RENTON, Wash. — Jim Harbaugh sat in the Carroll home selling his coaching ability.
He was there to recruit Pete Carroll’s youngest, Nathan, who would eventually join dad at USC. Harbaugh told Nate about the beauty of the University of San Diego, where he was the head coach. On Nate’s official visit to San Diego, Harbaugh ran conditioning drills with the team up a nearby hill. He often won.
Pete Carroll was not at the home visit — “I let Glenna (his wife) handle that one,” he joked — and no one knew at the time Harbaugh would grow into Carroll’s greatest rival.
Almost a decade later, Harbaugh and Carroll lead their roughneck football teams into Sunday’s NFC championship game. It’s the third consecutive visit for Harbaugh, who is the first coach in history to make three trips to the title game in his first three seasons. It’s the first for Carroll, a culmination of a four-year rebuild of what was a temporarily waffling organization.
All key elements for a truculent rivalry have come to pass as Carroll and Harbaugh have ascended from college to the NFL: an early upset; public (and somewhat private) words showing disdain for the other; similar playing priorities taught in opposite styles; and, finally, the insistence of respect.
In his first year at Stanford, 2007, Harbaugh began the pot stirring by saying he heard Carroll was leaving USC within a year. He turned up the heat to 10 when the Cardinal pulled a 24-23 upset of No. 1 USC, ending the Trojan’s 35-game home winning streak. Richard Sherman caught a 20-yard completion over the middle on 4th-and-20 to set up Stanford for the winning score.
Two years later, Carroll uttered the now famous, “What’s your deal?” to Harbaugh after the Cardinal lambasted the Trojans, 55-21. Harbaugh had shown up in the Pac-10 and wrestled it away from Carroll and the Trojans.
“So, it was painful from our perspective; joyful from his perspective,” Nate Carroll said. “Like any relationship, there was all the childish squabbling in the beginning.”
Carroll left to take over the Seahawks and begin his deconstruction of the roster and mentality of the organization. Harbaugh stayed at Stanford for another season.
In 2010, with Carroll now in Seattle, Stanford continued to power through its season. The Cardinal came to Washington and crushed the Huskies, 41-0. At that time, the visiting team in Husky Stadium went back up the tunnel postgame and was only separated from a hallway by a black curtain.
Harbaugh’s postgame press conference was set to take place on the basketball floor not far away. Behind the curtain, he launched into an expletive-filled rant about the Cardinal’s dominance during the day. He listed the Washington coaches — many of which were former USC staffers — by name, starting with Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Nick Holt. Harbaugh pointed out Washington had the highest paid staff in the conference. Then, oddly, he finished his list with Pete Carroll’s name, though Carroll was in the NFL at the time.
“That’s how he is, man,” Sherman said this week.
As with any fight, style is crucial. The core on-field football approach for Carroll and Harbaugh is parallel. Run, play unrelenting defense, control the ball. Essentially a blow-by-blow contest each thinks it has the durability to win.
Harbaugh does it with a specific fashion sense of pleated khakis, accented by red markers hanging from the collar of his shirts. Last week, he spun in a circle on the sideline, was flagged for running onto the field to argue and each game contorts his face in ways that make a claymation artist appear to be in control.
Carroll bounces around in a hoody with age-defying spunk. He gives extended answers to the media, then goes at and runs practice with hip-hop and soul music pouring onto the field.
If you ask any player, he’ll say Carroll lets them be who they are (as long as they are fully invested). For Harbaugh, things are more bed-frame rigid.
There would be little concern about their relationship if they were not leading the most powerful teams in the NFC and part of the NFL’s best division. Sunday’s anticipated rock fight between the 49ers and Seahawks is the next step of the rivalry, as were the comments from Carroll and Harbaugh this week.
Carroll said, while he’s never become friends with Harbaugh, he has a great respect for what he does. He also said the media has created an overblown perception of their relationship.
“We have not been friends over the years. We don’t know each other very well. It’s a very, very confined relationship in that regard.
“For whatever reason, you guys have had a field day with thinking that it’s something other than it is,” Carroll said. “I have great respect for what Jim’s done. I think he’s a tremendous football coach. So that’s it. That’s where it stops and starts. All the rest of this stuff, you guys have had a blast with it. But there’s nothing there, you know?”
Sunday afternoon in CenturyLink Field, the loudest stadium in the NFL, Harbaugh and Carroll will be 53 ? yards apart. One will be 60 minutes from a Super Bowl appearance. Sherman said earlier this week there was, “no love lost, no love found,” between the teams.
Though, there is an understanding of talent. Each is deep, menacing and ready.
“They’re hard to deal with,” Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson said. “But, you know, we’ve got something about us, too. And they’ve got to deal with us.”
Which is just how these coaches want it.