NEW ORLEANS — It’s been a fast-track rise for San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, who 10 years ago was an ex-player without a full-time coaching job. But Sunday, in his third head coaching job, he will coach in the Super Bowl in just his second year as an NFL head coach.
So far his life is pretty much on track.
“I wanted to be a football player, then a football coach, then die,” he said this week.
Along the way there was a brief brush with Louisiana and long-term bond with LSU head coach Les Miles.
Harbaugh, of course, will be coaching against his brother, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, and the family reunion will also include their father Jack, a longtime coach himself, trying to stay neutral in the stands.
They are close. Jim Harbaugh’s coaching career actually began on his father’s staff at Western Kentucky with an unpaid position helping the offense.
McNeese fans might remember that Hilltopper team.
The elder Harbaugh completed his coaching career at the top, retiring as head coach after winning the 2002 Division I-AA championship — with a 34-14 victory over the McNeese Cowboys in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“I remember that team well,” Harbaugh said of Western Kentucky. “They showed me what a great team were.
“They show it now, 10 years later, because I know the kind of men that they’ve become, the kind of fathers they’ve become.”
The I-AA championship game was an almost complete turn-around from McNeese’s 38-13 rout of the Harbaughs in an earlier regular season game that year in Lake Charles.
“The things I remember about (that year) the most was the process,” Harbaugh said, sounding a tad like Alabama coach Nick Saban. “That team worked and got better and better as the year went on,”
The next year Harbaugh’s father was out of coaching, Jim landed a gig as quarterback coach of the Oakland Raiders for a season before becoming head coach at the University of San Diego, then Stanford (2007) and the 49ers (2011).
The coaching is West Coast-heavy, but he also once interviewed for the head coaching job at Tulane — “It was a very good experience,” he said of that New Orleans visit — and remains a certified Michigan Man.
Sort of like Miles.
Jack Harbaugh was a Michigan assistant coach when Miles played there in the early 1970s, and Miles coaching career was just getting started on legendary Wolverine coach Bo Schembechler’s staff when Jim quarterbacked the team.
“I know Les Miles very well,” he said. “Les and I got way back, life-long friends. He was a grad assistant at Michigan when I was playing there.”
Harbaugh’s memory may be a little off there.
Miles was a grad assistant on the Michigan staff that included Jack Harbaugh when Jim was still a teenager and hanging around the coaching offices. Miles was at Colorado when Jim played at Michigan, then returned to his alma mater with a full-time assistants’ job the year after Harbaugh finished his college career.
But they’re both Michigan Men to the core — disciples of Bo — and Harbaugh said it’s no accident.
“For coach Miles, for myself, for thousands of men who played or knew coach Bo, he’s just the kind of man who leaves an indelible imprint on your DNA,
“It not as though you tried to copy him. But he’s just got this weld that seems to take your DNA like a piece of iron and forges it into one of those hot, melting ovens and you can’t help but be a lot like him.”