Sideline rivalry may not turn physical, but it has deep roots

December 23, 2012 

Considering the hyper-competitiveness, intensity and high stakes involved, this could turn into a real brawl.

I’m talking, of course, about the postgame handshake between the head coaches. Although the game between the Seahawks and 49ers this evening might be interesting, too.

San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh and Seattle’s Pete Carroll share a history that’s been described, in some stories, with the phrase: “mutual contempt.”

Many contend it’s the result of their obvious personality differences. On the Snow White depth chart, Carroll is Happy to Harbaugh’s Grumpy. And at any press conference, Harbaugh is a 10-quote underdog.

But the taproot of their contentiousness is probably more a product of their fundamental similarities.

They share football tenets to such an extent that their teams’ statistics are almost identical. Neither cares a bit for the conventional niceties that are traditional to the NFL. And it is apparent that their goal is to rip the heart from an opponent and stomp it flat at midfield.

The only difference is that Carroll smiles in the process.

The coaching history adds flavor to the competitive feast that is today’s game at CenturyLink Field, “flexed” into prime time because of its national allure.

Seattle secures a playoff berth with a win today, but the Seahawks can still dethrone the 49ers as NFC West champs by winning their final two coupled with a pair of San Francisco losses.

This meeting has all the earmarks of a hot rivalry … except recent Seattle success. There have been a lot of bloody noses and bruises, but the Niners have won four straight, and until Seattle can really punch them in the loss column, it’s a one-sided “rivalry.”

Harbaugh likewise dominates the competition with Carroll, standing 3-0 in NFL meetings and 5-1 overall, dating back to his days at Stanford when Carroll had USC at or near national title consideration every season.

In 2009, with Stanford holding a 27-point lead over Carroll and USC in the fourth quarter, Harbaugh had his team go for a two-point conversion – football’s equivalent of the universal finger gesture for contempt.

Afterward, Carroll famously asked Harbaugh: “What’s your deal?”

Last season, Harbaugh’s first in the NFL, the two appeared to try to downplay any lingering hostility. But it seems as if they’re willing to own it a bit, now, because both kidded this week about the unlikelihood that they’d be sending the other holiday cards.

But after Harbaugh’s joke, when pressed about the hallmarks of a Pete Carroll-coached team, he seriously added: “Enthusiastic team … they play with a lot of energy. Play a high level of energy, intensity. Well-coached teams.”

And, although Carroll kiddingly apologized for having forgotten to send Harbaugh a happy birthday card (he turns 49 today), he also complimented Harbaugh’s achievements in San Francisco.

“He’s really good, really good,” Carroll said. “He’s been around forever and has been coaching for years and in the last 10 or 12 years he’s really been on it. The stuff that he’s done has always been effective, and they did some great things at Stanford, and the two years that these guys have been together (in San Francisco) they’ve played about as good a defense as anybody can play. He’s coached different styles too, he’s adapted to his personnel, and they have very good personnel, and they have a system to utilize those guys.”

Carroll cited Harbaugh’s focus on defense, the rushing attack and special teams, which he noted were also “the three pillars of what we’re trying to put together.”

And when offered the chance to advance a discussion on the coaches’ conflicts, Carroll sidestepped.

“As far as regards for other coaches and all that, I love coaches,” he said. “These are the guys that are giving their lives to this game. Everybody has got their own way of doing stuff and their own background and their own stories, but just guys that want to go out and do what we do.

“Generally, I love everybody that does that because we’re in this thing together. I don’t think it’s personal. It can get there sometimes if individuals don’t get along or something like that, but basically you’re battling and you’re competing, and we’re all kind of in this together.”

Oh, they’re battling all right. You can count on that because this is the day when the Big 49er turns 49, when Carroll is trying to shed the 0-for-3 horse collar against Harbaugh, and when a dramatic physical game might only be the prelude to a handshake.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 dave.boling@ thenewstribune.com

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