Harbaugh family honored to receive Blanton Collier Award

mmaloney@herald-leader.comJune 28, 2013 

LOUISVILLE — Jack Harbaugh was talking about a former University of Kentucky football coach.

"I had a chance to meet Blanton Collier back in the '70s, when I was coaching at the University of Michigan," Harbaugh said. "I spoke at a clinic, and he was receiving an award, and we sat together for lunch. I was so impressed with one quality that carries with me today, and that's coaching and teaching. Teaching. And they tell me there couldn't ever be a better coach in our profession that was a better teacher than Blanton Collier. So to be here and be associated with this and have our name humbly attached to it is very rewarding."

The Harbaugh family — Jack and sons John, coach of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, and Jim, who guides the Super Bowl runner-up San Francisco 49ers — were presented the Blanton Collier Award on Friday.

The ceremony was part of the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions at the Louisville Palace Theater. Inducted were Irv Goode, the late Coy Bacon, Otis Wilson, Chad Bratzke and Roman Oben. Also honored posthumously was NFL Hall of Famer George McAfee, a Corbin native who went on to play for Duke and the Chicago Bears (1940-41, 1945-50).

Also recognized was the All-Commonwealth Collegiate Team, including Defensive Player of the Year Zach Autenrieb of Thomas More and co-offensive players Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville and Larry Warford of UK.

The Blanton Collier Award is named for the former UK coach who went on to lead the Cleveland Browns to the 1964 NFL championship. The award was established in 2007 to honor individuals who excelled on the football field and utilized that platform to "give back" off the field. Past winners include Rich Brooks, Tony Dungy, Jim Brown, Gale Sayers and the Archie Manning family.

With training camps set to open next month, John and Jim Harbaugh did not attend Friday's ceremony.

Jack, at 74 retired and living in Milwaukee, was accompanied by wife Jackie.

In 14 seasons as head coach at Western Kentucky, Jack Harbaugh went 91-68 (116-95-3 in 19 seasons overall) and led the Hilltoppers to the 2002 NCAA I-AA title.

"Games, you kind of forget; wins and losses, you kind of forget," Jack said. "There's some games that stick out in your mind. But the one thing that never leaves you are the people — the players, the coaches, all the friends that we've made — the Jimmy Feixes, the Butch Gilberts, the Lee Murrays, all those people that we had a chance to meet. They're family to us. Fourteen years — that's the longest that we've stayed at any place in our 43-year career, so that's home to us."

Jack makes no secret that John, then an assistant at the University of Cincinnati, and Jim, a quarterback with the Chicago Bears, helped recruiting efforts at WKU.

"They saved the program. There wouldn't be football at Western Kentucky University today without John and Jim's help," Jack said. "It was '92 or '93, (WKU) voted to drop football, and then eventually the next month they re-voted and we had a 5-4 vote to keep it. But they took away scholarships. They took away money. They took away coaches. We were in real, real trouble. Recruiting-wise, everyone was using it against us, as you might expect.

"John and Jim both stepped up. Jim took a full-time coaching job at Western, for no money, and all he did was recruit because he was with the Chicago Bears at the time. John was at Cincinnati, so he kept two lists, one for us and one for him, and passed them along to Jim."

The sons helped their father finish his career on a 61-24 run of success.

Jim, who lived in the talent-rich Orlando, Fla., area, met success with his first WKU recruit. Willie Taggart not only became a four-year starter at quarterback, but later became WKU's head coach.

When Western won the 2002 national title, Jim was credited with signing 17 of the players on the roster.

Of course, that was only the beginning of coaching successes for John and Jim.

To see his sons square off in the Super Bowl was "something that we'll treasure forever," Jack said.

"Jackie's got a 97-year-old father that had the chance to be at the Super Bowl and experience his great grandsons competing in that great spectacle. All my brothers and sisters, and Jackie's brother and families, and they were all there in New Orleans. So for us, it was a tremendous celebration of family."

As was Friday.

■ Brian Washington of Paris High School was honored as high school Coach of the Year during Friday's ceremonies.

Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com

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