Son of 49ers' Harbaugh forging own coaching path
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — With a coaching vacancy to fill this offseason, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh zeroed in on a promising young member of his brother John’s Baltimore Ravens staff. John reluctantly granted permission, and Jim proceeded to woo the up-and-comer.
But his pitch wasn’t good enough — not this time, at least.
“It’s a dream to one day work for my dad, and hopefully the opportunity will come,” said Harbaugh’s son, Jay. “He understood where I was coming from.”
The story of Jim and John and their HarBowls is well-documented — they faced each other again Thursday in an exhibition in Baltimore, which the Ravens won — but lesser known is that the Harbaugh football coaching tree extends to a third generation.
Beyond Grandpa Jack Harbaugh and the brothers, there is Jay, a 24-year-old offensive assistant for the Ravens so determined to carve his own path in the industry that he turned down a chance to join his father for the inaugural season of Levi’s Stadium.
As much as he loves his dad and admires the 49ers organization, Jay is acutely aware of the perception that the sons of head coaches “take handouts” and “try to climb the ladder rather than develop as a coach.” He’s running a reverse.
Jay knew in high school that he wanted to coach, worked in the Oregon State football office as an undergraduate, then headed straight to the pros. He is entering his third year with the Ravens as an offensive quality control coach.
“Jay has forged his own way in this business to be a very good young coach,” said Oregon State’s Mike Riley, who was Jim’s head coach for two years with the San Diego Chargers. “Jay is a grinder. He’s like Jim to a T.”
But by working his way through the profession one 100-hour-a-week-job at a time, Jay is actually following his father’s lead.
When Jim Harbaugh’s playing career ended in 2001, Harbaugh could have headed straight for the golf course or taken a cozy gig as a television analyst. Instead, the quarterback known for his grit barreled into the coaching profession and took the grunt work head on.
He joined the Raiders as an assistant, working long days and late nights — so late, the story goes, that Jim Harbaugh once fell asleep at the computer, his nose jammed against the K key. When he awoke a few hours later, the letter had filled page after page on the screen.
Two years later, Harbaugh accepted a head coaching position at the University of San Diego, a small, non-scholarship school that had far more in common with Ivy League programs than with his alma mater, Michigan, or the school where he would later forge his reputation as a powerhouse head coach, Stanford.
“I watched my dad pay his dues,” said Jay, whose mother, Miah, is Harbaugh’s first wife. “I saw him come home with bloodshot eyes.”
Jim Harbaugh couldn’t be much happier with the way things turned out.
“As a father, you hope for three things for your son in terms of a successful and happy adult life. You hope he works extremely hard, you hope he finds the perfect job and you hope that he marries well. We’ve got two of the three covered.”
Jay, who isn’t married, grew up in San Diego and had what he called “incredible freedom to blossom into whatever I was to become.” But football was everywhere: Grandpa Jack spent 35 years as a college and pro coach. Uncle John was a rising star in the industry. His father was “Captain Comeback,” a moniker he acquired after leading the Indianapolis Colts to a string of come-from-behind victories.
Whether the topic was political or biblical, conversations at family events “always came back to football,” Jay said. In class, he drew up plays in his notebook. His next door neighbor was Cam Cameron, the Chargers’ offensive coordinator. Former NFL defensive tackle Tony Siragusa used to buy him Krispy Kreme donuts.
He played defensive line in high school, but knee injuries ended his career.
“I looked around and the kids who were good in math talked about going to college for engineering,” he said. “I thought, ‘I love football. Why not go to school for that?’”
Harbaugh called his former coach, Riley, who agreed to help: Jay would enroll at Oregon State and participate in the football team’s undergraduate assistant program. Jay did a little of everything, with an emphasis on special teams.
“He set the standard for our program,” Riley said.
After graduation, Jay joined his uncle’s staff in Baltimore — “We thought it was better that he work for Uncle John than Dad,” Jim Harbaugh explained — and worked with several facets of the team, including strength and conditioning, as the Ravens won the Super Bowl with a victory over the 49ers in the “Harbaugh Bowl.”
In his current position, this season Jay will be providing statistical analysis and scouting reports of opposing defenses and helps “make the job of the other coaches as easy as possible.”
“I told my dad it’s like working in a coaching incubator,” he said.
Jay recently accompanied his father to Peru for missionary work organized annually by Harbaugh’s church. They helped build houses and deliver food and clothing to an orphanage; they even visited a prison.
When not traveling, father and son talk weekly. Not surprisingly, the conversations are usually football-centric — and the insight often flows upstream.
“I draw the longer straw,” Harbaugh said. “There’s a difference between being 24 and 50 in the way you see the world. He’s most helpful to me. He’s young, academic and his perspective enlightens me.
“One time, I asked, ‘Do guys give you a hard time about working for your uncle, automatically look at that as the reason you got the job?’ His response was: ‘It’s my responsibility to not give them the opportunity to confirm that suspicion.’
“I thought that was really profound.”
When 49ers assistant coach Tim Drevno left to join USC’s staff in January, Harbaugh inquired about Jay’s willingness to move west. Several conversations later, Jay opted to stay put.
“I’m in such a good place and working with such good people, I didn’t see any reason to leave,” Jay said.
“The last thing I’d ever seek out is a short cut. I’m not looking for a more impressive business card every two years. When you’re a coach’s son, people assume you take handouts. I want to earn everything.”
Even if it means putting Dad off for a few years.