RENTON, Wash. -- Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh have been downplaying their personal and professional feud all week as they prepare for the NFC Championship game, but it's not a media creation -- these two guys have had beefs with each other since Harbaugh became Stanford's head coach in 2007 and started to challenge the death grip Carroll's USC Trojans had over the Pac-10.
Two of the players Harbaugh coached at Stanford were receivers -- Doug Baldwin from Gulf Breeze High in Florida, and Richard Sherman from Dominguez High in Compton, Ca. Sherman moved to cornerback after his first two seasons for the Cardinal, and neither player made a huge impact under Harbaugh -- at least, not enough to be drafted highly by any NFL team. Sherman was taken by the Seahawks in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, and Baldwin signed with Seattle as an undrafted free agent that same year. Both men have made serious impacts in the NFL -- Baldwin became the first undrafted rookie to lead his team in catches and receiving yards since the AFL-NFL merger, and Sherman has become perhaps the best (and definitely the most vocal) pass defender in the league.
Thus, Baldwin and Sherman have interesting recon abilities as the only two guys to have played for both Harbaugh and Carroll. Safe to say, Harbaugh's personal style rubbed both players the wrong way -- both Sherman and Baldwin felt like odd fits, and Baldwin actually thought about quitting the game altogether in his junior year before his mom told him to stick it out.
“I’ll start with Coach Harbaugh," Baldwin said this week, when asked how different his college and pro coaches are. "Coach Harbaugh was a very... I’d say he’s more of a disciplinarian type of coach. He likes to be in control of things, and likes to be hands-on with everything. He likes to make sure that everything is running smoothly and he has his say on stuff, and Pete is the same way. I just think they have different approaches. Like I said, Harbaugh is more of a military type. Everything has to be precise and has to be exactly the way he wanted in order for it to go as well as he wants it to go, and Pete kind of gives us leeway to do things that we want to. It might rub the outside people the wrong way sometimes, but I think for us, it gives us a better sense of just having fun when we’re at practice or in meetings and stuff.”
Carroll's belief that his players should be allowed to express themselves more clearly as long as they're getting things done on the field is something he's learned works for him after failed attempts at doing things in more traditional ways.
“I tried when I was about 24 and the coaches yelled at me when I was an assistant on staffs," Carroll said Thursday. "They thought I was crazy trying to do what I was trying to do. I thought I was wrong because they told me I was. So just by growing up and maturing and the opportunities when I had the chance to be in charge... I was given the opportunity to have a voice and to speak out and so that’s what happened. All I’m trying to do is do the best we can do. All I got is this. So this is the way they get it, and if it doesn’t comply with the way other people do it I can’t do anything about that. It’s no different in our program right here. We’re trying to find guys that have unique ways about them and qualities and try to allow them to demonstrate that in the way we perform. We’ll go to no end to figure that out."
Asking Sherman about Harbaugh over the last few years? Well, you would have received all different kinds of (mostly off-the-record) responses. Sherman rubs a lot of people the wrong way because he's not at all afraid to tell people just how good he is, and he's learned to appreciate the value in a coach who lets him do that ... again, as long as he can back it up on the field.
"He's the polar opposite of that," Sherman said of Carroll's approach compared to Harbaugh's. "He's not soft, but he's easygoing. He's loose. As loose as you can get out there. He allows his players to be who they are within the confines of the team, as long as it doesn't hurt the team, he allows guys to be themselves. If you're a reserved guy that's always focused, that's always locked in that like an Earl Thomas is, he allows you to be that guy and be locked in 100 percent of the time. If you're a loose guy and you dance at practice like I do, he allows you to be that guy. As long as when you're on the field you do exactly what you're supposed to do.
"He allows guys to be who they are. Russell Wilson is an outgoing, incredible person, he allows him to be that. Everybody can be who they are within the scheme of the Seahawks and what we want to do."
And did Harbaugh let Sherman be that way?
"A lot less so," he said with a laugh.
Coaches use different approaches. Some tailor their players to their own philosophies -- their players must fit a mold. Some are master physiologists who appear to stamp their mark all over the roster, when they actually treat every player completely differently. Vince Lombardi set the paradigm for this approach as much as anyone. And then there are coaches like Carroll, who run looser shops and balance the positive effects of that mindset with the negative inevitabilities. The Seahawks' frequent dalliances on the wrong ends of the NFL's substance abuse and performance-enhancing substances may have their roots in part because of Carroll's firm belief that players deserve second chances.
It's worked for Carroll to the tune of a 13-3 record and the NFC's No. 1 seed, four years after he inherited a team so bereft of long-term talent that there are just four players on the roster who have been in Seattle longer than he has.
So, he'll take any shots you've got on the way up.
"Part of the process is figuring out who you are and what you are so that you could do that consistently and be at your best. That’s something that is going on around here ... people are hearing it because we’re trying to help our guys be the best that they can possibly be, every single guy in the program. That approach is felt by these players, they can tell and they’re responding in a way of giving us the best they have to offer, and that’s all we can ask for. That’s basically what’s going on, and it’s been what’s been going on for a long time.”
Baldwin, who walks through life with "a boulder on my shoulder," has thrived in an environment tailored to each individual player.
“I think the perception of football players and football coaches is that everything has to be structured in a sense that it has to be hard and difficult and there’s no fun -- football is not supposed to be fun," he said. "That’s just not the case. I think that the teams that are the most successful are the teams that have fun doing what they’re doing. It just goes against the grain of what the perception is of what football is supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be hard and rigorous and you fight for your wins. Here, we have a fun time practicing, we have a fun time in our meetings, and that ultimately leads to us having a fun time out there on the field game day -- which I think contributes to our success."
You'll find just as many players who espouse and appreciate Harbaugh's approach in San Francisco, but there are two guys in Seattle who have been through the Harbaugh car wash ... and they didn't really find success until they graduated from it.