It’s not every day that we have the chance to peek behind the curtain at the life of someone who is so well-known. As one of our most requested interviews at The Brick, we were excited to land time with Sarah Harbaugh. Sarah Harbaugh is married to former NFL player Jim Harbaugh, now coach of the University of Michigan Wolverines. We found it unsurprising that she’s as down-to-earth as so many of our readers are. Her willingness to let us see what it’s really like to be in the spotlight is a great reminder that behind the enormity of celebrity, very real, very human hearts live full lives with humble dreams, much the same as our own.
On arriving in Michigan
We love it here. We thought coming from California would be hard; everyone thought it would be hard for me in particular. But I‘m from Kansas City, so I’m used to Midwestern people and Midwestern weather. I was excited to get back—especially when I saw how much people wanted Jim here. Jim had told me throughout the years how great Michigan was. He had such a great childhood in Ann Arbor and loved his time here as a college student. He often referred to Michigan as “the land of milk and honey.” I never quite understood that until moving here.
We also felt very fortunate to have a job and this great opportunity to coach Michigan football. Most coaches don’t have another job to jump right in to when they are let go. We’re really thankful for this; Michigan welcomed us with open arms. One of my favorite memories was seeing the billboards and signs with “Welcome home, Coach!” when we arrived. That was very heartwarming to us.
In my life, I’ve experienced how changeable circumstances can be, how what you have today may not be what you have tomorrow, and this plays a big role in how I raise my kids and how I am with people in general. For example, each time I feel like I’m settling somewhere and I make friends, we end up needing to move. This is why a lot of people don’t know much about me. I try to stay as behind the scenes as I can. While I know it’s not realistic, a part of me believes that if I keep a wall up and stay as much to myself as I can, I won’t get hurt by our next transition. This is not a good thing, and I hope to change that mindset someday.
The other reason I keep a low public profile is so I can stay focused on raising great human beings. We have seven kids—our four kids at home and three from Jim’s previous marriage. Our lives are very, very full from a family perspective.
For me personally, it was very stressful to see how much faith everyone had in Jim before he even started. But for him, that was a challenge he was ready for, and despite upsets with Ohio State, things have gone well so far. I’m proud of him and of the team. I try to stay focused on the positive despite the losses. Overall, there’s still a big fan base and people are excited about the season to come. And while it’s exciting, it’s only July and I already have the nervous butterflies in my stomach.
The expectation is so high, and while Jim handles it really well, every mention of what people are hopeful for puts more anxiety in my life. In my heart, I always think the best, but I’d rather think it’s not going to happen and be surprised when it does. I’m pretty sure this has something to do with the way I grew up.
Being the eleventh of eleven children and losing my “twin”
For the longest time, I hated being the youngest. I wanted to be an only child because my friends who were only children got their own clothes, their own attention, etc. I never had the chance to make a decision when I was younger. No one ever asked me what I wanted to do in a day, what I wanted for dinner, what movie I wanted to see. I just had to follow. I spent my whole childhood following other people. This is why I find it hard as an adult to have a leadership role. However, as a mother, I had no choice. I had to be in charge. That took a long time getting used to for me. It also took me awhile to figure out why I was the way I was, why I had no control. I still look back and recognize that we really had it good as kids. While we didn’t have much, we had all we needed. And my parents were selfless enough to give us ten best friends for life.
I was eight months old when my brother, 18 months older than me, was diagnosed with cancer. It was an aggressive form of the disease, and he was lucky enough to have it go into remission after many years of treatment. My mom lived in the hospital with him for several months at a time while he received chemo and recovered from multiple surgeries. She cared for my brother and my dad worked to support the family. I was a baby and my parents couldn’t really care for me, so I went to live with friends of theirs. For a while, I experienced being an only child, and I loved it. I would go home on the weekends and it felt like two totally different worlds.
In my “real” family (I consider them both my family), there wasn’t a lot of affection— no “I love you,” no hugs, that kind of thing. They loved us, they took care of us, but you never heard it. We didn’t really do emotional intimacy. Then I’d go to my other family and all they did was cuddle and spoil. For a while, that made me question who I was and how I was supposed to act in the world. As I grew older, I understood both situations better and I learned to appreciate both (very different) upbringings.
