Happy college football season. Good luck to your team. My old classmate, John U. Bacon — great middle initial, right? — has published a new book. He is a prominent writer about sports and other subjects. His new book is Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football. I haven’t read it yet, but I bet it’s good.
I shared with John a tidbit or two. I thought I would share them with you, here and now. I don’t think I have ever written about Jim — Jim Harbaugh — in all my years of writing. He is a wonderful subject.
We grew up together, playing baseball, basketball, and a little football. His father, Jack, was our baseball coach for a while — Connie Mack League, I believe. His brother, John, was on that team too. John would later coach in the NFL, and so would Jim. They faced each other in the 2013 Super Bowl (nicknamed the “Harbaugh Bowl”). That was an amazing day.
When we were growing up, Jack Harbaugh was an assistant football coach at the University of Michigan. Have I said we were in Ann Arbor? We were. Mrs. Harbaugh was — and is — a lovely woman named Jackie. So, the Harbaughs were Jack and Jackie, like the Kennedys. (Jim and I were born right after the Kennedy presidency. Actually, I was born the night before the assassination; Jim was born the next month.) Jim and John had a sister, Joani, one of the prettiest girls in Ann Arbor. She later married a big-time college basketball coach, Tom Crean, now at Georgia.
Anyway, it was a wonderful family, with a dose of glamor. More than a dose. They were a pleasure to be around, and always lively.
Jim was a phenom — a big personality and a great athlete. I could regale you with Harbaugh stories for an hour or two, but let me give you just a bit, same as I did John U.
This concerns Little League. Our coach was the great Howard Zuckerman, father of our classmate David. One day, we were practicing. I’m thinking of infield practice, in particular. For some reason, I was standing behind the first-base line with Mr. Zuckerman. Jim was at shortstop, his customary position (along with pitcher). He fielded one between his legs.
Mr. Zuckerman and I agreed that Jim was hot-dogging. That was bad. “Hey, Jim!” Mr. Zuckerman called out. “No hot-dogging! Cut it out!” But then, we had a private moment. Mr. Zuckerman and I looked at each other, grinned, and agreed: “That was pretty damn impressive. Maybe he shouldn’t have done it. But, wow.”
Jim was a natural at anything he did, practically. He was a really good basketball player. I thought it was his best sport, frankly. He was a very good shooter, passer, rebounder (because of positioning, not because of leaping ability, as I recall), floor leader.
Could Jim have played in college? Basketball, that is? I don’t know. Probably. I lost track of him, as Coach Harbaugh (Jack) got a job at Stanford after our tenth-grade year, I believe. The Harbaughs moved to California.
After starring at quarterback at Michigan, Jim went to the NFL — playing for the Bears, Colts, and others. He has since had an illustrious coaching career, both in the NFL and in college. Even if he ends up in the pantheon with Vince Lombardi, Bear Bryant, et al., I will always be most impressed that he played quarterback in the NFL. And I will always think of him as a great athlete, pretty much the best I ever saw.