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'Bo's sons' face off in Super Bowl next Sunday

Bentley Historical Library
University of Michigan

With Ann Arbor’s own Harbaugh brothers about to square off in the Super Bowl, you’ll probably start to hear lots of stories from the folks who met them along the way. 

Well, count me in.

Their dad, Jack, coached under Bo Schembechler at Michigan in the 70s.  His oldest son John played football at Pioneer High and Miami of Ohio, then worked his way up the ladder until he became the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens in 2008.  He told the Washington Post he’s based his coaching philosophy on Bo’s coaching philosophy. 

John’s younger brother Jim has had a complicated relationship with Michigan, but not with Bo.  Jim is my age, and when we were 12 he was Michigan’s ball boy —which made all of us envious.  When we were kids, I played against him in baseball, and with him in hockey.  That was my best sport, and I was just barely better than he was – that’s my claim, anyway – and hockey was his fourth sport, which he played on the side during basketball season. 

Guess which one of us became a sports writer?

Even in eighth grade, Harbaugh might have been the most competitive person I’ve ever met – and in my business, I have met a few.    

He played four sports every year, specialization be damned.  In his first year in high school, he was Pioneer’s starting quarterback, starting point guard, and starting pitcher.

That is an athlete.


When his dad started coaching at Stanford, Jim finished high school in Palo Alto, but even Stanford didn’t offer him a scholarship.  Late in the recruiting cycle, only Wisconsin – then a Big Ten bottom feeder – offered him a full ride, until Schembechler saved him with a scholarship at the eleventh hour.

What happened next is the stuff of legend. 

Jim Harbaugh started his sophomore year, until he broke his arm.  The team finished 6-6, Bo’s worst season.  The next year, a healthy Harbaugh led Michigan to a #2 final ranking, the highest of Bo’s career.  In Harbaugh’s last season, the Wolverines were undefeated going into their last home game – which they lost, to mediocre Minnesota. 

Everybody was distraught – but not Harbaugh, who guaranteed victory over Ohio State.  Nobody ever said the man lacked confidence.  Then he backed it up with a key play late in the game, when he ignored a Buckeye defender coming right at him to launch a long pass to clinch the victory. 

But that’s not what Harbaugh remembered. 

When Bo passed away in 2006, just as we were finishing his last book, I solicited stories from his former players.  Harbaugh had just been named Stanford’s head coach, but he dropped everything to send me this.

“To this day,” he wrote, “I remember almost all of my encounters with Bo in great detail.” 

But the most memorable, he said, occurred a few days after Harbaugh’s last Ohio State game.  Bo called him into his office, told him to sit down, then stood up, put his fists on his desk and told Harbaugh he had played one of the finest games Bo had ever seen a Michigan quarterback play. 

Then he leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling.  “What it must feel like,” he said, “to have a son play the way you did!  To stand in that pocket with the safety bearing down on you unblocked and hit Jon Kolesar to seal the victory. UNBLOCKED!”  He chuckled, and said, “I’m proud of you, Jim.”

Harbaugh wrote, “I felt as loved and appreciated as I have ever felt, like I was one of Bo’s sons.  In reality, I was one of Bo’s thousands of sons.”

Next Sunday, in the Super Bowl, it’s not just two brothers facing each other, but two of Bo’s sons. 

We don’t have to wonder if Bo would be proud.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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