Commentary

Dealing with Harbaugh and Carroll

Two winning coaches, two different ways of doing it

Originally Published: January 14, 2014
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

In the Fabulous Feud of Pete Carroll v. Jim Harbaugh, you can't take v. You've got to be on one side of it or the other. And you have to do it now, because Carroll's 14-3 Seattle Seahawks host Harbaugh's 14-4 San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game Sunday. Loser shaves head and leaves town.

Who's the better man? Who's the better coach? Who should you back?

Let's play The Feud!

CLOTHES

Jim Harbaugh dresses like your retired Uncle Saul. His closet seems to have only one hanger. He wears flood-ready khaki pants with pleats that went out with Boyz II Men, a drab black sweatshirt (tucked in, no less) and -- my Lord -- a clip-on pen that hangs from a string around his neck. "I reduce a lot of drag by not having to choose what you're going to wear every day," Harbaugh explains.

On the other hand, Carroll, who is 12 years older, appears 12 years younger, possibly because he dresses in the style vicinity of this century.

Carroll 1, Harbaugh 0

ABILITY

Both men are so fabulously talented at coaching football that it makes the mind spin. Carroll won two national titles, and played for a third, at USC before he went to Seattle, where he's built a budding dynasty with a team that was the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs this season.

Harbaugh, though, may be even better. He turned Stanford -- Stanford! -- into a national power in only four seasons, pulled off the biggest point-spread upset in college football history when he beat Carroll's USC team as a 41-point underdog in 2007 (Feud Milepost No. 1) and has now made the NFC title game in each of his first three years, an unheard-of feat. Oh, and he's 6-3 overall against Carroll.

Harbaugh 1, Carroll 1.

HAIR

Not even close. Carroll's hair was copied off an "Endless Summer" poster, only silver, which might be even cooler. It's a cloud of cool. It's as though it comes with its own wind machine. I could take his hair and live happily on a deserted island.

Harbaugh's looks like he sends it to a barber college on Tuesday and gets it back Thursday.

Carroll 2, Harbaugh 1.

QUOTABILITY

Also not close. Carroll may be the best off-the-record coach in the NFL. But on the record, he is drier than 5-year-old rice cakes. He says nothing after practices and even less after games.

Meanwhile, Harbaugh is witty, bizarre and on the record. Who can forget . . .

•  On criticism: "It's just a lot of gobble gobble turkey."

•  On his philosophy: "Attack this with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind."

•  On second-guessing his play calling in the Super Bowl: "The would've, could've, should've is undefeated. That's never failed."

•  And the delicious olive jar analogy regarding turnovers: "Our defense is ... kind of like the olive jar ... You open up a brand new can of olives and turn it over and no olives come out. They're packed in there so darn tight, but if you just get one to come out, just pluck one out of there and then they want to come out, they're just flying out of the jar." It never ends with Harbaugh. It never starts with Carroll.

Harbaugh 2, Carroll 2.

Pete Carroll and Jim HarbaughAP Photo/Matt SaylesThe infamous "What's your deal?" handshake from Nov. 14, 2009.

ETHICS

Harbaugh preaches the gospel of Bo Schembechler: Winning is nothing without class. And yet it was Harbaugh who went for two with a huge lead over USC in 2009, the origin of Carroll's fiery "What's your deal?" postgame handshake query (Fuel Milepost No. 2).

Carroll's ethics, though, couldn't stand up to a robin's burp. There was so much cheating during his regime at USC that a national title (2005) and Reggie Bush's Heisman were vacated. And Slippery Pete managed to steal out of town for Seattle just before the NCAA gendarmes came.

At Seattle, meanwhile, his players have led the league in performance-enhancing drug suspensions, not to mention high-enhancing ones.

All of those failed drug tests caused Harbaugh to fire a shot that parted Carroll's hair: "We want to be above reproach in everything and do everything by the rules. If you don't, if you cheat to win, then you've already lost, according to Bo Schembechler." (Feud Milepost  No. 3)

Classless to point it out, but true.

Harbaugh 3, Carroll 2.

COOLNESS

Tan, suave and fit, Carroll thinks young, talks young and acts young, without a drip of creepy.

