Phil Barber here, with permisison from the talented Grant Cohn. I recently produced a story on Jim Harbaugh for the premiere issue of NFL Magazine, and while Harbaugh was uncomfortable talking about himself, I had some great interviews with people who have played with or for him at other stops. I was able to use only a quote or two from each in the story, and that seemed like a waste of material, so I plan to post excerpts from the better interviews here.
The first is with US Marine Corps Colonel Jim Minnick, one of Harbaugh’s oldest friends and a man who seems cut from the same cloth. Minnick has seen active duty in the Middle East, but now is based in Kansas City, where he handles recruiting in a 14-state area. My favorite moment was when I asked if Harbaugh would have made a good soldier, and the Colonel politely chided me.
Here goes. I will be posting others.
Are you stationed in Kansas City now?
“I am, yeah. I’m here in Kansas City, doing recruiting for the Marine Corps. Got a 14-state area through the Midwest. Just got here this summer.”
Do you and Harbaugh still speak, even during football season?
“Oh, yeah. I just got an e-mail from him yesterday. Yeah, we stay in contact. Frankly, I try to leave him alone during the season. I know how busy he is. But every once in a while we’ll trade an e-mail or a phone call.”
What’s your reaction when you see a scene like the one that followed the Lions game, with Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz nearly getting into it at midfield?
“I mean, I saw it. Obviously, full disclosure, I am completely biased, and you might as well be talking to Jack, Jackie or John when you talk to me, because he’s a brother. And I look at it as completely one-sided in who was in the wrong there. To be sure, I think Jim was very straightforward and, yeah, probably was too aggressive and too strong a handshake. But he is, he continues to be, and he was when we were in third grade, the most fierce competitor I’ve ever met – and that’s some pretty strong company. Just a fierce competitor. And I think Jim Schwartz is very lucky that the environment wasn’t where that could’ve gotten worse, because I don’t think Schwartz knew what he was biting into there.”
Do you have an example of Harbaugh’s competitiveness at a young age?
“A classic story – and I still have a scar on my hand from it. We were probably in the fourth grade, fifth grade. Our parents are best of friends. They were best of friends when we were young, they are still very close friends. But my dad and Jack Harbaugh are very much alike. And we were playing football in the front yard. You know, my brothers and Jim and John, and we were arguing over a call, Jim and I were. Jim and I are – I guess from our parents’ side, unfortunately – very much alike. So we’re arguing over a call, and his dad and my dad just kind of look at each other and go, ‘Damn it, that’s enough. You two fight.’ So right in the front yard, our parents had Jim and Jim square off in a fistfight, just to quit arguing about calls. And sure enough, that’s what we did. And I caught him real good. I caught him right in the mouth, cut my hand open on his tooth. Blood’s everywhere. And at that point, they broke us up. And the funny thing about it is, because the fight was called because my hand was bleeding, Jim claims he won the fight. So he had me come out when I just got back from Iraq, off of one deployment, he had me come out and speak to the Stanford team. And when he introduced me, that’s the story he tells. So that gives you an idea the kind of competitor and the fighter he’s always been.”
Despite his fiery nature, his players often talk about his humanity. Do you trace that to Jack and Jackie and the Harbaugh household?
“Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’ll give you another recent story. My son broke his leg four weeks ago playing lacrosse. Broke his femur. I told Jim about it. So Jim, as busy as he is, at 3 in the morning San Francisco time he launches a very long and thoughtful e-mail to my son about fighting through adversity, and then he follows it up with a signed jersey from his favorite 49er, Patrick Willis. That’s just the kind of guy he is. He’s as tough as two-dollar steak, but for loyal friends, there are no boundaries.”
Harbaugh seems uncomfortable with all the recent personal attention. Is that authentic, or is he putting on a front for the team?
“No, that is absolutely genuine to the core. We share each other’s stuff all the time. I mean, leading Marines and leading football players, we’re all trying to get the same objective. One of the things Jim always used to talk about, and he got it from his dad, and his dad got it from Bo Schembechler, was ‘the team, the team, the team.’ I’ve used that throughout my time in the Marine Corps. That’s really exactly how Jim, John and Jack all think. So that is completely genuine. I promise you this. In my opinion, Jim could care less that he got into a fight with Jim Schwartz. And frankly, if I know Jim, he probably would have liked to have taken it to a new level if he would’ve gotten it in a different platform. But what does bother him is the fact that it took away from such a great game by his players. So he has no shame in the fact that he bowed up to a guy. And we haven’t talked about it at all. I know him well enough that the only thing that does bother him is the fact that it took away from the effort of his men.”
How old were the two of you when you first met?
“We were third grade. We used to call ourselves ‘the third-grade power.’ It was Jim and I, and I’ve got two brothers that are a year older, twins. It was always the older brothers against Jim and Jim, and we were tough to beat.”
In your opinion, would Jim Harbaugh have made a good soldier?
“Well, and I hate to be catty here – Marines are Marines. Soldiers are for the Army. So I’m gonna speak to the viewpoint of a Marine. I have always said that. And as a matter of fact, I do some leadership presentations. We’re all shooting at the same target, football coaches and leaders in the Marine Corps. And when I’ve been asked to go out and either talk with the Ravens or talk with Jim’s guys at Stanford – I haven’t been out to the 49ers yet – but I make it very clear that in my opinion, there is no other sport that is the definition of teamwork than football. And then there’s no other event as an infantry officer that demonstrates teamwork more than watching a battalion of Marines fight in combat. It’s all about discipline and teamwork and working together and selflessness. So we all cherish and want the same things. When we get a chance to share each other’s leadership stories, they completely resonate. … There’s no doubt, the sense of being part of something bigger than yourself, and the leadership side, he’s as tough as they get, he’s smart, he’s charismatic. He would have made a hell of a Marine officer, no doubt.”