COMMENTARY

Local residents see shades of Jack Harbaugh in his sons

2/3/2013
BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
The Harbaugh family, including, from left, Ravens coach John, father Jack, grandfather Joe Cipiti, mother Jackie, and 49ers coach Jim, gathers during Super Bowl week in New Orleans.
The Harbaugh family, including, from left, Ravens coach John, father Jack, grandfather Joe Cipiti, mother Jackie, and 49ers coach Jim, gathers during Super Bowl week in New Orleans.

Back in the 1960s, Woodward High football coach Sonny Smith and his family were members of the Toledo Swim Club, the old Sunnyside Beach off of Telegraph Road. Man-about-town Jack Kennedy ran the place, and lots of high school coaches in all sports were on the membership rolls.

Every now and then they would invite nonmember prep football coaches and Frank Lauterbur’s staff from the University of Toledo out for a steak fry and an informal coaching clinic. “Football Night” is what Smith called it. Wives would visit, the kids could swim, and the men would talk shop.

“One night Jack walked over with these two little shavers and said, ‘Sonny, take these boys out and show them our new slide,’ ” recalled Smith, a longtime local sports personality who will turn 80 in a couple weeks. “I think one of them was barely old enough to walk. So I took ’em out and showed them the 30-foot slide we had at the pool.”

Later today, those two shavers will face off as opposing head coaches in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

“I think that was the night I met Jack Harbaugh, a super nice guy, kind of quiet,” Smith said.

Those little boys, of course, are Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh and his younger brother, Jim, of the San Francisco 49ers.

“Isn’t that something?” Smith said.

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Both were born in Toledo — John on Sept. 23, 1962, and Jim exactly 15 months later on Dec. 23, 1963 — while father Jack was an assistant coach at Perrysburg High School.

That may have been 50 years ago, but there are plenty of fresh memories from those who knew, and in most cases still keep in touch with, the Harbaughs.

John “Doc” Thomas, Carl Meyer, and Bob Borcherdt were among those who served with Jack Harbaugh on the coaching staff of the late Jerry Nowak at Perrysburg.

Jack Harbaugh, from Crestline, Ohio, played at Bowling Green State University (1957-60) and was an assistant coach for the Falcons (1968-70).
Jack Harbaugh, from Crestline, Ohio, played at Bowling Green State University (1957-60) and was an assistant coach for the Falcons (1968-70).

Borcherdt goes back with the elder Harbaugh further than any of them. He and Jack, who hails from Crestline, Ohio, were baseball teammates at Bowling Green State University and played Federation League ball together while coaching at Perrysburg.

Borcherdt might have a good chuckle at Smith’s recollection that Jack was sort of a quiet guy.

“That was a spirited group of coaches,” Borcherdt said. “I remember times in the film room that the [film] cans went flying and the projector ended up on the floor. Jack was probably as competitive a guy as I’ve ever known. He was a battler.

“And Jimmy is Jack times two. You can tell by his demeanor. You can really see the parents in the kids. John’s the older one. You can see his mother, Jackie, in him. He’s a little more low key.”

Thomas was on the Perrysburg football staff for 36 years starting in 1959 and also served as head basketball coach for some of that time. He shifted from coaching offensive and defensive backs to the offensive line when Harbaugh arrived for the first of his two years there in ’62.

“Jack was a good guy and a good coach; he knew what he wanted to do and how to do it,” said Thomas, also the Yellow Jackets’ athletic trainer (thus, the nickname Doc) during his career there.

The Harbaugh family moved on, as did Carl Meyer and his family, but Thomas became a lifer in a community that has ties, either deep or tenuous, to a major league baseball manager, Jim Leyland, and now four former or current NFL coaches — Jerry Glanville, Rob Chudzinski, and the Harbaugh boys.

Leyland, a Perrysburg native and a graduate of the high school, is with his fourth MLB team, the Detroit Tigers. Glanville, another PHS grad, coached both the Houston Oilers and the Atlanta Falcons. Chudzinski, whose family lived in Perrysburg while he attended St. John’s Jesuit, is the new coach of the Cleveland Browns.

“It’s definitely remarkable such a small community has those ties,” Thomas said. “It may not be so small now, but when I got here there were only 4,300 residents. A lot of amazing people have come through here.”

Meyer, a North Baltimore product, was at P-burg from 1963-66, but met his first Harbaugh, Jack’s brother Jerry, as a teammate at Findlay College. Later a college coach at Dartmouth and Illinois under Bob Blackman, Meyer was an athletic administrator at Miami (Fla.) and Arizona before becoming athletic director at the University of Cincinnati.

“Jerry Nowak was really a brilliant football guy. He was a UT Rocket, and he hired Jack from Bowling Green. I was from Findlay, so neither of them listened to me,” Meyer said, laughing.

Meyer, who lives in Champaign, Ill., may have gotten to know the Harbaughs as well as anybody in the short period they were together at Perrysburg.

“After maybe a year, Jack and his family moved to Bowling Green, sort of out in the Grand Rapids area, and rented my grandmother’s house,” Meyer said. “We painted the house and the barn together and then we did some other painting jobs, too. I was making $5,350 teaching and coaching two sports. It was pretty lean. So we did all those jobs we could get.

“Plus, before they moved out there, Jack and I would go back and forth to BG together for grad school. On Friday nights during the offseason we’d get together with the wives and kids, grab a six pack and a pizza, and that was a big night for us.”

Jack Harbaugh was head coach at Western Michigan (1982-86). He led Western Kentucky to the 2002 Division I-AA national title.
Jack Harbaugh was head coach at Western Michigan (1982-86). He led Western Kentucky to the 2002 Division I-AA national title.

Meyer and Jack Harbaugh later were reunited in the Big Ten, Meyer at Illinois and Harbaugh on Lauterbur’s staff at Iowa.

“The funniest thing I remember was that Jimmy was a fussy little guy as a baby and Jack would always laugh and say, ‘He’ll never amount to anything.’ I remind Jack of that and tease him a bit every time we talk.”

The two boys have amounted to Super Bowl coaches, but took different paths to get there. John, a graduate of Miami (Ohio), was an assistant at five colleges and spent a decade on the Philadelphia Eagles’ staff before going from long-shot candidate to being named head coach of the Ravens in 2008. Jim played at Michigan, then spent 15 years as an NFL quarterback before making a meteoric rise through the pro and college coaching ranks. He is in his second season with the 49ers.

“Knowing the influence Jack had on them, it’s been interesting watching the whole situation unfold,” said Borcherdt, a longtime high school basketball coach, many of those years at Rossford High, who still resides in the Toledo area. “Jack was a tough guy when we played baseball together at BG. I know the kids have a lot of that in them.

“Their success as coaches doesn’t surprise me, although you’d never expect them to meet in the Super Bowl. Nobody could have guessed something like that all those years ago. The planets all had to line up just right. I imagine it has been an interesting journey for the kids and the parents, too.”

Many of those who watched that journey, from the earliest days until now, will be much like the parents in not having a favorite in today’s game.

The late Tom Lyons might have, though. The longtime teacher and coach at Rogers High, a close friend and teammate of Jack Harbaugh while both were at Bowling Green, was Jim Harbaugh’s godfather.

“It’s going to be a heckuva day for Jack and Jackie, and it will be fun for the rest of us to watch,” Doc Thomas said. “I know one thing for sure. A Harbaugh is going to win the Super Bowl.”

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.