Makings of a rivalry: How Seahawks-49ers became one of the best in professional sports

Jan 14, 2014, 1:50 PM | Updated: Jan 18, 2014, 2:53 pm

The Seahawks and 49ers will square off in the NFC title game Sunday, the latest chapter in their heated rivalry. (AP)

By Danny O’Neil

A village may be required to raise a child, but it takes two fervent fan bases, a pair of high-profile coaches and three years of increasingly contemptuous history to produce one of the greatest current rivalries in professional sports.

The Seahawks will host the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, their third meeting this season in what may turn out to be a classic trilogy. But it’s more than that, a rivalry whose seeds were planted in the college ranks only to fully blossom in the NFL.

They’ve claimed each other’s players in transactions, acquired receivers within days of each other over the offseason and have split the regular-season series each of the past two years. It takes a look back, however, to see just how this rivalry got so heated.

The Prequel: Pac-Tension

Jim Harbaugh hadn’t coached a single game at Stanford in 2007 when he fired his first salvo at coach Pete Carroll, Harbaugh saying the he’d heard Carroll would be at USC for only one more year before leaving for the NFL. Harbaugh doubled down, saying he had heard that from within Carroll’s staff, and after Carroll responded, Harbaugh stated, “We bow to no program here at Stanford University.”

Stanford upset USC in 2008, but it was what happened at the Los Angeles Coliseum the following year that has become the touchstone for this rivalry. On Nov. 14, 2009, the Cardinal ended the Trojans’ 35-game home winning streak with what was either an exclamation point or a slap in the face depending on the perspective. Stanford led 48-21 after Toby Gerhart scored his third touchdown of the game and the Cardinal went for two points, ultimately winning 55-21.

When the coaches met at midfield after the game, Carroll asked Harbaugh, “What’s your deal?”

“What’s your deal,” Pete Carroll asked Jim Harbaugh during a famous exchange after a 2009 USC-Stanford game in which Harbaugh went for two with a 48-21 lead. (AP)

Harbaugh responded by asking, “What’s your deal?” More than five years later, that is no longer the most famous postgame confrontation involving Harbaugh and a handshake, but that game remains a reference point between the two.

And even after Carroll was gone to the NFL, he was not forgotten by Harbaugh, who was still keeping score of his school’s success against Carroll’s coaching tree. After a 41-0 shutout of Washington on Oct. 30, 2010, Harbaugh addressed his players behind a curtain that made it possible for reporters to hear exactly what he said.

“We kicked their ass every which way!” Harbaugh said, according to The Seattle Times. “One hell of a job on both sides of the line! Dominant, dominant!”

No doubt about that. Then came the knife twist. Harbaugh referred to Steve Sarkisian, who along with Lane Kiffin and then-UW defensive coordinator Nick Holt were among Carroll’s former assistants.

“What are you guys, 5-1, 6-1 against that group (in his four-year tenure)? That’s the highest-paid coaching staff around!”

Professional angst

The rivalry began to echo on Christmas Eve when a 49ers assistant coach shouted “Merry Christmas” on his way through CenturyLink Field, celebrating San Francisco’s 19-17 victory with a bit of Yuletide sneer.

It was Greg Roman, San Francisco’s offensive coordinator, though he wouldn’t admit to it when asked at the elevator if he had been the one shouting.

“Lots of people were yelling,” he said.

Nope. Just one person. And then the elevator door closed, Roman riding down along with several Seahawks assistant coaches who remained silent.

49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman celebrated a Dec. 24, 2011 win at CenturyLink Field by shouting “Merry Christmas!” as he ran through the press box en route to the victorious locker room. (AP)

A few hours later, 49ers offensive tackle Anthony Davis left no room for misinterpretation when he tweeted: “Another W. Merry Christmas. Fudge the Seahawks. Scot McCloughan eat sludge.” Except Davis obscenely misspelled both fudge and sludge with a pair of four-letter alternatives that warranted a mouthful of soap.

McCloughan is a significant figure in the shape of these two teams, someone who had worked in Seattle under Mike Holmgren before leaving for the 49ers in 2005. He drafted many of the players who currently constitute the backbone of that team before being let go as San Francisco’s general manager in 2010.

He then joined the Seahawks’ front office, where he continues to serve as a senior personnel executive, and in December 2011 – with the team he helped draft en route to a division title – he spoke to Michael Silver, then of Yahoo! Sports. McCloughan talked of the happiness he felt watching the success of a 49ers team he helped assemble. But he left no doubt as to his current employment objective.

“They come to our place Christmas Eve,” McCloughan said, laughing. “And we’re going to beat the hell out of ’em.”

Not quite. At least not yet. The 49ers won both meetings in 2011, sweeping the season series and setting the stage for 2012.

Boiling point

At this point, the rivalry has developed its own urban legends, none better than the story that Harbaugh honked at Seattle’s players as they sat aboard the team buses following the 49ers’ 13-6 victory over the Seahawks in Week 7 last season, a Thursday night game that stands as the last time quarterback Russell Wilson didn’t have the Seahawks in the lead for at least part of the fourth quarter.

More coverage previewing Sunday’s NFC title game between the Seahawks and 49ers.

“The Pete Carroll Show” | Blue 42 | Cold Hard Facts
O’Neil: Errors may decide NFC championship
O’Neil: Stopping the 49ers starts with Frank Gore
Henderson: Taking a closer look at the 49ers
Henderson: Russell Okung vs. 49ers’ Aldon Smith
O’Neil: Timeline of 49ers-Seahawks rivalry
Moore: Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh deny animosity
Moore: Crowd isn’t enough for Hawks to beat 49ers
Henderson: ‘No better matchup,’ Pete Carroll says

Every one in Seattle’s locker room has heard Harbaugh honked. Silver – still at Yahoo! Sports at the time – first reported it, but no player I’ve talked to can actually confirm seeing it.

Not that there’s any shortage of actual motivation. After that game last season, Harbaugh expressed bewilderment at the physical play of Seattle’s cornerbacks, going so far as to say he was going to ask the league for clarification on how much contact was allowed.

Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick currently appears in a headphones commercial that characterizes Seahawks fans as being hostile to the point of obscene gestures from children. Receiver Golden Tate said he wouldn’t mind putting a block on Harbaugh that was reminiscent of the lick he laid on Dallas’ Sean Lee last season. Cornerback Richard Sherman slapped Harbaugh on his backside after the Seahawks defeated the 49ers 29-3 in Week 2 of this season.

The two teams have split the regular-season series the past two years, each team holding serve at home. On Sunday, they meet for the first time ever in the playoffs, the top teams in the NFC West and the last two teams standing in the conference as the next chapter in this rivalry will be super for at least one of them.

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