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Posted on Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

Before they were Super Bowl coaches, John and Jim Harbaugh spent one season together as Ann Arbor Pioneer teammates

By Kyle Austin


John Harbaugh is pictured in the second row, fourth from right, with the 1979 Pioneer varsity football team. Jim Harbaugh is not pictured, as he was a member of the JV team at the time.

Courtesy of Pioneer High School

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a series of articles about the Harbaughs' time in Ann Arbor. For more about the Harbaughs' time in Ann Arbor, check back Friday and Sunday on

The 1979 Pioneer High School football season was in many ways, unmemorable.

Coming off a 7-2 season and a South Central Conference title, the Pioneers were hit hard by injuries, struggled to score early and stumbled to a 4-5 record. It marked the team’s second losing season in 12 years.

But three decades later, the season is one of the school’s most notable -- if more for its personnel than its performance. The 1979 roster contained two future NFL head coaches, brothers John and Jim Harbaugh, who will become the first siblings to coach against each other in a Super Bowl on Sunday.

John was finishing out a solid career as a senior defensive back, although he missed the first six games of that season with a knee injury. Coaches remember a hard-working, lead-by-example veteran who was well-liked by teammates.


John Harbaugh's photo from the 1979-80 Pioneer High School yearbook, his senior year.

Jim, meanwhile, would emerge that season as a promising young quarterback, a 10th-grader who would go from junior varsity backup to varsity starter in a matter of a month. By the end of the season, he was being called “the real deal,” as one of his coaches put it.

Their stories since that season are well-told. Jim went on to become a standout high school quarterback in Palo Alto, after his father, Jack, moved from the Michigan coaching staff to Stanford. Two years later, he returned to Ann Arbor to become Michigan’s quarterback, before a 14-year NFL playing career.

John, meanwhile, went on to Miami (Ohio), and spent more than 20 years as a college and professional assistant before becoming an NFL head coach in 2008.

But before their lives diverged, the two brothers played one season of varsity football together in their last months as a family in Ann Arbor.

Starting from the bottom

At the beginning of the 1979 season, the Harbaugh brothers didn’t figure to play a large role for Pioneer. John was out with an injury, and Jim was a first-year player on the junior varsity team.

And for about a week, he wasn’t even the first-string quarterback on that team.

After moving up from Tappan Junior High School, Jim took snaps at quarterback. But a few days into the preseason, the coaches installed a different a quarterback named Al Smith with the first-team offense.

Jim was already known then to have a fiery, competitive demeanor. And that attitude didn’t allow him to be a backup for long. The demotion lasted about a week, before Jim worked his back to the starting spot.


Jim Harbaugh's photo from the 1979-80 Pioneer High School yearbook, his sophomore year.

“He came back and earned his way into a starting position,” JV coach Paul Fuehrer said. “He’s a competitor, he’s not going to sit down, he’s a fighter. All of the things that you want in an athlete when you’re coaching football.”

That demeanor included some early braggadocio on the junior varsity practice fields one day.

“Paul called to me and said ‘The kid said he thinks he can throw it 40 or 50 yards,’” Nick Genova, an assistant coach, said. “I said ‘Well let’s let him try.’ And away it went, man. I said ‘Wow, we’ve got something different here.’”

“We could more or less say he was cocky at the time, but he was pretty good. You lived with it and went with it, and nobody ever minded,” Genova said.

Jim’s time on the junior varsity would last only two games. But included in that early stretch may have been the first play Jim, future Super Bowl coach, ever called.

“When we got up 21-0 or whatever over a team, I would put the second team quarterback in with the first unit, so he would get used to playing with the first unit and not get beat up,” Fuehrer said.

“(Jim) comes up and says ‘Can I call a play?’ And I said ‘Sure’. He called a running play, we took like a three-yard loss on it.”

Undeterred, Harbaugh was asking again five minutes later to call another play. The answer: “absolutely not.”

“He kind of had a little air about him, you might say,” Fuehrer said. “He and his brother, they were like having extra coaches on the field. They knew the game really well, they related to other players in a positive way.”