Harbaugh, on the other hand, is about as cool as the early bird special. And yet his way is so infectious and goofy and fun, you can't help but love him. The blue work shirts he gets his staff to wear. The family Saturday practices. The new quote he makes players provide him every day.

One day, the goal posts were in the wrong place at practice and he ran out and moved them himself. We all had that nutty teacher in high school with the taped-together eyeglasses who was just so irresistibly in love with what he was teaching that you went to class every day just to see what would happen next.

Still, that sort of coach is like whippits -- it's fun for a while, but it'll burn you out. Playing for Carroll is like working for Twitter -- it's a very cool office, but it's also a very cool future.

Carroll 3, Harbaugh 3.

IRRITABILITY

The only real grating habit of Carroll's is the way he chomps his gum like your 16-year-old server at Sonic.

Harbaugh annoys from kickoff to double zeroes. He is the Bill Laimbeer of the NFL, crying and stomping and throwing Harbaugh Hissies on the sideline (when you can keep him there). When a call goes against him, he looks like a man who just got Tasered in his boxers.

Harbaugh just can't back the volume off 10. All of that "an enthusiasm unknown to mankind" can really annoy people. Witness: His 2012 postgame hyper-backslap of then-Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz that had Schwartz coming up with his fists.

When asked if he can tone his act down in the name of sportsmanship, Harbaugh is his usual honest self: "We fight to win. If you're asking me my personal etiquette needs to be changed? More catatonic on the sideline? I don't anticipate that happening."

Carroll 4, Harbaugh 3.

LIKABILITY

I was talking to Harbaugh once and in the middle of a sentence, he just walked away. Just left. Carroll at least pretends to be interested.

Carroll has hobbies, like boogie boarding, Native American philosophy and Russian history. He is so cool, he's welcomed throughout South Central. At midnight.

Harbaugh has football, football and more football. "I don't take vacations," he says. "I don't get sick. I don't observe major holidays. I'm a jackhammer."

Something happened during last season's Super Bowl week I'll never forget. Harbaugh was at a brief news conference and photo session with his family -- his brother John, coach of the opposing Baltimore Ravens, his parents, and his 98-year-old grandfather (who died last week). John was wearing a sport coat and a tie and a smile. Jim was wearing the pleated khakis, the librarian pen and a scowl. When the last question was asked, he turned and marched off the stage without so much as a goodbye.

His mother, though, reached out and snagged him by the elbow, hard. She gave him a look that said, "You're staying right here, young man, and we're taking some photos to remember all this by." And only then did Harbaugh stand still long enough to take some pictures with his family at a historic family Super Bowl. Oy.

Carroll 5, Harbaugh 3.

GUTS

Both men replaced their starting quarterbacks in 2012 with unknown backups. But Carroll replacing Matt Flynn with Russell Wilson doesn't take nearly the guts of Harbaugh replacing No. 1 overall draft pick Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick. Smith had taken the Niners to the NFC title game the season before. In Week 8, he'd gone 18-for-19, nearly setting a record. And yet, three weeks later, I was standing there that Monday night after Kaepernick thrashed the Chicago Bears in relief and somebody was asking Harbaugh, "So Alex gets his job back when he's healthy?"

And Harbaugh said, as though he were deciding on what to have for lunch, "I usually go with the hot hand." Just like that. Have a clipboard, Alex. We got a new guy.

Carroll, 5, Harbaugh 4.

PASSION, PLAN AND PROGRESS

These may be the two most passionate coaches on earth. They both embraced the same exact plan at the same time -- build a killer defense, run the ball down their throats, and get a young running QB who can break teams. They have become, far and away, the two best and most competitive teams in the NFC -- perhaps because they are the two best and most competitive coaches in the NFC.

Maybe that's why they repel each other. They're two north ends of the same magnet.

Draw.

Carroll, 5, Harbaugh 4.

IN THE END . . .

I'm on Carroll's side of the v., but just barely. I like Carroll, but I'm fascinated by Harbaugh. If I could have only one call to bail me out of jail, it'd be Carroll. If I had only one man to cover the rest of my days, it would be Harbaugh. If I had to pick one man to win this game Sunday, it'd be Carroll.

Mark that with your neck pen.

But isn't it delectable? Jackhammer v. surfer. Square v. slick. Two men who gall each other and yet will be flung together constantly like this for years.

Awful for them. Lovely for us.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com