San Francisco 49ers

Ailene Voisin: For Harbaugh and Carroll, today’s game is a big deal

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

Dynamic quarterbacks, punishing defenses, crowd noise that shakes buildings. The two best teams in the NFC in another grudge match. So, no, coffee won’t be needed for this one.

Today’s NFC Championship Game between the 49ers and Seahawks would be compelling even if Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll were friends. Lucky us, they’re not.

The coaching adversaries – who conveniently work in the same division – face each other for a third time this season in a game that will determine which team advances to the Super Bowl and which team will seek cover, somewhere, anywhere, preferably under the nearest pile of rocks.

That’s not just compelling, that’s irresistible. Pro sports hasn’t witnessed a clashing-egos, big-stage collision like this since Pat Riley and Phil Jackson. Or Phil Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy. Or, for that matter, Phil Jackson and anyone.

While Harbaugh continues to downplay the rift in the walkup to the game, insisting Wednesday that the two coaches share “football, competition, winning,” he hasn’t been so inclined to turn the other cheek in the past.

Where do you start with these two? In the womb?

Tension either erupted (or became apparent) while Harbaugh and Carroll were transforming their respective programs at Stanford and USC. Harbaugh, who in 2007 predicted Carroll would soon abandon the Trojans for the NFL, furthered the rivalry when the teams played on Nov. 14, 2009.

What happened that day in the Los Angeles Coliseum probably should have taken place in Rome. With Stanford leading 48-21 and on the verge of ending USC’s 35-home game win streak, the Cardinal went for a two-point conversion.

“What’s your deal?” Carroll asked Harbaugh in their famous postgame exchange.

“What’s your deal?” Harbaugh retorted.

Left unsaid was this: Stanford was clean, USC was not, and everyone knew it. A four-year NCAA investigation concluded that running back Reggie Bush had received improper payments and benefits, and the Trojans were stripped of their 2005 national championship and banned from the postseason for two years.

By then, Carroll had left for the NFL, only to be reunited with Harbaugh one year later – and Harbaugh’s sharp memory and hard feelings. The Seahawks’ recurring issues with performance-enhancing drugs prompted another famous dig from the 49ers coach last summer: “Play by the rules. And you always want to be above reproach. Especially when you’re good, because you don’t want people to come back and say, ‘They’re winning because they’re cheating.’ We want to be above reproach in everything and do everything by the rules.”

So, no, these coaches don’t want to be in the same room, never mind the same stadium. Again, lucky us. Harbaugh vs. Carroll wasn’t nearly as much fun when Harbaugh was tutoring Andrew Luck in Palo Alto and Carroll was struggling to turn around the Seahawks.

Rivalries generally require three elements: willing participants, contrasting personalities and winning records. Harbaugh vs. Carroll meets all three, and Harbaugh holds the overall edge.

He wins, everywhere. There he was at quaint University of San Diego (2004-06), in baseball cap, sweatshirts and khakis, winning 22 of his last 24 games and guiding the Toreros to a 29-6 record. There he was at Stanford (2007-10), his shocking success including victories over Carroll’s Trojans (who had been favored by 41 points) and a 12-1 record and an Orange Bowl win to close out his college coaching career.

Now here he is back in the pros, a high-wire act on the sideline, sharp-tongued at times, evasive and entertaining at other times, his career a continuing blur; this is all happening so fast.

Harbaugh, 50, is the first coach in the modern era to lead a team to the conference finals in his first three years. A victory today would put his 49ers in the Super Bowl in two consecutive seasons, another first for an NFL coach in his first three years, and more importantly, provide a reason to forget all about last year’s loss to his brother and the Baltimore Ravens.

“I was thinking of the things I would trade to be able to compete as a player in these games,” Harbaugh reflected Wednesday.

His college degree, for sure. His house, absolutely.

“I was thinking like a body part,” he added. “Could I do without an arm?”

We think he was kidding. We think.

Harbaugh is a terrible loser. Losing to Carroll would be worse than losing to his brother.

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