Moving up

While Jim was leading the JV team, the varsity team was struggling, particularly on offense. Pioneer lost it's first two games, and had scored a total of just three points in those contests.

When Jim was moved from junior varsity to varsity before the third game of the season, it came as no surprise to teammates.

“When he came up, Jim was gracious, he was humble, but at the same time, very confident that he would be a successful quarterback,” said John Minick, who Harbaugh displaced at the starting quarterback position in the middle of the team's fourth game, a 36-6 loss to Flint Northwestern.

“I think it would be fair to say that everybody probably on the team knew that Jim Harbaugh as a sophomore had very strong talent for that age. It was not a surprise, there was no animosity.”

On the varsity level, he joined his brother, John, who had established himself as a leader on the defensive side of the ball.

“John was like a coach out there,” teammate Van Belanger said. “He was a corner and he knew the play, knew what was going on and he would do what he does… that was something that always stood out.

The quiet way John had about him made for a contrast with his younger brother, who exuded confidence from day one.

“I would think about both of them, they’re completely different on how they go about things” varsity coach Chuck Ritter said.

On the varsity squad, some of the older guys wanted to test the cocky young, Jim, but found it was easier said than done.

“Of course when they have a new kid come up there, and Jimmy was a little bit cocky and what have you, the kids wanted to test him. There was a wrestler named Craig Petoskey," Fuehrer said. Petoskey, an eventual state champion wrestler was tasked with putting Jim in his place. "(Petoskey) came in the next day after practice, he said ‘Coach Fuehrer, I tried to catch that Harbaugh, I wanted to hit him as hard as I could, but I just couldn’t catch him.'”


Jim Harbaugh's first varsity action came in relief in a Week 4 loss to Flint Southwestern. He would start the remainder Pioneer's games.

Ann Arbor News archive

Jim’s varsity football debut came on Sept. 28 against Flint Southwestern, when he took over for Minick in the second quarter and threw a 28-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.

“When he came into the huddle he was so excited about coming in he could hardly call the play,” Belanger said. “I remember that.”

Ritter told the Ann Arbor News at the time that the loss to Southwestern was "embarrassing" and vowed to make sweeping changes to the lineup.

"We may make some changes. We're going to find out who the kids are that want to play and get some of the others out of there. Some are just not doing the job," Ritter told the Ann Arbor News after the game.

One of those changes was installing Jim as the starter the next week.


Jim Harbaugh was installed as the starter in Week 5 and led Pioneer to a win over Jackson Parkside. (Ann Arbor News archive)

In his first start, Harbaugh went 7-for-12 for 93 yards with a touchdown. He had ups and downs the rest of the season -- two interceptions, no touchdowns against Adrian, two touchdown passes in a season-ending win against Huron.

And in an era of run-heavy football, Harbaugh’s development helped change Pioneer’s game plan.

“He was throwing the ball 17 or 18 times average per game, which was pretty unusual then for that particular time I would say,” Fuehrer said. “I don’t know if a whole lot of quarterbacks in the country were throwing the ball as much as him.”

By the end of the season, before the Huron matchup, the sophomore quarterback had gained notoriety at both Pioneer and Huron.

“He’s going to be a good one,” Ritter told the Ann Arbor News then. “Certainly he has a lot to learn but he’s shown good poise for a sophomore quarterback. With him, we’ll have a passing attack that Huron will have to be aware of.”

Former Ann Arbor News sportswriter John Viges wrote at the time "Pioneer needs to run but its best weapon probably is sophomore quarterback Jim Harbaugh who has perked up the attack since he took over midway through the season."

Viges was prophetic, Pioneer's strength was its running in a 20-8 win over Huron, but Harbaugh had two touchdown passes as well.

Moving on


Ann Arbor News writer John Viges lamented on what a year it could have been for Pioneer had players like John Harbaugh not been injured, and predicted a bright future for Pioneer...if the Harbaugh didn't move for Jack's job.

