Jim Harbaugh, back in his San Diego Toreros days. (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)
Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh have known each other for a long time -- by Carroll's estimation, the two probably first met when Carroll was the New York Jets' defensive coordinator and Harbaugh was the Chicago Bears' starting quarterback in the early 1990s.
The professional and personal competitions between the two men didn't really start until Harbaugh took the Stanford head coach position before the 2007 season and started to make life more difficult for Carroll's USC Trojans. That begat the "What's your deal?" game, and a compelling series of battles between the teams coached by both men that has expanded into the NFL's best current rivalry.
But Harbaugh really came into Carroll's orbit a bit before Stanford. When he was the head coach for the San Diego Toreros from 2004 through '06, Harbaugh sought to recruit a quarterback from Palos Verdes Peninsula High in Rolling Hills Estates, Calif., by the name of Nate Carroll. Yes, that's Pete Carroll's youngest of two sons, currently an offensive assistant for his dad's team.
"He did recruit my son to go to the University of San Diego," Carroll recalled Monday "I wasn’t there for the home visit though, Glena [Carroll's wife] took that one.”
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Not that there was any chance of Harbaugh stealing the younger Carroll from the older Carroll.
“I didn’t get that far," he said, when asked what he told his son about the possibility of going to USD. "He was going to USC.”
Which Nate Carroll did, graduating with a degree in philosophy.
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The Carroll-Harbaugh schism will gain even more steam when the Seahawks and 49ers meet at Seattle's CenturyLink Field this Sunday to determine which team will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. It's compelling now because both coaches see football in very much the same way -- they have each created tough, smart, nasty (in a good way) teams who lead with defense and the running game, but each team can create explosive shot plays in the passing game at the drop of the hat.
“I think there’s a fundamental approach to the game of football that we share," Carroll said. "It’s about playing tough and playing physical and playing defense and relying on a really obvious running game emphasis. It’s historically the best way, and it continues to show itself again. I think that we share that kind of love for the game in that manner. They’ve got their own ways of doing their own stuff and their own language and all that, but I just think that formula part comes together to play winning championship football.”
In the end, the rivalry -- even when it hits grudge proportions -- is based on the respect afforded when two opponents have the ability to beat the daylights out of each other.
"I’m not surprised that Jim has done such a good job coaching," Carroll concluded. "He’s shown in every opportunity that he’s had that he’s got great core principles. His dad was a great football coach as well, I used to coach against Jack Harbaugh back in the day in the Big Ten, and knowing him for a long time, he [Jim] was raised as a coach's kid. He demonstrated the savvy as a competitor as a player, and it translated in his coaching quite obviously. It’s obvious with [Baltimore Ravens coach] John Harbaugh, too. Both of those guys are great football coaches.”
But Carroll was able to one-up Harbaugh with one specific recruit. To be fair, he had home-field advantage.
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