SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Maybe now that their intense, dramatic and endlessly entertaining coaching rivalry has reached its biggest stage yet - an NFC Championship Game Sunday, with a berth in the Super Bowl at stake - perhaps it's time to listen to Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh when they say they don't hate each other.
But listening and fully believing are two different things. After all, these two have quite a history.
Carroll, 62, and Harbaugh, 50, have been battling each other for supremacy for seven years, first in the then-Pacific-10 Conference, where Harbaugh's upstart Stanford program helped end Carroll's University of Southern California dynasty, and now in the NFL, where they have battled for NFC West pre-eminence, Carroll as head coach of the Seattle Seahawks and Harbaugh as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
Ever since their famous "What's your deal?" confrontation in a postgame midfield handshake after Stanford's statement rout of USC in 2009, everyone has assumed that there is a component of animosity in the rivalry.
This week, both coaches are saying that's not the case.
"Animosity? No," Harbaugh said. "That's erroneous. Erroneous. It's football. It's competition. It's winning."
As coaches in the same college conference and the same pro division, they've had conversations, right? Do they get along?
"We've had football," he said. "Competition. Winning. That's sports. That's what we've had. Great competition."
Carroll was asked Thursday at his team's headquarters in Renton, Wash., what's the deal with his relationship with Harbaugh?
"What's the deal, huh?" Carroll said. "We have not been friends over the years. We don't know each other very well. It's a very, very confined relationship in that regard.
"For whatever reason, you guys have had a field day with thinking that it's something other than it is. I have great respect for what Jim's done. I think he's a tremendous football coach. So that's it. That's where it stops and starts. All the rest of this stuff, you guys have had a blast with it. But there's nothing there, you know?"
It's not the easiest thing to penetrate the relationship. Neither coach is likely to sit for probing, personal questions. Harbaugh's public comments usually are dispensed from a podium, often in short answers, sometimes on the wacky side. The frenetic Carroll might issue more complete sentences and chat away from the podium a little, but it's rare that he will sit still long enough to dissect a subject that doesn't directly relate to winning football games.
So what's their deal? A Carroll confidante told USA TODAY Sports the defining factor in their relationship is that two competition junkies have been pitted against each other regularly and the full force of their win-win mentalities butting against one another creates sparks.
"I think they're two insanely highly developed competitors," said Yogi Roth, who played college football with Carroll's son at Pittsburgh, coached under Carroll at USC and wrote a book with Carroll. "Ask Pete to describe himself, he'll say, 'I'm a competitor.' That's who he is — back against the wall, all the time. He doesn't need a bully to set the tempo.
"The angle to me is, here are two of the most competitive guys in all of football, and we think they hate each other. But competitors love what the other guy brings out of them," says Roth, now an analyst with the Pac-12 Networks. "I think these guys thrive on the stuff that is said about them, because they want the biggest matchup, the biggest game and the biggest moment. It's like in basketball, you want to take the last shot. Both of these guys, in a pickup basketball game, would want to take the last shot."
In the case of Sunday's game, taking — and making — the last shot would mean getting to the Super Bowl. Neither coach has won a Super Bowl, though Harbaugh has been closest.
In the head-to-head matchup, Harbaugh leads. He was 2-1 against Carroll in the Pac-12 and is 4-2 against him in the NFL.
Though their personalities are as different as sandpaper (Harbaugh) and silk (Carroll), they have both taken their teams to the top with a focus on tough defense, smash-mouth running offense and, in the past two years, dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks, the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick and the Seahawks' Russell Wilson.
"I think Pete and Harbaugh have great respect for each other because they've both done it that way," Roth says. "They've both added new elements, whether it's the quarterback run game or maybe developing guys who other people passed on. They just go about it differently. Jim is a more aggressive personality. Pete's more of a laid back guy. Similar approaches, different personalities."
Both have been historically great at what they do.
In a seven-year span at USC, Carroll's teams went 82-9 — 13-0 once, 12-1 three times and 11-2 three times, though some of those victories were later vacated because of NCAA rules violations.
Harbaugh is the first NFL coach to reach a conference championship game in each of his first three seasons as head coach.
They had very different playing careers — Carroll was a college safety at Pacific not good enough for pro football; Harbaugh was a star quarterback at Michigan, a first-round draft pick and had a long pro career. But they have both built reputations as players' coaches.
