It only seems like Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh have been feuding – at least in public perception — forever.
Actually, the moment when their rift famously was revealed to the world occurred just a little over four years ago. It was Nov. 14, 2009, to be exact, that Harbaugh opted to go for a two-point conversion late in upstart Stanford’s eventual 55-21 win over Carroll’s powerhouse USC team.
When they met for the postgame handshake – always an adventure when Harbaugh is involved; just ask Jim Schwartz — a grim-faced Carroll asked the question that the network broadcast captured and YouTube sent viral: “What’s your deal? You all right?”
Harbaugh responded, “Yeah, I’m good. What’s your deal?”
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Ever since, that query has informed the interactions between those two, who merely upped the stakes of their rivalry by not only hopping from the Pac-10 to the NFL within one year of each other, but to the same division, the NFC West.
That ensured at least two meetings a year — and one bonus showdown in a season in which both Carroll’s Seahawks and Harbaugh’s 49ers have emerged as the two leading powerhouses in the NFC.
With both teams set up to stay good for the foreseeable future, the groundwork is thus laid for the continuation of the most compelling, ongoing coaching battleground since the days of Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan in the late 1980s.
So, as Carroll and Harbaugh prepare for their 10th head-to-head game as head coaches, and by far the most important, it seems only appropriate to ask, “What IS the deal between these two?”
First off, both coaches insist the animosity angle has been greatly overplayed. Heck, when Harbaugh underwent a procedure last season to correct an irregular heartbeat, Carroll tweeted out, “Sending best wishes to Jim Harbaugh for a quick recovery…Get well soon, we gotta alotta ball games left!”
Asked this week about his relationship with Harbaugh, Carroll conceded that “we have not been friends over the years because we don’t know each other very well … it’s a very confined relationship.”
But Carroll insisted that the perception of their rivalry is “something other than it is. I have great respect for what Jim has done, and I think he’s a tremendous football coach. I don’t know him very well personally. So that’s it. That’s where it starts and stops, and all the other stuff, you guys have had a blast with it, but there’s nothing there.”
Harbaugh, not surprisingly, was asked a similar question by Bay Area reporters about the supposed unpleasantness, and he replied: “I haven’t seen that. I haven’t seen where that’s really even talked about anymore. I think that might have been something four or five years ago. But I haven’t seen it as of late. And it would be as irrelevant now as it would have been then when people made a bigger deal out of it. So, irrelevant, irrelevant.”
Here’s how Harbaugh characterized his interaction with Carroll: “Animosity? No. Erroneous. Erroneous. It’s football. It’s competition. It’s winning. Football. Competition. Winning. That’s the sport. That’s what we’ve had, great competition.”
Indeed, the genesis of their rivalry has hinged on the fierce competitive nature of both men. When Harbaugh arrived at Stanford, a downtrodden program, he immediately set his sights on mighty USC, starting with a tweak that set the tone immediately. Shortly after being hired in 2007, he said in an interview that “Carroll’s only got one more year (at USC)…that’s what I’ve heard. I heard it inside the staff.”
Carroll — who would actually stay three more years at USC — was miffed, and it was on. Harbaugh beat Carroll’s Trojans twice in three meetings; that included a 24-23 Stanford win in their first meeting against a USC team favored by 41 points. At the time, it was the biggest statistical upset in college football history.
Since both moved to the NFL, the roles have been reversed. Now it’s Carroll with the upstart team feverishly trying to replicate the success of Harbaugh’s 49ers: Three straight berths in the NFC title game, and one Super Bowl appearance.
Their mutual accomplishment, coupled with their equally strong personalities (which, granted, are manifested in vastly different ways) is precisely what makes us pay attention. To be a worthy adversary, you need to have stature and chutzpah, which is not a problem for either one.
“Both, as is the case with most guys who wear the head-coach whistle, are alpha guys,” said Rick Neuheisel, the former Washington and UCLA coach who faced Carroll and Harbaugh in the Pac-10. “They see the world their way. If you’re not on their team, you’re the enemy. Because of that, there’s no middle ground. There just isn’t.”
Neuheisel stresses he has “huge respect” for both coaches, but noted, “Those who are close to taking their mantle, if you will, are the biggest enemy.”
The irony is that Harbaugh and Carroll share the similar vision for building a team around defense, the running game and toughness. They may be diametrical opposites in style, but they are kindred spirits, for the most part, in substance.
“If you left them on an island, they’d probably become great friends,’’ Neuheisel said. “There’s no question they respect one another, but there’s no back-down, either.”
Neuheisel recalls with amusement that Pac-10 meetings, attended by the league’s coaches, used to be “quality, quality reality TV.”
Once, Harbaugh complained that USC was overusing the perfectly legal practice of having referees at practice, which he felt could create a relationship with officials that gave the Trojans an edge. Carroll quickly countered that USC was the most penalized team in the conference.
“It was one of those conversations, if you were the little brother, you would have listened to it through the door,” Neuheisel said.
Doug Baldwin, who like Seahawks teammate Richard Sherman played for Harbaugh at Stanford before joining Carroll in Seattle, is insightful in pinpointing the similarities and differences between the two.
Harbaugh, he said, “likes to be in control of things, and likes to be hands-on with everything. He likes to make sure everything is running smoothly and he has his say on stuff, and Pete is the same way. I just think they have different approaches.
“Harbaugh is more of a military style. Everything has to be precise and has to be exactly the way he wanted in order for it to go as well as he wants it to go. Pete kind of gives us leeway to do things we want to.
“It might rub the outside people the wrong way sometimes, but I think for us, it gives us a better sense of just having fun when we’re at practice or in meetings and stuff.”
Sherman’s father, Kevin, told Sports Illustrated this past offseason that Sherman and Baldwin have “a passionate hate” for Harbaugh. But Baldwin, while admitting they clashed at Stanford, said this week that his own immaturity in college was a factor.
“It’s nothing personal against him,” he said. “I thank him for the adversity he put me through, so to speak, because it made me who I am today. It made me a better person and a better football player.”
Heck, Harbaugh even has texted him a few times.
“We actually have a pretty decent relationship right now,” Baldwin said.
In an alpha male kind of way, of course.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @StoneLarry