Originally posted on Pro Sports Daily  |  Last updated 1/31/13
It was a nomadic existence considered almost normal when the world you grow up in and know includes a football coach. Save for the lucky ones that can last in one place for a while, most bounce from school to school to school or pro team to pro team, and the family is along for the often bumpy ride. Jack Harbaugh knew that. The father of Jim and John (and Joanie, who married college basketball coach Tom Crean), coached for 43 years at five high schools and nine colleges. So it was that a mantra developed as the family traveled from one job to another. From the driver's seat, Jack would shout, "Who has it better than us?" The kids would respond and yell, "Nobody!" Frequent change; not being afraid to change was what they knew. Adjusting on the fly was commonplace. As Jack said of his wife Jackie, "She did all the heavy lifting. In our career, a 43-year coaching career, we moved 17 times and she was the one that sold the house, bought the house, enrolled the kids in school, took the kids out of school. She was the one." There was another mantra that Jack would say and the boys have never forgotten. It began, according to Jack, when he was coaching at the University of Iowa in 1972. John was 10 and Jim was nine. Jack said, "The first time I remember it - and we would take the two boys to elementary school - it was cold, they had their hats pulled down over their ears, and they had their books, and they didn't look very happy, to be honest with you, in the back seat of the car. We dropped them off and looked back and saw their faces, their sad, sad faces, and our thing was: 'We will attack this day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind! And oh, by the way, don't take any wooden nickels.' And that wooden nickel thing came from my dad, and I have no idea what a wooden nickel is, and I have no idea what that means, but it sounded like a pretty neat thing to say." Be careful is the meaning of the wooden nickel reference, so even if change is in the Harbaugh's DNA, there still must be some caution in what is decided. Perhaps there was, but both the 49ers and Ravens will be playing next Sunday for the championship of the football world in large part because of bold moves each coach made during the season. Some coaches might consider doing what Jim and John Harbaugh did during the 2012 regular season. But something stops them. The trigger isn't pulled. They think too much of those wooden nickels. But Jim and John made those difficult choices and it paid off. For Jim, it was sticking with quarterback Colin Kaepernick when Alex Smith had recovered from a concussion. For John, it was the decision to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron with just three games remaining in the regular season and installing quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell as the play-caller. The 49ers were two fumbled punts away from the Super Bowl last year with Smith, who was completing 70.2 percent of his passes with a passer rating of 104.1 when he suffered a concussion in the 49ers' 24-24 tie with the Rams Nov. 11. There was no choice but to go with Kaepernick the following week against Chicago on Monday Night Football, and the result was stunning. The 49ers won 32-7, prompting offensive coordinator Greg Roman to tell the Los Angeles Daily News, "Really, that was kind of his coming-out party in front of the whole country, and nobody knew what to expect. Nobody knew. Nobody could say for sure. The bottom line is, no matter what you think is going to happen, that person has to be able to perform. And he performed. And then everything just works off that from our standpoint." There was a road win the next week in the boisterous Superdome where the Super Bowl will be played when he rebounded from an early interception as he did in the playoff win over Green Bay. Said Roman, "I think that game was big -- I mean, on the road, hostile environment, really good team. And he made some plays in that game that were just 'whoa' plays." Since then, those 'whoa' plays have kept coming, which wasn't surprising to Denver Broncos tight end Virgil Green, a teammate of Kaepernick in college, who told USA Today, "I already knew. Kap is one of those guys who, once he got a hold of it, it was going to be hard to get it back." Meanwhile, across country, John Harbaugh was conflicted after the Ravens lost to Washington on Dec. 9. The offense wasn't unproductive, but it was inconsistent. Harbaugh believed a change was needed. The Ravens were 9-4 at the time, and had lost two straight games by a combined six points. Not unlike the three-point loss to New England in last year's AFC Championship Game, one they were a dropped Lee Evans pass away from going to the Super Bowl. After consulting with general manager Ozzie Newsome, Harbaugh announced the firing of Cameron the morning after the game, saying, "Cam is my friend, he taught me a lot about coaching, and he is an outstanding coach. It's not about fair or unfair, right or wrong. My responsibility is to the whole team and what's best for them right now. We need a change." Over the final three games of the regular season, Baltimore's per-game output increased from 344.4 to 406.2 per game and in the playoff wins it has been 424.7 yards and 30 points a game with quarterback Joe Flacco throwing eight touchdown passes and no interceptions. Recalling the decision, Newsome emphasized there was no rush to judgment by Harbaugh. The two discussed it on the short trip back to Baltimore from Washington. "The process of hiring Jim Caldwell is something we talked about way before and why we wanted to do it and why he wanted to do it. He didn't just walk into my office that Monday morning and say, 'I want to make that move,'” Newsome said. “When we got off the bus downtown and we both were driving home from that Redskins game, John and I talked about it that night. He said, 'I think I might have to make a decision,' and was telling me all the reasons why. "What I try to do for John is paint a picture so he can have as much information as he has to make that decision. It came down to when he walked into my office and told me he was going to make that decision, he had a peace about himself, and that's all I can ask of him. I said, 'You want to?' And he said, 'Yes, I think this is the right thing to do.'?" Even Cameron concedes it was "a brilliant move," telling the New York Times, "Everyone on the team took a look in the mirror after that. We were inconsistent, and if I'm in charge, I'm saying, 'Why are we inconsistent?' We need to get the team's attention." In a conference call last week, Jack was asked about the choices his sons made. "When those decisions were made, I kind of reflected on my own career, and I think that is what coaching is all about. I think that is what leadership is all about, that is what the business is all about. Every single day in coaching and the 43 years that I was in it, there was a decision that needed to be made, and there was a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. Sometimes it was a decision that there wasn't much difference - the kind of decision that you had to make. But we always look back to that saying, 'What is in the best interest of this football team? What is going to make us a better team? What is going to bring us together to achieve our ultimate goal?' "Then you make the decision. Sometimes it is clear cut, sometimes it is a decision that is easy to make, sometimes it is not. Sometimes the line is very unclear, but you go ahead and make it. Then if it is not headed in the right direction, then you have enough vulnerability about yourself that you say, 'Hey, we are headed in the wrong direction; let's change and go the other direction.' So, I am proud of both of them, that the team was the focus of what they were trying to do."
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