NEW ORLEANS -- Two weeks ago, Jack and Jackie Harbaugh knew one of their sons would be the losing coach in Super Bowl XLVII.
As this week in the Big Easy drew to a close, they understood they would feel exquisite pain for either John or Jim -- perhaps more than the joy they would feel for the winner. That's how families operate; more of the support always goes to the one who needs it most.
Thirty minutes after the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers in a 34-31 thriller at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Harbaugh parents stood side by side, about 25 feet from the winning coach's interview podium. They smiled tight, bittersweet smiles as John Harbaugh spoke to the assembled media.
"In my 43 years as a coach, that was the most difficult game ever," the father said, hands folded at his waist, rocking gently back and forth.
The mother just closed her eyes and shook her head.
John, sounding very much like his father, concurred as he described the meeting with his younger brother at the center of the swirling confetti storm.
"Meeting with Jim was probably the most difficult thing I've experienced in terms of football," John said. "There's no greater coach, no greater competitor in the world than the coach of the San Francisco 49ers."
The Har-Bowl -- in a game delayed, oddly enough, because of darkness -- turned out to be a scintillating contest. That is, if you are not a member of the Harbaugh family. It featured a wide range of enlightened coaching decisions. In the end, the older brother prevailed. John might have outmaneuvered Jim with a deliberate safety near the end of the game that took a few precious seconds off the clock.
When it was over, John and Jim met briefly in the middle of the field and exchanged a handshake and a few words.
The younger brother -- who, based on history, was clearly the odds-on favorite to be a sore loser -- was circumspect and reasonably controlled. Seriously, you didn't expect him to go all Jim Schwartz on his brother, did you?
What did Jim say to John?
"I told him congratulations," Jim said. "That I was proud of him."
What did John say to him?
"I think the same thing."
Their relationship, along with the imminent departure of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, was among the dominant storylines at Super Bowl XLVII. In retrospect, it feels like all those hundreds of thousands of words given to the subject fail to underline how truly remarkable this was. The odds, when you really crunch the numbers, are almost unfathomable.
This sibling rivalry is probably not over. Together, they have brought their teams to the playoffs a collective seven times in seven seasons. There will be more triumph and disappointment for the Harbaugh family. Like Serena and Venus Williams and their family, they probably will grow more used to it.
Several family members stood together as John spoke graciously from his podium: Jack, 73, and Jackie; John's wife Ingrid and their 11-year-old daughter Alison; John's sister Joani and her husband, Tom Crean, the basketball coach at the University of Indiana.
Jackie is a tough one. At one point while John was still talking, a reporter was trying to speak with her husband.
"Hey," she said, touching his arm, "you should be listening to [John]."
In that postgame interview, John Harbaugh turned to his right and looked at his assembled family as he said of his younger brother, "I could not be more proud of him."
Jack smiled at the acknowledgement, and said to John, "Proud of you."
He pointed at his oldest son and clapped three times. This time the smile was a little less tight.