Warszawski: Here's the deal between Carroll, Harbaugh

The Fresno BeeJanuary 18, 2014 

Just 13 innocuous letters, an apostrophe and a question mark.

"What's your deal?"

Spoken four years ago, in wholly different context, this three-word question still reverberates around Sunday's magnificent NFC championship.

Three words that form the bedrock of the strong dislike between the 49ers and Seahawks. That gave root to the NFL's newest and nastiest rivalry.

So much animosity from just three little words.

Before I get too far along, a little context. Go back to November 2009 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum when Stanford (coached by Jim Harbaugh) tacked on a late 2-point conversion despite leading by a comfortable margin in a 55-21 thrashing of USC (coached by Pete Carroll).

Which prompted Carroll to ask Harbaugh, "What's your deal? What's your deal?" as the two met up afterward near midfield.

To which Harbaugh replied, "What's your deal?"

It was succinct, pointed and nothing less than the best verbal stalemate in the history of postgame handshakes.

Surely lots of folks have asked that same question at some point of their lives. Probably under their breath. Probably to someone who gets on their nerves.

But never between two football coaches, in that context, with cameras and microphones rolling.

This is the kind of stuff the media eats up like buttered popcorn. The quote, along with the implied bad blood between Carroll and Harbaugh, spread like wildfire. "What's your deal?" is short and sweet. It contains just 15 characters. Making it easily digestible -- and dressable -- on Twitter.

It's not just what they said that made the exchange so memorable. It's how they said it. Carroll sounds a little exasperated. Harbaugh sounds like a smart aleck.

Four years later, the quote has become part of our sports vocabulary. Right up there with Jim Mora's "Playoffs? Playoffs?" and Allen Iverson's "We're talking about practice."

The 2009 season turned out to be Carroll's final one at USC. One year later, Harbaugh joined him in the NFL. Both reversed the fortunes of floundering franchises utilizing essentially the same blueprint: a punishing, physical ground attack coupled to a punishing, physical defense.

In the time since they've shared the NFC West, Carroll and Harbaugh have done everything possible to backtrack from their famous exchange. They insist there's no acrimony.

Carroll: "For whatever reason, you guys have a field day with thinking that it's something other than it is."

Harbaugh: "Animosity? No. That's erroneous. Erroneous. It's football. It's competition. It's winning."

The funny part is, I actually believe them.

Over the years, both have attributed the awkwardness to the fact that they don't know each other well. They aren't friends and don't socialize.

We've learned the coaches' wives, Glena Carroll and Sarah Harbaugh, once arranged a break-the-ice dinner for their husbands. We've learned Harbaugh tried to recruit Carroll's son during his first stint as a head coach at University of San Diego. He even made a home visit.

(Only Harbaugh would try to recruit the son of USC's coach. Nate Carroll went to USC, graduated with a degree in philosophy and is currently a Seahawks assistant.)

All this stuff is so fascinating because it involves two interesting personalities. These guys don't do Bill Belichick-ian blandness.

Harbaugh is a case study all to himself. You never know if he's going to be succinct and stand-offish, say something completely wacky ("Gobble, gobble, gobble, turkey, funk-jive turkey gobblers") or kiss the top of a reporter's head.

But the guy wins everywhere he goes. Stanford is still prospering from the physical, tough-guy persona Harbaugh instilled.

Carroll is a little more conventional. When the microphones are on he plays things smooth and pretty close to the vest. But once they're off, a different person emerges: energetic, high spirited and insanely competitive.

His teams also win, regardless of his slippery escape from looming sanctions at USC. Carroll is an aggressive play-caller and his players take their cue from that. They play to the echo of the whistle.

Harbaugh and Carroll are certainly the most fascinating personalities involved in Sunday's game.

It isn't the quarterbacks. Colin Kaepernick is flashy on the field and in his choice of body art but dull as dishwater off of it. Same for Russell Wilson, only a little less flashy and a little less dull.

The two tailbacks, Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch, are powerful runners who let their legs do the talking. Richard Sherman, the Seahawks' All-Pro cornerback, has plenty to say. So much, in fact, that you wish he'd just shut up.

So we're back to the head coaches.

Sunday's NFC championship is the 10th meeting between teams coached by Harbaugh and Carroll.

Harbaugh holds the upper hand. He went 2-1 against Carroll at the college level and is 4-2 against him in the NFL.

But Sunday will tilt the scales, no matter which way it goes.

The winner heads to the Super Bowl as a heavy favorite against either of the defensively challenged AFC finalists. The loser heads into a long offseason with reason to grow even more animosity for the winner.

And when Carroll and Harbaugh jog out to midfield for the postgame handshake, every fan at ear-splitting CenturyLink Field and the millions watching on TV will be thinking about those three infamous words.

It's our deal, too.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

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