Harbaugh Bowl bittersweet for parents

Whichever of the Harbaugh brothers loses the Super Bowl -- 49ers coach Jim, left, or Ravens coach John -- will get the most postgame time with Mom and Dad. USA TODAY Sports

The only other time her sons faced each other as head coaches in the NFL, Jackie Harbaugh watched in a state of discomfort that bordered on agony.

It was Thanksgiving Day in 2011, and the San Francisco 49ers, coached by Jim Harbaugh, were visiting the Baltimore Ravens, coached by John Harbaugh. For the first time in NFL history, two brothers were squaring off on opposite sidelines, and Mom and Dad were on hand to watch.

Sort of.

Jackie and her husband, Jack, couldn't bear to sit there in the crowd, looking on as the action unfolded down on the field. Instead, they watched the game on TV, tucked inside a little office at M&T Bank Stadium -- away from the fans, if not the surreal nature of the matchup.

"I've never seen Jackie experience that in a ballgame," Jack said during a recent conference call with the media. "She just stared at the screen, no facial emotion whatsoever; just a blank stare, not a word spoken."

At the end of the game -- which the Ravens won 16-6, ending the 49ers' eight-game winning streak -- there was no celebrating. There was only relief that it was over.

By this point, the Harbaughs' story is familiar to most football fans. Jack was a longtime high school and college coach, whose Western Kentucky squad won the 2002 Division I-AA national championship. John and Jim inherited their dad's passion for the game. John came up through the college coaching ranks, then served as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles before taking over the Ravens in 2008. Jim was a star quarterback at Michigan and spent 14 seasons in the NFL; after retiring in 2001, he became the Oakland Raiders' quarterbacks coach, then later spent four years as Stanford's head coach before joining the Niners in 2011.

Compelling stuff, sure, but you'll have to excuse Jack and Jackie if they're not exactly looking forward to Super Bowl XLVII, to Jim's 49ers against John's Ravens. After all, Sunday's game will bring a strange dichotomy of emotions for these parents, as one son will be crowned a champion, while the other will be left to ponder the what-ifs.

"These are difficult times when you are playing against your own brother," said Jackie, who made it clear she will wear neutral colors on Sunday. "But at the end of the day, it is still about family and feelings for one another, and that is what came through at the Thanksgiving game."

Jack and Jackie learned something else that night in Baltimore: They learned where they will be most needed once the Super Bowl ends. After the Thanksgiving game in Baltimore, the couple took an elevator down to field level, where both the home and visiting locker rooms are located. They first went to the Ravens' locker room and peeked inside. "They were ecstatic," Jack said. "The guys were jumping up and down, and the smile on John's face …"

It was a big smile.

Understanding that they weren't really needed there, Mom and Dad walked across the hall to the 49ers' locker room. "It was quiet and somber," Jack recalled. "And finally I saw Jim, all by himself, no one around him, his hands on his head. We realized that is where we were needed."

Jack and Jackie Harbaugh know they'll experience the same thing this week -- that walk across the hall to the losing locker room, where one of their sons will likely be distraught. "I know one is going to win and one is going to lose, but I would really like it to end in a tie," Jackie said with a laugh. "Can the NFL do that?"

About midway through the Harbaughs' conference call with reporters, which also included their daughter, Joani Crean (who is married to Indiana University men's basketball coach Tom Crean), a man called in and asked, "Is it true that both of you like Jim better than John?"

There was a slight, almost awkward pause, before Joani said, "Hey, John, how are you?"

She was the only one to immediately recognize her brother's voice.

"Is that John?" Jackie said.

"Is that John Harbaugh?" said Jack, laughing. "Mom was ready to come right through this phone. I am so happy Joani recognized your voice. John, she grabbed my arm and she was reaching for the phone!"

John, who is older than Jim by 15 months, told his family they were doing great on the call, then said he was being summoned for practice. "It was good to hear your voices," he said. "OK. I will talk to you later. Love you both. Love you, Joani."

For millions of Americans, Sunday's big game promises to be the same kind of spectacle it always is -- an excuse to gather with friends, eat nachos and see what everybody is saying about it all on social media. For the Harbaugh family, though, it's a little more complicated than that. It's an exciting time, yes; Mom and Dad love talking about their kids. But they also know that Sunday will be heart-wrenching, no matter the outcome.

So you'll excuse them if they're not all that concerned with what to call this sibling showdown. The Bro Bowl? The HarBowl? The Harbaugh Bowl?

"I prefer it to be called the Super Bowl," Jackie quipped.

Spoken like a true mom.