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Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh leads his team against his brother John's Ravens Thursday. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Should Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers beat Baltimore Thursday night, don’t expect Ravens head coach John Harbaugh to be offended during the postgame handshake.
He won’t ask “What’s your deal?” or chase his younger brother to the locker room.
John Harbaugh knows everything there is to know about his feisty sibling.
“Let me put it this way,” said John Harbaugh back in October when the Jim Harbaugh-Jim Schwartz postgame handshake turned into a shoving scrum after the 49ers beat Schwartz’s Lions. “I’ve been in fights before with Jim, too. I won some early in our childhood career, then it got slanted the other way for a while.”
On Thanksgiving night, in a nationally televised game, the Harbaughs will meet in what has been dubbed as “The Harbowl,” the first time brothers have faced each other in the NFL as head coaches.
Jim’s 49ers come into Baltimore with eight straight victories, a 9-1 record and a big lead in the NFC West. John’s Ravens are 7-3 and lead the AFC North. In his first three seasons as Ravens coach, John Harbaugh has taken his team to the playoffs. His brother is about to do the same thing in his first season in San Francisco, where the Niners haven’t been to the postseason since 2002.
Niners quarterback Alex Smith says his coach is treating this as any other game, though the national media is focusing on the brother vs. brother holiday family reunion.
“No mention of his brother in regards to this game,” Smith told reporters Monday. “It’s business as usual, staying with our routine. … It’s a short week, we’re traveling East, there will be obstacles for us that we have to overcome. It will be a crammed week.”
Said Jim Harbaugh: “There’s not a lot of time to even think about the warm and fuzzy reunions, or the nostalgia of it all. There’s work to be done.”
The statement is typical Jim Harbaugh, a focused, competitive person as a young athlete, Michigan and NFL quarterback and head coach of three teams, each of which has gotten better under his direction.
John Harbaugh, who is 15 months older, says he and Jim have been competitive their entire lives, though they consider themselves best friends as adults. He brought up the fact this week that in their only organized game against each other, John Harbaugh hit a home run to beat his brother's team 1-0.
“We had some knockdown, drag-outs when we were younger,” John told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “I can remember my mom yelling, screaming, wailing and crying: ‘You’re brothers. You’re not supposed to act like this. You’re supposed to get along better.' ”
Their father, Jack Harbaugh – a longtime successful college coach who assisted his younger son when Jim took his first head coaching position at the University of San Diego – says the two brothers are actually more alike than they are different.
“Everybody tries to say John is cerebral and Jim is, I guess ‘competitive’ is the word,” Inman quoted Jack as saying. “They’re very much alike. John has as much competitiveness about him as Jim has, and Jim has every bit of depth in seeing things and working things through that John has.
“They’re much more alike in their love for the game, the passion they have, the work ethic.”
The game will be a matchup of two excellent, physical defenses and offenses that rely on ground-pounding running games and often-criticized quarterbacks in Smith and Joe Flacco.
But expect cameras to be focused just as much on the Harbaugh brothers this Thursday night as the players on the field. It’s a perfect, holiday TV dessert for football fans after Thanksgiving dinner.
Joani Harbaugh Crean, Jim and John’s sister – who’s married to Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean – says she’ll be watching the game.
“Someone’s going to lose,” she told USA Today. “I’m sure we’ll have jokes and stories and we’ll all turn it into what we usually do. But you can’t help but feel a sense of pride.”
She says the game will be hard on her parents, who are proud of their boys but share “the difficulty” of knowing one will lose.
She was glad her father said on a national TV interview last week that the first son he’ll reach out to after the game will be the losing son.
“I think that is exactly the way it will go on Thursday,” she told USA Today. “When he said that, I got a smile on my face.”
Just don’t expect the loser, Jim or John, to be smiling during that postgame handshake.
For either, it would be out of character.