One of the bigger, weirder narratives in the run-up to the NFC Championship Game has revolved around something that is more or less irrelevant.
No, I’m not talking about the Colin Kaepernick/Russell Wilson Instagram “controversy,” which isn’t just more or less irrelevant, it’s one of the dumbest things I’ve seen, a story with racist overtones that continues to propagate the idea that somehow, because he wears his hat backward, likes sneakers and has tattoos, Colin Kaepernick is a bad person.
What I’m talking about is that age-old question, dating back to their college years: do Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll hate each other?
It all started when Harbaugh’s Stanford team ran up the score on Carroll’s USC team in 2009, and Carroll met Harbaugh at midfield after the game to ask him: “What’s your deal?”
This is a great origin story, as far as rivalries go; it involves an actual, tangible confrontation, spurred on by what was perceived as a direct act of disrespect by one of the coaches toward the other. And unlike the later altercation that happened between Harbaugh and former Lions coach Jim Schwartz, Harbaugh and Carroll’s old teams were, and current teams are, traditional adversaries — their fan bases don’t like each other, their fortunes often depend on these particular games, and their histories are long and filled with heated competition.
Since then, Harbaugh and Carroll moved to the NFL and turned the 49ers and Seahawks into two of the league’s best franchises. They also elevated themselves onto the short list of top head coaches. And their teams are bitter divisional rivals. So they must still hate each other, right?
Here’s where the situation gets murky. Harbaugh has claimed, repeatedly, that he doesn’t hate Carroll. In fact, he says, he doesn’t harbor any animosity toward him whatsoever.
And Carroll said he admires Harbaugh’s “core principles.” None of this should be surprising. Both guys have a lot in common: they jumped from the Pac-12 to the NFL around the same time, coach defense-oriented football teams with dynamic young quarterbacks, and have earned their fair share of dislike from fans, other coaches, and players in their sport.
There’s a good chance that, when they say they don’t hate each other, they’re not lying. To Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, any other coach is a guy who stands in the way of their obsession, which is winning football games.
Harbaugh and Carroll appear to be egocentric characters. Coaching football teams successfully tends to lend itself toward being egocentric; you need to have a certain confidence in your own ability if you have any chance of getting dozens of grown men, most of them egocentric in their own right, to follow your whims. And guys like that see rivalries a little differently: they don’t think they have rivals.
So, the question becomes: why do we care so much about how these two particular coaches feel about each other? There aren’t many other coaching rivalries in the NFL, or at least ones that don’t involve Bill Belichick, who is perceived to have an adversarial relationship with pretty much everyone, rightly or wrongly.
Let’s look to basketball for a minute. In the NBA, we’ve finally started to get over the bizarre, disconcerting sense of revulsion that people felt when the Heat’s stars, LeBron James and Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, banded together.
These guys were competitors: they were supposed to hate each other, to want to crush each other, to prefer not winning at all than helping each other win. Fans depend on this sense of competitiveness, but it’s actually one of the most corrosive ideas in sports: it’s what creates the kind of deranged, disgusting hatred that ends with people knifing each other in stadium parking lots.
Fans want their sports figures to be self-possessed because that purifies their own loyalty toward them. But that isn’t reality.
Professional sports are a community, and players, coaches, and front office execs have often worked with each other in other capacities: college, AAU ball, All-Star teams, previous jobs. They’re friends. They like each other, or are indifferent to each other, or dislike each other, for any number of reasons.
They’re humans. And that doesn’t mitigate the degree to which they’ll go to try and win, usually, but it also means that this kind of animosity doesn’t exist nearly as much as fans like to think it does, so they can excuse their own animosity toward other fan bases.
Hating groups of people you don’t know is always ridiculous. Sports doesn’t make it any less so. And it might be time to face the fact that Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll really might not feel like being the gladiatorial representatives of their particular fan bases anymore. They’re two guys coaching football. They’ve got a lot more in common than not.