ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Greg Mattison sat outside the head coach's office in Kalamazoo, Mich., figuring this was his shot to return to what he loved after the stress and madness of losing forced him from football.
Mattison left coaching in 1980 after one win in three seasons as an assistant at Northwestern, chasing him from Evanston, Ill., to a sporting goods business in La Crosse, Wis. Teaching football was out. Selling footballs was in.
It took less than a year to realize retail was not for him. An old friend from his alma mater, Wisconsin-La Crosse, became the athletic director at Western Michigan and it led Mattison to Kalamazoo and a seat outside Jack Harbaugh's office.
"Jack comes out of his office and introduces himself to me and I think he's going to bring me in to interview me," Mattison said. "He kind of looks at me like, 'Who are you?' I'm like, 'Mr. Harbaugh, I'm here to interview.' He's like, 'You what?' "
After a brief conversation with the athletic director, who had told Mattison he arranged the meeting, Harbaugh brought Mattison into his office. Three hours later, Harbaugh offered him the defensive line job, relaunching Mattison's career and setting him on a path that eventually led to his current job as Michigan's defensive coordinator.
Harbaugh promoted Mattison to defensive coordinator two years later, leaving another opening. Mattison recommended a young coach an hour north of Western whom he knew from recruiting.
Brady Hoke received his first Division I job as the Western Michigan defensive line coach in 1984 and moved into an office with another recently hired coach in his first Div. I gig -- John Harbaugh. Both played in the Mid-American Conference -- Hoke at Ball State and Harbaugh at Miami (Ohio). Of similar age and ambition, they became fast friends.
"We would compete in a lot of different things, basketball during lunch and maybe who would get in the office earlier," Hoke said. "John never would beat me."
As their friendship bloomed, the three constantly learned from Jack. They saw the implementation of drills and how he dealt with his players.
Some of those lessons remain today, transferred through all of Mattison and Hoke's coaching stops until they both landed at Michigan as two Jack Harbaugh disciples who made it in coaching.
"He was a big influence," Hoke said. "From how you prepare to going through the different evaluations of how you prepare for a game and how you coach and run meetings. All of that."
The relationships run deeper than football. Besides giving him a job, Jack Harbaugh and his wife showed up at a critical moment in Hoke's life. Hoke's wife, Laura, gave birth to their daughter, Kelly, three months premature. As Hoke raced back from a recruiting trip, he arrived at the hospital to find someone with his mother and mother-in-law.
"He was there," Hoke said. "It was signing day and he's there with my mom and Laura's mom. Just, that's the kind of family they are.
"He still calls Kelly on her birthday. To this day."
The connections for the three families remained tight. Jack gave Hoke his first job and put him in an office with John. Jack became one of Mattison's closest friends and one of his biggest football mentors.
During Mattison's time in Kalamazoo, he picked up the intricacies of linebackers and the secondary. Jack's teaching style was different. In summer workouts, Mattison said Jack lined up his coaches at their positions with the second group and they ran through plays with players.
It showed Mattison the play from multiple angles, something now critical in his play-calling.
Hoke and Mattison both mentioned something Harbaugh carried over from his own stint at Michigan with Bo Schembechler. Something evident in how Michigan operates as well as the two Super Bowl teams led by the family Harbaugh -- John with the Baltimore Ravens and Jim with the San Francisco 49ers. It goes to the core of their coaching.
"You learned toughness, learned discipline, that you had to be consistent with how you approach players," Mattison said. "You can't treat one kid different than another kid when it comes to rules. Jack emphasized that."
Despite the talent amongst the coaches -- besides the Harbaughs, Hoke and Mattison, current Michigan tight ends coach Dan Ferrigno and Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz were staffers -- Jack Harbaugh was fired following the 1986 season.
The Harbaughs went to Pitt. Mattison to Navy. Hoke to Toledo. They met again on the recruiting road, where Mattison remembers John bringing a box of doughnuts to a Texas high school coach when John was at Cincinnati and Mattison at Texas A&M, prompting Mattison to crank call John saying he was with the NCAA.
Mattison eventually landed at Michigan, where he again recommended Hoke as an assistant. Then Mattison traveled to Notre Dame and Florida, where John, then the Philadelphia Eagles special teams coach, was brought in to teach the Gators' coaches his special teams philosophy.
When the Ravens hired John to be a head coach, he brought in Mattison to coach defense. After three seasons, Mattison returned to college and reunited with Hoke at Michigan.
Mattison and John text weekly. Hoke also shoots texts to him frequently. Both Mattison and Hoke have spoken with Jack Harbaugh in the past few months.
Those Harbaugh connections will be on Mattison's mind on Sunday. When the two sons of the man who revitalized Mattison's career play, the Michigan defensive coordinator will watch closely.
And not surprisingly, he'll pull for Baltimore.