By Monte Poole The Oakland Tribune
Two franchises playing for high stakes. Two teams waging battle on national TV in prime time. Two young quarterbacks on a quest to prove they are capable of leading a winner in the NFL.
Yup, 49ers-Seahawks is the marquee matchup of the week. It is, strictly on merit, fully deserving of the spotlight.
Yet the most intriguing individual faceoff is that between the two head coaches, the transparently remorseless Jim Harbaugh and the smoothly ruthless Pete Carroll. Each is worthy of a camera facing him at all times to capture the frowns and grimaces and sneers and howls and, of course, the mumbled vulgarities.
Who among us would be surprised if, during a crucial moment Sunday night, they cast quizzical if not disdainful glances toward each other?
Though coaches and players are fond of saying no particular game or opponent carries more emotional weight than another, that’s a lie in practically every instance. In the matter of Harbaugh vs. Carroll, it’s an incredibly blatant lie.
They are geographic rivals in the NFC West, ensuring familiarity. They certainly appear to be cut from opposite ends of the same cloth, maniacally competitive. Their personalities make them the stars of their respective teams. They both project a certain youth and vitality and willingness to scrap, guaranteeing a level of tension.
They also have a history of mutual contempt.
The seeds of antipathy were planted at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 2009, when Harbaugh’s Stanford squad upset Carroll’s powerhouse USC team. The Cardinal not only won but also put forth gratuitous effort to announce its superiority.
After Stanford scored its seventh touchdown to push the score to 48-21 with about seven minutes left, Harbaugh violated coaching etiquette by directing his team to attempt a 2-point conversion. He wanted to make a statement. USC had long bullied the Pac-10 and Harbaugh wanted more than victory; he also sought to humiliate the bully in a most conspicuous way. If he could have danced on Carroll’s head, he might have.
What followed the Cardinal’s 55-21 win was one of the most documented postgame moments in college football history, a puzzled Carroll seeking an explanation for Harbaugh’s gratuitous message, asking “What’s your deal?”
Harbaugh responded by throwing the question back in Carroll’s face.
There has been a measure of tension ever since, even if both coaches deny it. Harbaugh’s two wins in three tries over Carroll in the Pac-10 was one of the factors that pushed Pete back into the NFL.
How beautiful, almost poetic, it was to see Harbaugh follow. Was it not destiny? His arrival in San Francisco one year after Carroll fled USC for Seattle, ensuring biannual meetings between the two, was sweet serendipity. It was as if Harbaugh, who turns 49 on Sunday, were stalking Carroll, and it promised a resumption of this rivalry.
Only three games into their NFL wars, Harbaugh-Carroll already represents the league’s most compelling coaching subplot, surpassing the enmity between Baltimore’s John Harbaugh and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin. Harbaugh-Carroll is more searing than any relationship between New England’s Bill Belichick and any other coach he sees twice a year, including the Jets’ Rex Ryan.
No, Harbaugh-Carroll holds the promise of the ongoing feud between former Bears coach Mike Ditka and the late Bill Walsh, when he was leading the 49ers. Walsh-Ditka, though also personal, was a study in contrasts, the broad-shouldered ruffian against the silver-haired almost aristocratic professor. They were opposites.
Carroll and Harbaugh are a lot alike, men who coach with the zesty disposition of emotional players. Each delivers a distinct and polarizing blend of arrogance and condescension, though Carroll’s goes down easier because he’s more willing to engage in routine conversation.
Know, too, that each will knock you down and run you over without a care — though Carroll, 61, would put some effort into making you think he might.
Just last week, as his Seahawks were routing Buffalo by 30, Carroll called for a fake punt in the fourth quarter. But Carroll’s twist of the knife was followed by “remorse.”
“I feel bad about this,” he said after the game. “It was part of our game plan. It was something I could have called off and I didn’t.”
Harbaugh three years ago showed no such phony contrition for his act against the Trojans.
“I just honestly thought there was an opportunity coming off the ball, the way our backs were playing and the way we were playing.”
It’s the empathetic politician who grew up in Marin County, Carroll, against the Vulcan whose childhood was spent largely in the upper Midwest.
What makes these guys so watchable is they’re both street fighters, except Carroll would want to keep his hands clean and Harbaugh would wear his scars and missing teeth as a badge of honor.
Let’s get those NBC cameras ready.