Harbaugh/Carroll rivalry on collision course

The coaching rivalry and cat-and-mouse games to get an edge have reached a new level this week for Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, who will be coaching against each other for the first time on a professional stage when the 49ers host the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday's season opener. Their relationship has been described as cordial, but both make it clear they want to win this one in the worst way.

Carroll and Harbaugh were fierce rivals in college, with Carroll leading national power USC and Harbaugh re-establishing Stanford as a Pac-10 power, including the much-talked about, nearly infamous incident at the end of Stanford's 55-21 win over the Trojans in 2009 when the two met at midfield to shake hands.

Their notorious post-game encounter became an instant youtube hit. After Harbaugh's Stanford Cardinal piled on the points against Carroll's USC Trojans in the blowout two seasons ago, Carroll looked at Harbaugh and asked, "What's your deal?"

Harbaugh shot right back with "What's YOUR deal?"

Now Carroll and Harbaugh are taking their rivalry to the NFL level with Sunday's opener at Candlestick Park. The two coaches joked about the encounter this week and the media intrigue it generated.

Both now say that the event was blown out of proportion.

After their identical "What's your deal?" exchange, Harbaugh said this week in explaining the incident, "From there, it's about as well-documented a six-word sentence as there could be. I just find it very irrelevant and not very intriguing. It had little to do with the game then and it has very little to do with the game now.

"I think the game is what the relevant thing is and probably what we should be spending our time talking about."

And with Harbaugh taking over the San Francisco job, it's only natural to think that rivalry would carry over to the pro game.

But the coaches worked hard to diffuse the idea that there's any friction between the two, mentioning the fact that they talked at an NFL league meeting earlier this year in New Orleans, where Harbaugh asked Carroll about making the transition from college to the NFL.

"We don't know each other very well," Carroll said when asked to describe his relationship with Harbaugh. "We've never been in the same settings at all. We just played each other a couple times. I got a chance to visit with him at the league meetings and all that. But we don't have common backgrounds at all."

Harbaugh offered a similar refrain when asked to describe his relationship with Carroll.

"I have great respect for coach and what he's trying to accomplish there in Seattle," Harbaugh said. "And everything he's done in the profession and what he's meant for the game and for football. So that's how I would describe it. I like him. I like being around him.

"We don't socialize. I wouldn't call us friends or anything like that. But I've got to tell you really the only friend I have in the NFL is my brother (Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh) who's on an opposing team. We're trying to beat those guys."

Another intriguing element of Sunday's game is how these two teams will attack each other, particularly in light of what happened in last year's season opener in Seattle.

The 49ers were coming off an undefeated preseason and everyone including team president Jed York was talking playoffs. Then, the Seahawks flattened the 49ers 31-6 and the Niners never recovered as they struggled to a 6-10 season.

It was an embarrassing season opener for coach Mike Singletary, whose team - universally heralded as the NFC West favorite entering the season - was exposed and out-coached in Carroll's Seattle debut. That set the tone of the season for both the 49ers and Singletary, who was fired after San Francisco's Week 16 loss at St. Louis and replaced by Harbaugh a few weeks later.

Players said after last year's opener that they had no idea what to expect from Carroll's Seahawks in his first game as the head coach. The 49ers are now hopeful they can turn back the Seahawks by employing a similar strategy.

But it won't be quite the same. At least offensively, Carroll has faced Harbaugh-coached teams and Carroll didn't seem daunted by what his former Pac-10 rival might present.

"(Harbaugh is) coming from Stanford (with) the same coordinators, so you are going to see a lot of the same things," Carroll said. "So I don't think it's going to be that unusual or that difficult for us to determine what they are going to try to do. Now we need to see what it is and try to figure it out."

The 49ers are going to present more of a challenge defensively for Seattle because Carroll never faced 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who was only at Stanford for the 2010 season. Additionally, the 49ers possibly showed less defensively than they did offensively during the preseason.

However, the 49ers will face an element of uncertainty with the Seattle offense because of new quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Pile on top of that, a new offensive line coach in former Raiders head coach Tom Cable.

Fangio said he couldn't get a "clean look" at the Seattle offense and instead has looked at last year's film of the Minnesota Vikings, where Bevell coached in 2010. On Wednesday, defensive players said they watched Raiders tape of Cable's running game.

No matter how these teams prepare, they will likely be scrambling at halftime to make adjustments.

"Halftime will be a really big part of this game," Carroll said.

In Seattle, the cat-and-mouse game already has begun.

Although the relationship between Carroll and Harbaugh is cordial, the Seahawks coach is still living up to his motto "Always Compete," fishing for information on Harbaugh from two former Stanford players on Seattle's roster in rookie cookie cornerback Richard Sherman, the Seahawks' fifth-round draft choice, and undrafted free-agent receiver Doug Baldwin.

"We talk to them," Carroll said with a wry smile. "We're competing at it. So we're visiting with them for sure."

Sherman said he sees a lot of similarities between his former and current coach.

"Personality-wise they're both real fiery guys," he said. "They both seem like they're real competitive. And both want to win by any means necessary, and that's what you get from them."

Baldwin said that both coaches are detail oriented, and that playing for Harbaugh in college helped for a smoother transition to Seattle.

"His philosophy was definitely similar to what we have here," Baldwin said. "I mean always competing, always going 100 miles per hour every time – even if you get something wrong. That was just his philosophy. I would say his approach in practice and in meetings, and the way he prepares us for games is similar to what I've experienced so far in the NFL."

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