Unfortunately, my “adopted” dad Darryl (who raised me until my brother went into remission) died in a plane crash when I was ten, and that was a big loss for me. Quite often after that there was another big loss of some sort. My brother ended up getting cancer again and died at 22. This was devastating for me. We were always together; everyone thought we were twins because we were the same size and so close in age. We had big plans for our future, he and I.
I’ll never let this happen again
When my brother was diagnosed the second time, I was in college. I came back every weekend to spend time with him. Every Sunday, as I prepared to go back to school, he asked me not to go; he asked me to please stay with him. I went anyway. Although I was with him when he
passed away, I deeply regret going back to school every week. Looking back now, I wish I would have stayed with him and just taken that semester off. That is time I will never get back. And those moments with him are the ones I cherish most. We stayed up at night together a lot and talked about dying and death. The thought kept him up most nights. How could it not? I always tried to convince him that he wasn’t going to die, not anytime soon, and that he would be cured. However, we both knew that that wasn’t true. One night, he asked me what I would say if somebody asked me how many brothers I had after he died. I said, “I have six brothers, Andrew, and I’ll always have six brothers.” That’s when I knew that he knew he was dying, and it broke my heart. He had given up and that’s when I did too. That’s when we started focusing on keeping him comfortable and less on keeping him alive.
That was probably the experience that solidified my awareness that nothing is certain, nothing is promised, and we have to be grateful for everything we have and every single day. Just recently my dad and another one of my brothers were both diagnosed with cancer. It’s painful to be caught in the realization that I can’t be there to help care for them. Luckily, there is a small army of us back in KC to help out. One of the perks of a large family, I suppose.
Cancer has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It’s a sad reality for many of us. That is why I’m passionate about helping to raise awareness for all types of cancers, but especially DIPG (diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma). After meeting the Carr family and spending time with Chad Carr while he tried to fight this awful disease, I couldn’t help but get behind them and fight. It’s got a 0% survival rate! This is where we need to focus. Like Tammi said in her article, ”If we can figure out the hardest tumor, it can be possible to help the rest.” I am proudly on the board of ChadTough and I wholeheartedly believe that there will be a major breakthrough in the near future.
I also plan to start volunteering for hospice. I’ve had an “inner” pull toward doing this for some time. Having the right people around when you or a loved one is making the transition can make a huge difference in how you view death and dying. It’s a strange experience to be with a loved one when they’re passing on. It’s horrible, but it can be beautiful. I think I have something to offer families in this position.
How I got kicked off Twitter
This was a rough situation, because I’m just not a public person. Two years ago at a game we were losing to Wisconsin, my five-year-old son took it pretty hard. I thought it was going to be a great trip, you know—his first road game, one where the team would win. But as Wisconsin scored another touchdown, the cameras caught our son in the stands starting to cry as he realized what was happening. The video went viral after someone turned it into a GIF and Twitter lit up with people making fun of him. I’m not normally on Twitter, but a friend brought it to my attention and asked if I saw what was happening. People said awful things, not only about Jim, but things like “Like father like son” and “Cry-baby.” They laughed at his appearance and poked fun at his rather thick glasses. They said the most awful things, and I lost it.
As I read the comments, my heart clenched and my stomach turned. Eventually, I couldn’t help myself and I started responding from the account Jim’s assistant made for me. It wasn’t under my name at the time, because I knew I wasn’t going to post and I only wanted to keep up with what was going on with the team.
That day, a part of me came out that I hadn’t seen before. It’s one thing to say things about Jim, the team or the players. They’re adults. But I wasn’t willing to just sit by and let people say something about our kid. I didn’t use profanity or anything like that, but I gave back everything they dished out.
Well, when you use a non-verified account with no history and then suddenly post multiple negative comments, they boot you out. You can re-sign in, but your identity will be out there given the way Twitter works, and that’s where I had to draw the line. I didn’t want this to come back on my family. I gave some pretty vicious comebacks that day, and I’ve never been on Twitter since.
I’m sure I’m not the first mom or coach’s wife who’s been through that. But I worry now that the kids are coming of age to see with their own eyes how nasty people can be. We have a two-, six-, eight-, and ten-year-old. They’ll get flack at school, especially during the season. Of course, it’s great when we’re winning. They’re excited to go to school and I’m excited to drop them off. But it’s the complete opposite otherwise. I don’t want to use the cliche that this will make them stronger since it won’t kill them. People told my brother this a lot while I watched cancer kill him in the end. But I do hope they can find a way to be bigger people. That’s how I’m trying to raise them.