"He understands us as players and what we need to help make this a better football team," 49ers star linebacker Patrick Willis says. "Since he's got here, it's always been about us, about the team, the team, the team."
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman has played for both coaches. He played college ball under Harbaugh at Stanford.
Sherman has a lot in common with Carroll. They're both energetic, fun-loving, loose.
"He's not soft, but he's easy-going," Sherman says. "He allows guys to be who they are. Coach Pete lets you shoot baskets before meetings and have fun and enjoy the game. He makes the game a lot more fun than it used to be."
Asked if Harbaugh, whose approach was influenced by his no-nonsense college coach, Bo Schembechler, allowed Sherman to be himself at Stanford, Sherman laughs. "A lot less so," he says.
Their stories are curiously intertwined.
Carroll was born in San Francisco, was reared in the Bay Area and returned there in the mid-90s for two years as defensive coordinator for the 49ers under head coach George Seifert.
But years later, it is Harbaugh, a native Midwesterner, who is the Bay Area's most prominent coach.
In 1989, Carroll, then the Minnesota Vikings' secondary coach, was a candidate for the head coach job at Stanford. The job went to Dennis Green.
But years later, it was Harbaugh who performed the miracle at Stanford. He took a team that had gone 1-11 in 2006 and in four years erected a powerhouse that challenged, then surpassed the program that had dominated the Pac-10 and later Pac-12 for nearly a decade — Carroll's USC.
When Harbaugh coached at the University of San Diego before coming to Stanford, he recruited a quarterback from the Los Angeles area named Nate Carroll — Pete's son. Nate went to USC instead and is now an assistant for his dad in Seattle.
Harbaugh and Carroll first clashed in 2007, when Harbaugh, just hired at Stanford, said in the summer that he had heard 2007 would be Carroll's last season at USC. Carroll responded Harbaugh should get his facts straight. Said Harbaugh: "We bow to no man; we bow to no program here at Stanford."
That fall, Harbaugh and Stanford made major news. A 41-point underdog, Stanford went down to Los Angeles and shocked the No. 2 Trojans 24-23. In the aftermath, Carroll expressed only respect toward Harbaugh. "Jimmy had them ready to play," he said. "Give credit to Stanford."
The next year, at Stanford, USC issued payback, a 45-23 pasting in which there was some odd gamesmanship in the closing seconds. Harbaugh sent in a placekicker to kick a meaningless field goal and Carroll then called timeout to ice the kicker. Then Harbaugh changed his mind, sent in his offense and Stanford scored a touchdown on an 18-yard pass.
That set the stage for the one everyone remembers, the famous "What's your deal?" game of 2009. USC, after seven remarkable years, was fading, and Stanford was rising. When they intersected on Nov. 14 in Los Angeles, Stanford creamed the Trojans with a power run game 55-21.
With 6:47 left, Stanford running back Toby Gerhart scored on a 6-yard run to make it 48-21 and Harbaugh kept the offense on the field to try for a two-point conversion.
According to the book Rags to Roses: The Rise of Stanford Football, published this year by The Stanford Daily, Gerhart at that point approached Harbaugh and asked what was going on, and Harbaugh replied, "I want to put 50 on those (expletive)."
The two-point try failed, but Harbaugh got his 50 and more when Stanford scored another touchdown.
As the two coaches approached each other at midfield, they had a brief handshake and strained conversation.
Carroll: "What's your deal? You alright?"
Harbaugh: "Yeah, I'm good. "What's your deal?"
Carroll, turning away: "Nice game."
After three more games, Carroll was done at USC, taking the offer to coach the Seahawks.
And after one more season at Stanford — a 12-1 season capped by a 40-12 win over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, Stanford's first Bowl Championship Series victory — Harbaugh was gone to the 49ers.
Now, Carroll's and Harbaugh's deal is the NFC West.
Carroll's Seahawks won the division in 2010 (though with a 7-9 record) and this season. Harbaugh's 49ers won it in 2011 and 2012.
Carroll has never coached a team to the Super Bowl. Harbaugh took the 49ers there last year and lost to his older brother, John, who coaches the Baltimore Ravens.
With a chance to get back to the Super Bowl, Harbaugh said this week he'd cut off a finger to be able to play in Sunday's game and would contemplate sacrificing an arm or an eye.
"There's nothing better than playing," he says. "Coaching is the second-best thing, though, because you are competing."
When it comes to Harbaugh vs. Carroll, whatever they say, the competition remains compelling.