An Ann Arbor News season-wrap up from that season notes that “Pioneer should be strong at quarterback if Harbaugh’s father, Jack, doesn’t decide to leave his position on the University of Michigan staff and move his family.”

The story also lamented of what could have been in 1979 had the Pioneers not been setback by injuries to key players like John Harbaugh.

That’s exactly what happened early in 1980, when Jack took the defensive coordinator position at Stanford.

From that point on, the Harbaugh brothers’ paths wouldn’t cross on a football field until last season, after Jim had become the San Francisco 49ers coach.

And when they stand on opposing sidelines Sunday, many from Ann Arbor will remember them as Pioneer teammates three decades ago.

“I think it’s not only good for the people in Ann Arbor but I think it’s great for football that they’re going against each other,” Fuehrer said.

Ben Freed and Pete Cunningham contributed to this report.


Check out old Ann Arbor News articles from the season the Harbaugh brothers were teammates at Pioneer High School.

Kyle Austin covers sports for He can be reached at or 734-623-2535. Follow him on Twitter @KAustin_AA.



Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 11:36 p.m.

Oooo, those night games at Hollway Field were on the chilly side, weren't they? Looking forward to HarBowl.

Blue Marker

Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 9:26 p.m.

I for one will never forgive Jim for his comments regarding his time at UM. He not only through UM under the bus but Bo too. And of course he didn't say anything like that until Bo was dead. What a heel. He complained he was directed not to take certain classes or majors while at UM. However, his dad was on Bo's staff for 7 years before Jim, was he steering kids away from their majors too? More than likely it was a bunch of BS he said to try and get some attention and recruits. For that he will never be a Wolverine to me. I'm Michael and he is Fredo....big kiss.


Sat, Feb 2, 2013 : 1:27 a.m.

Denard Robinson is a general studies major. Do you think for one second he would have been accepted to Michigan on academics alone?

Blue Marker

Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 1:08 p.m.

Notice how Harbaugh didn't speak his mind when Bo was still alive? How cowardly of him. Michigan football players have every opportunity to make whatever they want out of themselves. They can go on to the NFL, be an executive in the corporate world or even become a 7 figure Athletic Director. Nothing is worse than someone who capitalizes on every opportunity offered to them by an institution and then question the way in-which it was offered. Jim owes much of what he is today to his time on the big stage at UM and the coaching he received from a Michigan legend Bo Schembechler. So the assertions made above about "every program doing it" and "UM invented General Studies" is an uninformed opinion and nothing more.


Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 4:17 a.m.

Michigan invented the General Studies and Sports Management degrees specifically to keep football players academically elgible. Love or hate Jim Harbaugh, the man always speaks his mind.


Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 2:26 a.m.

Sorry, but I saw too many Harbaugh-lead victories to cut him off entirely. What he said was basically the truth, but it goes on everywhere, not just at UM.


Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 8:35 p.m.

My son was on the JV squad that year with Jim Harbaugh, and I went to one JV game to see my son play. I still can picture that quarterback on the field, and I remember thinking at the time that he had the technique and poise of a college quarterback. I knew nothing of his background or his family's background except that his dad was one of the Michigan coaches.


Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 4:28 p.m.

I wonder what the Harbaughs do for an encore next season? I find myself wondering whether I would rather be either of the Harbaughs, or Brady Hoke.....? :-)) If we in the Michigan family choose to live up to our reputation, being a member of the Michigan family for a lifetime--and hopefully also contributing much to the 98 or 99% of NC2A athletes who learn about sportsmanship and team play and then go on to major in something else--is an amazing legacy and creates a wonderful family for a lifetime. Go BLUE!


Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 4:03 p.m.

I know I will probably get a lot of down votes but I have to say this Super Bowl to me is the most uninteresting one so far. First the main story is about the coaches and while it is interesting to have brothers pitted against each other they will not be playing. Another is the story about Ray Lewis and this being his last game. I'm going to start a firestorm but my opinion is his biggest claim to fame is beating a murder rape. Don't get me wrong, I am a football but this game really isn't getting me all that excited. I feel at this point I'm just going to put one of my favorite movies in the DVD player and catch the score after it's over.


Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 4:29 p.m.

Yeah Ben, I laughed when I reread it but I thought some of the grammar/English majors would jump all over it. LOL

Ben Freed

Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 4:13 p.m.

I kinda liked "I am a football" better. I think there are plenty of interesting storylines in this game, and what's more two really good football teams. I'm excited to see if Kapernick can continue his magic against the Raven's Defense and if Ray Rice will show up for this big game. I think it'll be a good one to watch.


Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 4:07 p.m.

Also he beat a murder rap.


Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 4:05 p.m.

That's supposed to be "I'm a football fan". Really need to proofread my comments more carefully.


Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 2:51 p.m.

It was either Jeff or John Minick he "displaced", not Tom.

Kyle Austin

Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 3:04 p.m.

You're right, MooSEPA, it was John. Thanks for bringing that to our attention.

Geoff Larcom

Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 1:55 p.m.

Great local stuff for us longtime Ann Arbor kids who attended Pioneer in the 1970s. We all remember Chuck Ritter (still playing paddleball around town) and Paul Fuehrer (he of the pushups to the tune of the keys). Fun memories of sitting in Hollway Field. I worked with the late John Viges, who covered U-M basketball for The Ann Arbor News and, like the whole staff, pitched in on prep football. Cheers to for covering the heck out of the Harbaughs this week.


Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 3:06 a.m.

I remember Franz always talking about becoming a world class magician. He did achieve it. I have seen him on television on several occasion. Now I am dating myself. Because Bob Seger just started singing on the radio. Need to go get a hobby.


Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 11:32 p.m.

Geoff, you did a great job while at the Ann Arbor News!

Kyle Austin

Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 7:05 p.m.

As a commenter on a previous story pointed out, in the 1980 Pioneer yearbook John Harbaugh is pictured next to Franz Harary, who went on to become a famous magician.


Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 6:43 p.m.

I got a face book alert about this guy from our class updates. Wow. I thought he graduated in 80 or 81? Now I know I want to start over and get more into sports. Congrats to hear this. Pioneer has long standing over achievers from men on the moon to the Olympics.

Judy Harding

Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 5:16 p.m.

As a graduate of Ann Arbor High School, it makes me sad that they changed the name.

Ben Freed

Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 4:14 p.m.

Thanks Geoff, It's been a lot of fun finding the Harbaugh's old friends. We'll have another story tomorrow with a series of anecdotes and memories from a few of them. Ben


Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 4:01 p.m.

Oh man, who could forget the tune of the keys.....memories!!!


Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 1:36 p.m.

I believe Keith Bostic was the running back on the 79 team and went on to play defensive back for Michigan and the Houston Oilers.

Kyle Austin

Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 2:20 p.m.

It looks like Bostic was at Michigan for the 1979 team, but would have played with John Harbaugh for two years at Pioneer


Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 1:50 p.m.

I belive Keith was a year ahead and graduated in 1979, he was not in the class of 1980


Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 12:01 p.m.

Put "commercials" in the poll...

Silly Sally

Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 11:23 a.m.

What is with this "Ann Arbor Pioneer" headline instead of just "Pioneer" or better yet, Pioneer High School? If you read the old headlines, all say "Pioneer" and not one the silly "Ann Arbor Pioneer" It actually should be still called "Ann Arbor High School", many cities have multiple high schools and keep the original school name of their first high school. But come on, if Pioneer High School's sports teams need to earn enough name recogination by winning games, not by adding their city name in front of the name. One doesn't see this sill practice in other regions.


Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 11:28 p.m.

There is another Pioneer High School in California, so it makes perfect sense to specify Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, given web searches. Not silly at all, Sally.

Kyle Austin

Thu, Jan 31, 2013 : 2:17 p.m.

Sally -- we used Ann Arbor Pioneer because this is a story that has appeal beyond the area and to people who might not be familiar with Pioneer High School. In our normal local sports coverage, the school is referred to as Pioneer High School.