What it’s like to raise a family under a spotlight
At school, the other kids know who Jim is, but I don’t think our kids really understand the magnitude of who their dad is until they’re out and people want an autograph or a picture. The kids get excited and proud about it, but they don’t really say anything; they’re used to it now. It makes me wonder how they’re processing it all. I try to make sure they understand that this isn’t normal or reality for most people. I don’t want them to get complacent or used to being treated this way.
One of them came home from school recently and said, “Mom, did you know that Dad is famous?!” and I said, “No…” He replied, “Yeah, one of my friends told me that he’s famous and he wanted MY autograph!” I listened as he started piecing together what this meant. “So now I’m famous,” he said.
I had to interrupt him. I explained to him that he was not famous and that Dad is famous because of how hard he’s worked and he’s earned that. I also explained how fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I tried to downplay and simplify what fame means, because I always want them to be humble and grateful for what we have.
I make it a point for them to stay focused on what they have and understand that nothing is promised or permanent, things can and will go away eventually. It’s very important to me that they pray and have gratitude in their hearts. I stress the importance of understanding that everything we have is a blessing, which can also be a curse, depending on how you handle it. We focus on being grateful for every day for the fact that yes, right now, their dad has this great position, and the team is doing pretty good. It’s a blessing they get to go to games and have everything that comes with it, like having sleepovers in their dad’s office in Schembechler (their favorite!). But I also want them to know that this isn’t forever, and it’s not how everyone lives; it’s not “normal” life. He’s going to retire at some point and they have to earn their own living, their own way.
I want them to know the value of working hard and that hard work can bring blessings. He is where he is because he works all the time. He puts everything he has into it. Everything. He rarely does anything for himself. He’s 100% focused on his work and the kids.
I stress this for them because I can see how Jim’s job can be cutthroat. I hear the bad stuff, and it resonates a lot longer than the good things. The highs and lows can be hard to manage because they can be extreme and they are so public.
Keeping the kids and my faith front and center has been very grounding for me. I want them to always depend on something higher than them. I also want them to be good, kind people. I never let them say mean things about others. They’re not alive to hate anyone, we don’t teach them that. With the kids at night, we intentionally pray for our country and its leadership given how much hate and polarization is being shown on the news. We pray for this to stop, no matter what people’s political beliefs are, and we pray for peace and good leadership in our country and in the world.
When it comes to sports and football, I try to model for my kids what it looks like to have team spirit, gratitude, and sportsmanship, whether your team is winning or losing, whether you’re getting your way or not.
As you can imagine, keeping my family grounded and focused takes up a lot of time. I receive plenty of invitations to do charity work and contribute to the community in different ways. I’m trying to contribute as much as I can, but with four under age ten, the biggest contribution I can give to the world at this time is making sure they’re good people. I take this very seriously.
What I wish people knew about me
I’m flattered that people want to know more about me. It made me feel good to know you’ve had requests for this interview. I feel like a very normal person, and I’d love to get to know more people in town and develop more relationships (even though I’m a little apprehensive, I still welcome it!).
I feel like I’m just like everybody else and just trying to survive in this crazy world. I wish other people could see that and know that; there’s such a wall to overcome that I wish didn’t exist. I wish people didn’t judge so much.
The clothing line launching this fall
This fall, I’ll be launching a clothing collection in partnership with Valiant and the M Den. It all started as a joke when I wore Jim’s old football pants to a Chicago Bears game last year. I thought everyone would find the pants funny. I showed up to meet our friends expecting them to laugh but instead they all asked me where I got the pants. Going into the game, I kept getting asked by strangers where I got the pants. So I called my brother-in-law who’s an apparel guy, and I asked if he knew anyone who would talk to me about making football pants for women. He told me to call John Wangler—also a former UM quarterback—who’s now in the sports apparel business and just so happens to be a good friend. After a few meetings we made a prototype of the pants, and we have a couple of other items that will launch with it—jerseys and sweatshirts and such—this coming fall. We’re excited about this, and looking forward to seeing how it’s received by the fans.
There’s a rich humanity in Sarah’s humble beginnings, early childhood changes and losses, and how she has used this for fuel to raise great children. Like too many of us, she’s experienced the good and bad in life, and is working to make the good outweigh the bad both for herself and her family. We wish Sarah the very best of luck on the clothing line launch this fall (to be found in the M Den) and the team the best of luck with their season. Go Blue!