Long before the Seahawks and 49ers began their hate affair, they made innocuous history together. San Francisco actually welcomed Seattle to the NFL, sans shenanigans.
Jim Harbaugh wasn’t there to complain about the physical play of the expansion Seahawks cornerbacks. Pete Carroll wasn’t running down the sideline as if being chased by a lit torch. It was Aug. 1, 1976, an exhibition game at the new Kingdome that served as a dress rehearsal for the Seahawks’ official opener a month later.
The 49ers won, 27-20. Afterward, reporters asked Cedrick Hardman, San Francisco’s Pro Bowl defensive end, about the newcomers.
“Well,” he said, “I sure do like the color of their uniforms.”
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And then he laughed.
WHEN PEOPLE ASK who started this fight, tell ’em Hardman. Why not? It’s not exactly true; Hardman went on to say nice things later in the interview. But why not? All is unfair in hate and gore.
There’s no consensus about a signature moment that led to the Seahawks and 49ers becoming fierce rivals. It happened for no reason, other than division affiliation and dueling excellence. Many have tried to force it ever since the Seahawks rejoined the NFC West in 2002, but the rivalry didn’t reach hide-your-kids intensity until recently.
The 49ers were once too great to be concerned with the Seahawks. Then, during the prime of the Mike Holmgren era, the Seahawks started feeling supreme. Now, we have the perfect storm for animosity, creating the best current rivalry in the NFL: two teams in the same place, at the same time, with the same mission and the same core philosophies about football.
So alike, yet so much dislike.
No telling what will happen when they arrive at CenturyLink Field on Sunday afternoon and realize that they basically wore the same outfit to the NFC Championship Game.
“There is no love lost,” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said of the rivalry. “And there is no love found.”
Delve into the past, and you find that, while there wasn’t a point of no return in this feud, there have been several indicators that the hostility would reach this level.
May 22, 2001
NFL approves realignment, moves Seahawks to NFC
Holmgren could see the benefits of the NFL’s realignment decision in 2001. But he and the Seahawks wanted to play the contrarian role to remind the league that they had a backbone.
“Back then, it seemed like the NFL would try to push us around a little bit, give us the short end of the stick,” said Holmgren, the Seahawks coach and general manager at the time. “We didn’t like that.”
The Seahawks had long been opposed to realignment because they had such great AFC West division rivals, including the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders. And in the league’s plan, they were the only team required to switch conferences.
The Seahawks’ arguments proved futile. With the Houston Texans about to enter the league, the NFL approved the realignment plan for the 2002 season. Seattle, which had played in the NFC West during its inaugural season in 1976, joined San Francisco, Arizona and St. Louis in its new division.
Despite their disappointment, the Seahawks knew there was one obvious positive about the move. They knew the 49ers, one of the league’s most storied franchises, would make for a great potential rival. They would lose a Bay Area foe in the Raiders, but annual matchups with San Francisco could be just as good.
Seattle huffed and got over the realignment, keeping the 49ers in mind.
Oct. 14, 2002
The Sharpie incident on “Monday Night Football”
In the first Seahawks-49ers matchup as NFC West peers since 1976, San Francisco won 28-21 on “Monday Night Football.” Terrell Owens caught six passes for 84 yards and scored two touchdowns to lead San Francisco. But that game will always be remembered for an infamous T.O. celebration.
Owens caught the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter at Seahawks Stadium. Then he pulled a Sharpie pen from his sock, signed the ball in the end zone and tossed it to his financial adviser in the stands.
The Sharpie incident became a national controversy. Holmgren called it “shameful” and “a dishonor to everybody that’s played the game.” To this day, when people refer to Owens’ many controversial moments, the Sharpie incident makes the list.
As the 2002 season progressed, Holmgren and both teams tried to downplay the incident. But Owens had earned his place in a fledgling rivalry. He became the first 49ers player that Seahawks fans truly vilified.
A year ago, the Seahawks gave Owens, then 38, an opportunity to make the roster in camp. He was cut a few weeks later.
He wasn’t even in Seattle long enough to take his Sharpie and scribble “T.O. wuz here” somewhere.
Jan. 7, 2011
Harbaugh takes 49ers job, joins Carroll in NFC West
Carroll and Harbaugh consider their personal rivalry a media creation now. Last week, Carroll joked the media has “had a blast” with the feud.
But regardless of how they characterize it, this is one of the best coaching matchups in sports. Harbaugh is the young, brash, genius coach who has yet to fail at any of his stops. Carroll is the reformed coach who was fired from his first two jobs before figuring out a winning philosophy that has worked both in college and the NFL.
Their personal rivalry dates to 2007, when Harbaugh was introduced as the new Stanford coach, bringing his feisty attitude to the Pac-10. He served notice immediately that the Cardinal would “bow to no man.” On Oct. 6, 2007, as a 41-point underdog, Stanford visited L.A. Memorial Coliseum and beat Carroll’s Trojans 24-23.
By 2009, Stanford was good enough to crush USC 55-21. Harbaugh even had his team attempt a two-point conversion late in the game to try to run up the score.
“What’s your deal? You all right?” an angry Carroll asked Harbaugh after the game.
“Yeah, I’m good,” Harbaugh replied. “What’s your deal?”
Carroll left for the NFL after that season. Harbaugh stayed at Stanford another year, led the Cardinal to its first BCS bowl victory and took the 49ers job four days later.
On Dec. 24, 2011, the 49ers, en route to a 13-3 season, eliminated the Seahawks from playoff contention with a 19-17 victory at CenturyLink Field. As the 49ers assistant coaches exited the press box, offensive coordinator Greg Roman shouted, “Merry Christmas, everybody!” in celebration.
At last, a bitter rivalry had developed. Kind words have been sparse since then. The teams have traded barbs and tried to outdo each other in trades and free agency. There has been cross-pollination with personnel. And there have been serious threats, such as Brandon Browner declaring he’d like to put his hands around Harbaugh’s neck in response to Harbaugh calling out the Seahawks for their suspensions related to performance-enhancing drugs.
The drama used to be limited to former 49ers coach Mike Singletary kicking Vernon Davis off the field during a game with the Seahawks in 2008 and dropping his pants during a halftime locker-room tirade in front of his team.
Now the 49ers understand the goal is to embarrass the Seahawks, not themselves.
Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014
NFC Championship Game
Over the past two seasons, the 49ers and Seahawks have split their four meetings, each team holding serve in two home games. Since 1976, the teams have met 30 times, and fittingly, the series is even at 15 victories apiece. So this is a rubber match 38 years in the making.
The Seahawks and 49ers are fierce rivals now because they’re both good. The Seahawks have a 24-8 regular-season record the past two seasons. The 49ers are 23-8-1. The 49ers are playing in their third straight NFC title game. The Seahawks started their run a year later, and because they’ve built from scratch (Harbaugh inherited the core of a team that he has coached brilliantly), their ascent has been more gradual. Still, the Seahawks have three playoff victories during Carroll’s tenure and they came 31 seconds away from beating Atlanta and playing this very game in San Francisco a year ago.
This postseason moment has been building for two years.
“If we were both 4-12, it wouldn’t be so intense,” Sherman said.
It will be a brawl.
“It feels like you go to the dentist chair, and 3½ hours of getting root-canal work done,” Harbaugh said of the rivalry last month. “They’re tough. These games are only for the tough.”
No player will jokingly compliment the other team’s uniform after this game. Seahawks-49ers is serious competition now.
Looking back, it was inevitable that it would get ugly.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JerryBrewer