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In Jim Harbaugh, Seattle has a true sports nemesis


The mutual dislike between the Seahawks and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has spawned a compelling rivalry. (AP)

By Danny O’Neil

I laughed when Golden Tate told “Bob and Groz” he wouldn’t mind putting a dent in Jim Harbaugh.

This was not the most mature reaction, and not something that I’m necessarily proud of, but it was undeniable and even now, as the Seahawks are earning a national reputation for popping off about an opposing coach, I find myself not just entertained by it, but truly excited.

Seattle has itself a true nemesis, something that has been conspicuously absent from this city’s recent pro sports history.

It’s not just Harbaugh’s nails-on-a-chalkboard personality, though that’s some of it. And it’s not just Harbaugh’s history with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, which goes back to their time as college head coaches. It is that these two men are in charge of two teams that share an overall emphasis upon defense, a run-oriented approach to offense and are considered two of the most talented teams in the league.

The fact that they share a division has raised the stakes to the point that when Tate says he’d like to level Harbaugh with a block as he did on 710 ESPN Seattle last Friday, it’s national news because this is a national rivalry, something Seattle doesn’t have a whole lot of experience with.

Our city has had enemies, plenty of them from Ken Behring and his attempt to hijack the Seahawks on down to Los Angeles to that venti drip of coffee baron who sold our NBA team – and at least a little bit of his soul – to some carpetbaggers from Oklahoma, to a certain vertically challenged basketball commissioner who did everything but rent the moving vans to send the Sonics east. Alex Rodriguez inspired more than a decade of hostility when he left for all that money in Texas while Bill Leavy remains despised in this city after the officiating mistakes that marred Seattle’s Super Bowl loss to Pittsburgh.

But those are villains as opposed to rivals, and the fact that we waste more time hating them than they spent worrying about us makes it all the more aggravating.

And that’s why this increasing antagonism with the 49ers in general and their coach in particular is so compelling: Seattle finally has a dance partner in the rivalry business.

This series means as much to San Francisco as it does to Seattle. The 49ers coach drives Seattle fans crazy in the same way that the Seahawks players enrage San Francisco, the latest example coming on Friday when Tate expressed desire to give Harbaugh “the Sean Lee treatment” if he ever got a chance. It was a reference to Tate’s block from a year ago that loosened fillings of the Cowboys’ middle linebacker, and only reinforced the reality that while Carroll has cloaked any dislike he has of the 49ers coach, his players have not.

I am more than just entertained by this fact, I am excited about it. This comes as a bit of a surprise to me because I tend to believe the best teams are the ones who worry about themselves, not their opponents. The best teams are the ones who understand that earning headlines is very different than – and sometimes a barrier to – winning games. And as much as I enjoy a good war of words, if I’m being honest, I tend to think of them as diversions and distractions that don’t accomplish much of anything.

There is one exception to that: a true nemesis is absolutely invigorating.

These come naturally in college whether it’s between two schools in the same state or another program in the conference. It’s a bit trickier in professional sports given the frequency with which players change teams and teams change coaches.

But the Seahawks now have a rival that will define them nationally, a 49ers team that has won the past two division titles and whose coaches have their own history of antagonism that goes back to college when Harbaugh was at Stanford and Carroll was at USC.

This is new for Seattle in professional sports because for as much animosity as the Seahawks and their fans had for old AFC West opponents like the Raiders and Broncos, Seattle was never considered the chief rival by those opposing fans.

Not until now.