Pete Carroll & Jim Harbaugh: A Tale of Two Coaches


The NFC Championship game will feature two teams that are hard nosed, aggressive and physical in their style of play. Both of these teams have taken on the personalities of their coaches. Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll have a long history of games coaching against each other that even dates back to their days as college coaches. The rivalry between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers has reached all time highs with these two men leading their teams.

Harbaugh’s first game as an NFL coach fittingly came against Carroll and the Seahawks. There were signs of something special brewing when the 49ers beat the Seahawks 33-17 behind two key returns for touchdowns by Tedd Ginn Jr. These were both in the fourth quarter and Harbaugh’s enthusiasm was caught on film as he ran down the sideline with Ginn. This was the start of a heated rivalry that spilled over into the NFL from college football.

As the head coach of a rebuilding program at Stanford University, Harbaugh had his sights set on the USC Trojans. USC was the cream of the Pac 10 conference and as the saying goes; “To be the best, you have to beat the best.” Well, Harbaugh did just that in his first year at Stanford. He defeated Carroll’s championship contending team 23-20. USC was favored by 41 points over Stanford and entered the game with a 35-game home game winning streak. That streak included a 24-game home game winning streak in Pac 10 play. It all came to a close as Harbaugh went into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and beat the mighty Trojans.

Carroll got his revenge the following year by beating Stanford in Palo Alto by a score of 45-23. This was the year that I believe the rivalry really started. Obviously Pete Carroll was not happy about losing to Stanford the previous year but that was small in comparison to what happened next. Harbaugh sent in the field goal team in the closing seconds because he wanted to get some points. Carroll called a timeout and Harbaugh in turn went for it. They ended up converting on an 18 yard pass.

Carroll spoke after the game and said; “He can do whatever he wants, I don’t care.” Harbaugh responded in his typical matter of fact way when he said. “Our team is closing the gap,” Harbaugh said. “We didn’t get the turnovers like we did last year but we’re a much improved team. That doesn’t always show up in the win column.”

harbaugh_carroll.collegeThe next year was a prelude to what was to come at the next level. The 2009 game between USC and Stanford was classic. This time both teams were ranked in the top 25. Stanford won 55-21 causing Carroll to say; “I’m not sure I have the right words to describe being humbled like this,” Carroll said. “I don’t really know where to put it. … We have fallen apart and given our opponents the opportunity to do whatever they want.” One of the scoring plays ironically came on a 41 yard interception return for a touchdown by Richard Sherman.

Despite the game being out of reach, Jim Harbaugh attempted a 2-point conversion. This infuriated Pete Carroll. The anger was let out somewhat after the game when Carroll confronted Harbaugh at the middle of the field after the game and fired off the infamous; “What’s your deal Harbaugh?”  During the post game presser, Carroll said; “I don’t know what they were thinking with that.” This was the last collegiate game between the two coaches. Carroll moved on to the NFL. Harbaugh followed him a bit later.

Harbaugh was 2-1 at the collegiate level but things have not been much different at the pro level where Harbaugh has a 4-2 record against Carroll. Only one coach has had a better start in his career over the first three years. That coach is George Seifert who was also a 49ers head coach. Seifert’s record from 1989 – 1991 was 42 wins and 11 losses. In comparison, Harbaugh has 41 wins, 13 losses and one tie from 2011 – 2013. This will be Harbaugh’s third straight NFC Championship game, an unprecedented feat.

Pete Carroll has turned the Seahawks franchise around. They are enjoying their best run of success since the Mike Holmgren days. Carroll started off with two 7-9 seasons then last year he had an 11-5 record. This year Carroll has lead the Seahawks to the best record in the NFL at 13-3. Carroll does have ties to the 49ers since he was the defensive coordinator for the 49ers in the 1995-1996 season before going to USC to restore that program.

yahoo_harbaughcarrollOne of the early questions in Harbaugh’s press conference was whether or not he and Carroll hate each other. He quickly replied saying that those questions and accusations are “erroneous.” It is clear that these two coaches do have some form of dislike for each other though.  There are the comments that Harbaugh had about the Seahawks series of positive results to NFL drug testing. Carroll surely did not feel Harbaugh was in line to comment about it and hinted to that when he said; “I don’t know about commenting about anybody else’s team…”

Harbaugh had some interesting comments about the Seahawks and Adderall. He said; “You don’t know what it is. Even when people say what it is, you don’t know that that’s what it is. The NFL doesn’t release what it actually is. So you have no idea. You’re taking somebody at their word, that I don’t know that you can take them at their word, understanding the circumstances.”

Carroll didn’t bother to read too far into the comments but did reply. Carroll said, via The Associated Press. “I don’t know about commenting about anybody else’s team, but as far as we’re concerned, we feel like we’ve addressed it directly.”

There was also the back and forth about the Seahawks defensive backs holding and pushing down field. Harbaugh expressed his concerns about that to the NFL offices. Carroll was quick to point out how Harbaugh reacted to Kevin Gilbride complaining about Justin Smith holding just a few weeks earlier. In essence, he was calling Harbaugh a hypocrite.

There are many more incidents that we haven’t touched upon. These two coaches do have a mutual respect for each other. They are responsible for elevating their division to the best in the NFL. This week they will face off in one of the best NFC Championship match up in a long time. This game will be a treat to watch. In my opinion, the winner of this game will go on to  win the Super Bowl. Strap up and enjoy the ride that these two fiery coaches take us on.