Harbaugh's staff when he encountered the then 56-year-old Harbaugh sitting alone in the locker room one morning, drenched in sweat, elbows on his knees.

"The facilities were below average, to say the least," said Elson, currently the defensive coordinator at New Mexico State. "There was no air conditioning in that locker room. For workout clothes they gave me one used T-shirt and one used pair of shorts."

But as Elson stood there, wondering what he'd gotten himself into, Harbaugh looked up from his seat, smiled and said, "David, does anybody have it better than us?"

If that line sounds familiar, it should. As San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh addressed his team following its NFC title-game win over Atlanta, he looked around their locker room inside the Georgia Dome and shouted, "Who's got it better than us?!"

Screamed back the Niners, "Nobody!!!"

No coaching family has it better than the Harbaughs these days. Not with Jim's Niners meeting older brother John's Baltimore Ravens in tonight's Super Bowl in the Superdome.

Beyond that, Jack's son-in-law just happens to be basketball coach Tom Crean, whose third-ranked Indiana Hoosiers are strong contenders to win their first NCAA title since 1987.

"It's just a wonderful family," said Butch Gilbert, a WKU star in the early 1950s who came out of retirement to be a volunteer kicking coach for Jack Harbaugh.

"And the brothers don't just get their competitiveness from Jack. I was over at their house one afternoon when John was a special teams coach with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles got a bad call and I thought [mother] Jackie was going to tear up the television. I think a lot of toughness comes from Jackie."

Elson believes it will be incredibly tough for Jack and Jackie once tonight's game begins.

"As a parent, I think I know the misery they'll be in," he said. "They'll want both John and Jim to win, and they know that can't happen."

Yet both John and Jim helped their dad win at WKU, turning a program that was almost shut down in the early 1990s into the 2002 NCAA Division I-AA national champion inside our own Finley Stadium.

"Jim was still playing for the Colts," Elson recalled. "I think we paid him one dollar a year, but he passed the NCAA recruiting test, and when his season ended with the Colts, he'd head to Florida and recruit for us."

John was on the University of Cincinnati's staff during part of that time. He'd send the staff a list of players in the South whom the Bearcats weren't interested in but he believed could improve the Hilltoppers.

Even then, the 2002 season started out 2-3.

"But Jack was the same guy every day, win or lose," said Jason Michael, the quarterback on that team who became a graduate assistant at Tennessee before heading to the pros. He's currently the tight ends coach for the San Diego Chargers.

"He was a tough personality; he was hard on all of us. But for guys who didn't have anybody to lean on, he was also a father figure."

Still, he sees much of the father in the sons in football philosophy.

"When you see Baltimore and San Francisco -- tough, physical teams -- you're seeing Jack," said Michael, who also assisted Phillip Fulmer in 2008, his final season with the Vols.

"They're just tough, hard-nosed people who are going to do anything to win."

Hard-nosed, but with a heart. In the days before that 2002 title game, I went to Bowling Green, where my father had grown up, to preview the game. While interviewing Harbaugh I mentioned something about my father. He asked if my dad knew Gilbert. I didn't know, but Harbaugh took my parents' phone number. A few days later, Gilbert called my father and they shared old times for more than an hour. It was one of the best moments of his final years.

Another perspective on Jack Harbaugh's goodness: According to Sports Illustratd, he used to take the boys to practice when he was an assistant at Iowa and Michigan. When the Iowa coach objected, Harbaugh told Jim, "If they don't want you there, then this isn't a place I want to be."

Said Jim this past week: "I remember thinking, 'Wow, my dad loves me so much he was going to leave his job.' That's my dad. He's my hero."

Said Michael: "Family's everything to Jack. That's one way he and Phillip Fulmer were very much alike. They were always talking about their families; family always came first."

The Harbaugh sons come first tonight. And while Gilbert doesn't know which team will win, he does believe the winning son will ask his team, "Who's got it better than us?"

Just a hunch, but I'll pick John's Ravens to get the better of Jim's Niners, 24-21.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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