``My mom was a little disappointed,'' said John Harbaugh, whose momentous decision led him to his new job as the Eagles' special-teams coach. ``I was all set up to go to law school. My dad was coaching at Western Michigan at the time. I went up there to work on my master's and he asked me if I'd help out a little.
``It was like he threw a hook in the water and started reeling me in. After a year, I was completely hooked.''
Harbaugh's enthusiasm for coaching, which helped convince Ray Rhodes to hire him, will be a huge asset in his new job. The Eagles' special teams have been a sinkhole the last two seasons. Last year alone, special-teams misplays played major roles in six of the team's nine losses. Harbaugh, the third special-teams coach in as many seasons, believes he can help straighten out that phase of the Eagles' game.
And why not? Harbaugh has been preparing for this job all his life.
John and his brother Jim - the Baltimore Ravens' starting quarterback, who is 15 months younger - led the classic lives of a coach's children. They were around the game all the time. When Jack was an assistant on Bo Schembechler's staff at Michigan, the coach's sons would play together on the grass alongside the practice field. The Harbaughs were joined by Bill McCartney's boys - including Mike, who is now the Eagles' pro personnel coordinator - and Andy Moeller, Gary's son.
Jack Harbaugh remembers the day the worst happened.
``My whole life flashed before my eyes,'' he said. ``The kids were playing. I was focused on what I was doing, but I would see the ball appear every now and then over my shoulder. Finally it rolled out into the middle of the practice field. Schembechler went into one of his megatonners: `Get those kids off the damn field' and all that. It ruined the whole day.''
John Harbaugh, now 35, laughed at the memory.
``When you're a coach's son, your dad has to be away a certain amount of time,'' he said. ``But then there's the other side. You're around all these players. You get to be in the locker room. I can remember all the players who treated us kids the best. They'd give us wristbands and stuff. They didn't know that we'd go to school and sell them for a dollar apiece.''
``I think any coach's son will tell you it was great to be a coach's son,'' Mike McCartney said. ``It was the best. I grew up with the Harbaughs, really. John Harbaugh is the nicest guy I have ever known in my life. His brother Jim? I couldn't say that about him.''
Jim was more aggressive. Meaner, even. His competitive streak helped make him the superior athlete. Jim went on to star at the University of Michigan and on to a pro career.
John played defensive back at Miami University in Ohio (where he was recruited by Jim Bollman, who joined the Eagles staff this year as tight-ends coach). He had some knee problems. He didn't have the size and speed of his brother. He didn't have the talent of his roommate, Brian Pillman, who went on to play nose tackle for a season with the Cincinnati Bengals. After that, as ``Flyin' '' Brian Pillman, he had a career as a professional wrestler. He died last year of a heart ailment.
``He was a great guy,'' John Harbaugh said, ``but a crazy guy. They started him off as a `good guy' [in wrestling], but they made him into a bad guy. He was one of the `Four Horsemen.' He made a better bad guy. But really, he was the best football player I ever played with.''
Once he decided on coaching, Harbaugh spent three years as an assistant on his father's Western Michigan staff.
``That was one of the great experiences I've had in my life,'' Jack Harbaugh said. ``John was living at home, and we'd drive to and from work together. We'd talk, about football and about life. A friendship developed there that went beyond father and son.''
John Harbaugh went on to coach at Pittsburgh and the University of Cincinnati, where he spent eight years as an assistant coach. Dana Bible, the Eagles' new offensive coordinator, was on that same staff for one year. Harbaugh coached at Indiana last year, then got a call from the Eagles. He said he still wasn't sure how he became a candidate.
``I heard they had a list of names,'' Harbaugh said. ``I interviewed, and they offered me the job. It was a thrill. Not only to be in the NFL, but to work with Ray Rhodes. It's a great situation.''
The candidates were asked to watch tape of special-teams action and talk about what they saw and how they would improve it. Harbaugh impressed Rhodes with his knowledge and enthusiasm - qualities that will serve him well as he rebuilds the confidence and competence of the Eagles' special teams.
Muffed punts, misguided fair catches, long returns allowed, the notorious botched field goal that would have beaten Dallas. It was awful. But the thing of it was, the special teams improved as the season went on. With the addition of Randy Kinder, Matt Stevens and Tim McTyer, the coverage teams became pretty dependable.
So Harbaugh will have something to work with to complete his first task. The second task is a little more ambitious. Great teams don't have merely adequate special teams. They have special teams that can break games open.
``We talk about that,'' John Harbaugh said. ``We talk about being attack-oriented. But the first thing is, you have to be as good as you can be. We try to make it competitive. We call it segmenting. We break it down into the little battles that get fought on every play. These guys are competitive by nature.
``The approach is: Take what's there and work hard every day. That's what we talk about in every special-teams meeting. `Go out and chop wood. Work hard every day.' If you do those things every single day, you build a foundation and eventually you're good enough. How else can you do it?''
Harbaugh looks as if he's having a blast when the special-teams portion of practice rolls around. And he had better. This is, after all, what he broke his mother's heart to do.
``She's recovered nicely,'' Jack Harbaugh said. ``She's proud of what he's accomplished.''