Tom Crean Q&A: Georgia's new coach says brother-in-law Jim Harbaugh 'not a guy you ever want to challenge'

In March 2007, I sat down with Stanford's new football coach. In the middle of the interview, Jim Harbaugh did not hesitate taking a call from his brother-in-law.

On the other end of the line was Tom Crean, then the basketball coach at Marquette. Everything from how to motivate, maintain a program and institute a culture was on the table. Out loud. Right there. The interview was on hold for half an hour.

Thinking back 11 years, that might have been the beginning of how we know Crean and Harbaugh today. At the time Crean was about to start his last season at Marquette. His reputation had been burnished taking a Dwyane Wade-led Marquette squad to the 2003 Final Four. Crean -- who took the Georgia job in March -- hasn't been back.

Meanwhile, back then Harbaugh was taking his first Power Five job. In those days, Captain Quirk rode his bike to work wearing an old satin Indianapolis Colts warm-up jacket. You know, just in case everyone didn't know who was on the road in Palo Alto's pre-dawn light.

This was before Stanford's epic upset of USC that same year. This was before Harbaugh jump-started the program's best run ever. (Thanks also goes to David Shaw.) That was in the beginning when Harbaugh was becoming Harbaugh.

But if Crean's brother-in-law has taught us anything, it is loyalty that runs through the family like a mighty river. I talked to Crean recently about what it's like to have the Harbaughs as his in-laws.

He met Joani Harbaugh in 1990 in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Crean was an assistant at Western Kentucky. She worked at a health club.

Crean didn't know it at the time, but he was not only working toward marriage but inheriting one of America's great sporting families. Eventual father-in-law Jack Harbaugh won a national championship in football at Western Kentucky. John Harbaugh is going into his 11th year as the Baltimore Ravens head coach. Jim is entering his fourth season at Michigan having resurrected Stanford and taken the 49ers to a Super Bowl (where he lost to his brother in 2013).

Here -- just months after being fired at Indiana -- Crean talks about that family relationship, his career and a new job at Georgia. 

CBS Sports: What's it like having the Harbaughs as in-laws?

Tom Crean: It becomes a friendship. It did a long time ago. That's what's fantastic. You learn a lot about coaching, about leadership. Certainly learn a lot about parenting. You learn a lot about family love. They all care about each other, protect each other. I knew that but it gets reaffirmed all the time.

CBS: I went to see Jim before his first season at Stanford 11 years ago. I'm still amazed at what he told you on the phone during that interview. While you were still a year away from leaving Marquette, what do you remember?

TC: In a situation like that when [eventually the next year] you're getting ready to make a move like that you're certainly not talking to very many people. When you can talk to your family and they're high level in the business, that's a double win. Same thing with John. Then those tables were reversed back especially when Jim … went to the 49ers.

CBS: Did Jim talk to you about that?

TC: I knew certainly about the 49ers and the other things he was dealing with. You always want somebody who makes you think and makes you think about something you didn't think about …

That was getting ready to be a major move for us because that was our first move [to Indiana]. We knew we were going into some different territory there. We had no idea what we were getting into. None of us did.

CBS: How did you meet Joani?

TC: I met her at Western Kentucky. I went there at 1990 after one year as a graduate assistant for Jud Heathcote at Michigan State. She had just moved there. I didn't meet her until the end of August. She had just graduated from Pittsburgh. I met her at a health club that she was a sales manager for. I didn't join the health club. Eventually we dated and went from there.

CBS: When did you know what you were getting into with the Harbaugh family?

TC: When you realize you're going through things with them, especially early on with Jim, that are national news but there is a behind-the-scenes part of it. When he's a player and you know the ins and outs of that and then you start to be into a confer, advice, what-do-you-think type of relationship. Those kinds of things take off. (Jim's NFL playing career ended in 2001)

To me, I had the best of both worlds. You were watching Jim still as a player, then make the transition to coaching and John as an assistant coach working his way up. To me, one of the greatest moments was when Joani's family was in our kitchen in Mequon, Wisconsin and her mom and dad found out John was getting the Ravens' job. It was one of the greatest moments ever. [Also] when we were able to tell Jack and Jackie [Harbaugh] over the phone … when Jim beat USC the first year, that was incredible. Dick Vermeil had told Joani's dad in fall camp that year, that he had counted 47 pros at USC and Jim might have one …

The greatest was being to be able to share [on the phone] when Jack won the [I-AA] national championship and Jim and John couldn't be there. Jim used to have nights before games in the NFL when his meeting was over, he'd turn on the computer to listen to his dad's games. Jim would go in for the workouts and treatments on a Monday, get in a car and drive from Indianapolis to Bowling Green. He'd be there all day Tuesday, drive back Tuesday night to be ready for Wednesday practice and make the Pro Bowl. It wasn't like he was average.

(Note: From 1994-2001 while playing in the NFL, Jim Harbaugh was an unpaid assistant for his father at Western Kentucky.)

CBS: Did you talk to the Harbaugh brothers about the Georgia job?

TC: A little bit. They just went to bat. They were so upset when the Indiana thing happened. They kind of lived that with us too. Then it was like, 'What's next?' …

There was definitely some talk of Georgia. I definitely asked them their perception. I hadn't been there since 1990. Especially talking to John who had been there at different times for scouting. It wasn't a lot of community knowledge or institutional knowledge of a school but the respect level was high.

CBS: Where is Jim headed going into his fourth year at Michigan?

TC: I think he's in a great place. We saw him a couple of weeks ago. He was in for the Dick Vitale gala in Sarasota. We spent a lot of time together that Saturday. I gave him a ride to the airport early Sunday morning. I wish I had a Dictaphone so I could just keep recording so many good things. It was 25-30 minutes of conversation about coaching, leadership. He is not a guy that you ever want to challenge. He's really not a guy you want to put up against a wall. He's been at his best for a long time. He inherited something that was obviously incredibly important that  he had a lot of knowledge of. That competitiveness never turns off.

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