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NEW YORK — Jack and Jackie Harbaugh would do well to practice their impassive faces in front of a mirror before the Super Bowl.
The parents of Baltimore Ravens coach John and the San Francisco 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh will be watched closely during Sunday's Super Bowl — if anybody finds them — for any visual evidence that mommy and daddy really do love one boy or the other best.
It promises to be a fascinating sidebar to CBS’ coverage of the game because, as Lynn and Rick Raisman can attest, parent cams are valuable in sports coverage. NBC's clip of the Raismans watching daughter Aly perform on the uneven bars during last summer's Olympics in London went viral, with stage parents everywhere relating to their murmurs and facial contortions.
“I had no idea it was going to be so great,” said David Michaels, senior producer at NBC Sports, who often produces and directs coverage of gymnastics and figure skating, events where parental involvement can be particularly intense.
Michaels makes it a point to know where parents are sitting during competitions, tracking them through spotters or sometimes sports governing bodies that know where parent seats have been assigned. Or where they are not sitting: Sometimes a dad who retreats to a concession stand because he can't bear to watch an offspring compete is a good story, too.
Michaels said he tries not to overdo it, sticking with parents who he knows are interesting and very involved in their children's competitive undertakings.
“It has certainly gotten more ubiquitous,” he said. “Sometimes it's fantastic and sometimes it's just too gratuitous.”
Jack, a former college and high school football coach, and his wife will be attending the Super Bowl. On a conference call last week, the parents said they did not know where they would be sitting. Even if they did, they'd be unlikely to inform a horde of reporters about their seat locations.
The senior Harbaugh was a college head coach at Western Michigan and Western Kentucky and an assistant at several places, including Michigan, Pittsburgh and Stanford. His son-in-law, Tom Crean, is the Indiana University men's basketball coach. It doesn't seem like a family that would want to watch a game casually while piling their plates with nachos.
The couple had a practice run to see what it would be like to watch their sons coach against each other on Thanksgiving 2011, when older brother John's Ravens beat the 49ers 16-6.
During that game, the couple watched in an office. Jack said his wife's face looked “nearly comatose” throughout the contest.
“She just stared at the screen,” he said. “Not a word was spoken. And at the end of the game, it was just over.”
They'll experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat — all at once. A 75-yard touchdown pass that would be reason to stand up and cheer for one son is another son's horrible defensive lapse.
“I am going to be neutral in the game,” Jackie Harbaugh said. “I know one is going to win and one is going to lose, but I would really like to end in a tie. Can the NFL do that?”
CBS Sports President Sean McManus said there will be a pregame feature about the familial battle. It would be hard to argue otherwise; no matter how much the brothers want to downplay it, it's a unique situation. But McManus said CBS would try not to let it dominate its coverage of the game.
Given the need for the coaches’ parents to stay neutral, longtime TV critic David Bianculli said he wondered how much of a story it will be visually for CBS. If they really maintain impassive faces, how much will viewers want to see them on the screen?
“I would advise them to pay attention to the field, more than anything else,” said Bianculli, who teaches about television for Rowan University.
A stone face is a story, too, Michaels said. The only question is how much a producer should go back to the shot.
He said he can't imagine CBS not knowing where the couple is. If they're out in public, the network will likely keep a close eye on their reactions.
“As a producer or a director in this kind of a situation, it's incumbent upon you to know where every element of the story is because you never know how it's going to evolve,” Michaels said.
Finding the right approach ultimately shouldn't be much of a problem for CBS, he said.
“It's a little bit of a distraction at times,” he said. “But they'll figure out the best way to deal with it. The pictures won't lie.”