The Harbaugh family

The Harbaugh family (Phil Hoffmann, Baltimore Sun / January 26, 2013)

'The rivalry was relentless'

From the start, the Harbaughs forged polar personas, those who know them said. Even as a kid, John was quiet, steady, pensive. Jim was cocky, brash, intense.

"Neither one liked to lose, but Jim had a screw loose about it, same as now," said Rob Pollock, who grew up with them in Ann Arbor. "I can play golf with John and it won't end ugly; with Jim, maybe not."

Nearly 40 years later, friends remember the Harbaughs' obsession to win in everything from checkers to cards to games of H-O-R-S-E. And that drive rubbed off on their friends.

"We competed in everything from who could lift the most weights to who could eat lunch the quickest," said Jeff Minick, a longtime acquaintance. "The rivalry was relentless, year after year, from grade school to high school. Neither party would concede."

Games of tackle football, minus pads, left bloody bare spots in the Minicks' front yard and players wrangling.

"Once, my dad got so tired of listening to the bickering between Jim Harbaugh and my brother, Jim, that he put boxing gloves on both of them and had them go at it right there on the lawn," Minick said. "They each took a licking before deciding they were friends."

The Harbaughs attended parochial school at St. Francis, where Pollock and a rambunctious Jim served as altar boys.

"It's no coincidence that our parish ended its altar boy program shortly thereafter," Pollock said.

The brothers shared the loft in the family's modest two-story home on Anderson Drive. Though 15 months younger, Jim fraternized with John's friends as well as his own.

"John never told Jim, 'Go play with other kids,' " said Steve Gagalis, a classmate of John's. "Jim wanted to make a statement by hanging around with us, and we embraced him for his competitiveness."

One time, Gagalis said, Jim went too far. The two were playing a game of blackjack, in the loft, when John entered the room and suggested they stop.

"Why?" Gagalis said. "I was holding my own until Jimmy won the last five."

"Gags, there's a reason for that," John said. "Take a look at the cards."

The deck was marked. A brawl ensued, during which Jim tumbled down a flight of stairs as his mother, Jackie, shouted for the umpteenth time, "What's all the ruckus about?"

Tales of Jim's youthful antics abound; John, not so much.

"Johnny was mellow, conservative and willing to embrace anyone. He was just 'Harbs,' " Gagalis said. "Jimmy was flamboyant, a take-a-chance guy willing to stick his neck into anything to get recognized. He was 'Dog,' the one that girls would cling to.

"But from a young age, both were determined: John would be a football coach and Jim, a quarterback."

They really knew nothing other than the football world in which Jack worked and Jackie acted as a stabilizing force. It didn't seem odd to them that the guy bellowing in the halls of their father's workplace was Bo Schembechler, the king of Michigan and one of the most famous coaches in the country.

"Luckily, I think they as parents involved us in their professional life," said Jim and John's little sister, Joani Crean, who grew up cutting game film for her dad.