The parallels between their careers will create some shared story lines entering today’s NFC Championship Game. In 2007, Harbaugh’s first year as coach at Stanford, he said he heard Carroll would only be at USC “one more year.” Carroll actually remained in the college ranks for three more years, two of which included losses to Harbaugh’s underdog Cardinal, highlighted by the “What’s your deal?” game that included a verbal confrontation between the coaches after Carroll believed Harbaugh was running up the score during Stanford’s 55-21 victory in 2009.
Carroll joined the Seahawks in 2010 and Harbaugh took the 49ers’ job the following season. The latter began his NFL coaching career with a 33-7 win over the visiting Seahawks at Candlestick Park, though the rivalry has been fairly even so far, with Harbaugh holding a 4-2 edge in their regular-season matchups.
“He’s a really good football coach,” Carroll said of Harbaugh. “He’s got a way about him that starts with a really fundamental approach to the game.”
Today will be the first time the two coaches have faced off in the playoffs — though from what Harbaugh has said all week, you would think they had never met before.
“Animosity, no, erroneous, erroneous,” he said of the perceived tension between coaches. “It’s football. It’s competition. It’s winning.”
So what have they shared over the past seven years?
“We’ve had football, competition, winning,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the sport, that’s what we have had, great competition.”
Calling it great competition is not a stretch. The games between Seattle and San Francisco have been physical, with plenty of trash-talking on both sides over the past three seasons.
Harbaugh did at least admit he has come to recognize certain traits from a Carroll-coached team, though none of them are going to fuel any trash-talk today.
“A lot of good things,” he said. “It’d be a long list of football attributes. How well they’re coached. What a great job their organization does. The competitiveness of their players. Execution, consistently really, really good week after week. And it’s hard to get to this point. ... And they did it better than anybody did it this entire season. So, a great task, great challenge ahead of us 49ers.”
Even the players are refusing to contribute to the hype.
Niners wide receiver Anquan Boldin was asked this week whether the rivalry between Harbaugh and Carroll was different than other matchups he’s been a part of.
“No, it’s the same,” Boldin said. “It’s always the same.”
The message should not come as a surprise. When Harbaugh stood opposite his brother, John, as opposing coaches during last year’s Super Bowl, both made it clear they wanted the conversation to be about the players who would decide the contest on the field.
And while quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers and Russell Wilson of the Seahawks will likely have more to do with deciding today’s NFC Championship Game, fans can expect plenty of shots of the postgame handshake between the coaches, regardless of the outcome.