Sibling rivalries have existed as long as there have been families: From the garden variety found in Genesis -- wherein Cain and Abel, being the only two siblings in paradise, biblically begat history's first fratricide -- to the black eagle family, whose offspring arrive two eggs at a time, with the older chick then pecking the younger one to death.

Hundreds of brothers have squared off in the NFL and the old AFL, some no doubt dragged along by the crazy glue of that fraternal bond -- all still trying to avoid being pecked to death. But for XLVI Super Bowl seasons, no two coaches vying for the game's biggest prize were ever brothers -- until now.

So for the universe to line up precisely as it has, pitting John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens against his younger brother, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, turns a simmering sibling rivalry -- born in the family basement -- into blood sport for a global audience of billions.

Only the brothers know whether theirs is truly the bromance they describe, built on mutual love, shared values and Griswold-style family vacations. Or if grim boyhood battles are still bubbling beneath that smooth surface. Are they best friends, like Peyton and Eli Manning? Mortal foes, like Michael and Fredo Corleone? Or are they completely uninterested in next week's Har-bowl, as they've spent so much energy professing to be.


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"They're trying to deflect any discussion of a rivalry, but I don't buy it," said Avidan Milevsky, author of "Sibling Relationships in Childhood and Adolescence," a psychology professor at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. "Considering the cocktail of variables in play, they normally would have reached a point where they had a very negative relationship. In sports, you have a very definitive measuring stick, and it seems the younger brother, Jim, has been more successful. And that's usually a recipe for disaster."

Parental favoritism

Olivia de Havilland, left, and sister Joan Fontaine
Olivia de Havilland, left, and sister Joan Fontaine

The most toxic sibling rivalries often have a Shakespearean quality, and, in fact, the Bard -- who was himself the third of eight children, providing him with a lengthy enemies list -- used sibling rivalry as a plot point in four of his plays. The two women from whom millions of Americans took advice on personal relationships over the past half-century -- newspaper columnists Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers, in reality twin sisters Pauline Phillips and Eppie Lederer -- couldn't stand each other. During that same period, America's most successful wine-making empires were run by Ernest and Julio Gallo, then by Robert and Peter Mondavi. Both sets of brothers feuded furiously, plotted against one another endlessly and took each other to court often.

Tom and Dick Smothers own a winery in Sonoma Valley, but as the Smothers Brothers they built their career on Tom's sour grapes claim: "Mom always liked you best." The pair started as comedy troubadours at famed clubs such as the Purple Onion in San Francisco -- and before that, competed on the track team at San Jose State. On their album titled "Sibling Revelry," Tom accuses his brother of getting a dog, while all he got was "a crummy chicken."

Milevsky says parental favoritism is usually a prime cause of sibling rivalry, which was the case in its most grotesque -- albeit fictional -- incarnation, the 1962 film "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" In that picture, the aging child star, Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis), and her sister, Blanche (Joan Crawford), are locked in a lifelong cycle of torment, ending in siblicide.

Slightly less Gothic were the exquisite tortures carried out by sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland, who apparently learned to hate each other while growing up in Saratoga. Like the Harbaugh brothers, they were pioneers of a certain kind: the first sisters nominated in the same year (1942) for the best actress Oscar. Fontaine won for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion." But when de Havilland won in 1947 for "To Each His Own," the presenter was her little sister Joan, and she refused to shake Fontaine's hand while accepting the award.

Same gene pools

Considering the potential for sibling rivalries to turn disastrous, it's a wonder more of them haven't. Venus and Serena Williams have so dominated the current era of women's tennis, while remaining best friends, their five Wimbledon singles titles apiece has led some cynics to speculate that they decide in advance of their matches who the winner will be. The Harbaugh brothers, who say they have been too busy this week to stay in touch, aren't likely to engineer an outcome ahead of time.

It's not uncommon for a flock of talented players to come splashing out of the same gene pool to make their mark in the NFL. Brothers Lee Roy and Dewey Selmon were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first two draft picks in 1976. Lee Roy made the Hall of Fame, while his brother did not. Just like three-time Super Bowl winner Shannon Sharpe, whose older brother, Sterling, didn't make the Hall, but did manage to scratch out a career that included five Pro Bowl selections.

Just last week, brothers Arthur Jones III and Chandler Jones faced off in the AFC Championship game, with Arthur -- a 6-foot-3, 315-pound defensive end for the Baltimore Ravens -- prevailing over little (6-foot-5, 260-pound) brother Chandler, a defensive end for the New England Patriots. "It's a win-win because a Jones is going to the Super Bowl," reasoned their uncle Jeffrey, betraying a fundamental misunderstanding of the whole win-win concept.

The Harbaugh brothers have spent 46 seasons on pro and college sidelines, each waiting for his turn on the game's biggest stage. Now that it has arrived, there is no win-win situation for their proud parents, Jack and Jackie Harbaugh, who have been reluctantly drawn into the media maelstrom, along with their other child, John and Jim's little sister, Joani Crean. Those three have surrendered to the demand for a news conference Thursday, during which it may be revealed which brother will be going to Disneyland -- with or without the rest of the family.

Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004; follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.

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