Widgets Magazine

Wednesday Roundtable: Picking a side in the Harbaugh-Carroll rivalry

When the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks clash in this Sunday’s NFC Championship game, it will be another installment in one of the most heated personal rivalries in sports between Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll. Though Stanford fans are quick to side with Harbaugh, their former head coach, over Carroll, who was known to run up the score when coaching USC, Harbaugh has often played the part of instigator in their infamous relationship. We asked football writers Winston Shi, David Cohn and Do-Hyoung Park: Pac-12 affiliations aside, which coach is the “good guy” and which is the “bad guy”?

(SIMON WARBY/The Stanford Daily)

Former Stanford football head coach Jim Harbaugh (above) and former USC head coach Pete Carroll are in close contention for who stands on higher moral ground heading into the NFC Championship game. (SIMON WARBY/The Stanford Daily)

Winston: To be completely honest with you, there really is no answer. Both coaches aren’t perfect. Harbaugh rubbed many people the wrong way. While the “What’s your deal?” blowout announced Stanford’s revival as a football program, few Stanford fans will argue that Harbaugh going for two while up by four touchdowns was a classy move in any way. Though Carroll’s Trojans could run up the score at times, Carroll also knew when to let off the gas, as Notre Dame and Penn State fans will tell you.

Meanwhile, although Carroll himself is popular, USC lost a national championship due to the Reggie Bush scandal. In addition, from Brian Cushing at USC to a number of Seahawks players now, Carroll’s players have shown a certain tendency to skirt the rules, especially regarding PEDs. We don’t know how much Carroll has to do with any of these things, but ultimately his team is his responsibility.

Should our college fandom factor into this assessment? As a rule, the relationship between a coach and a school is the proverbial two-way street. Harbaugh deserves a huge share of the credit for rebuilding the Stanford football program, but in the end he viewed Stanford as a stepping-stone to his true dream: the NFL. Carroll left USC once it was clear that NCAA sanctions were about to hamstring his program. This is not to say that Stanford should not be grateful to Harbaugh, or USC to Carroll—but our university allegiances shouldn’t really factor into our perceptions of good and evil.

Coaching football is a job, and when it comes to our relationships with former college coaches, as with Harbaugh and Carroll, it’s ultimately just business when they come and go. Even if Richard Sherman’s much-publicized beef with his former coach happens to add some color to the narrative, whatever animosity may exist between the two is ultimately a personal affair. It’s not our duty to determine which one has the moral high ground.

David: I know that, as a Cardinal fan, I am seemingly obligated to select Coach Harbaugh as the “good guy.” I mean, how can I not support a guy who clearly has such good taste in television shows? In all seriousness though, I think that both coaches have certainly had their “bad guy” moments.

In Jim Harbaugh’s case, the instruction from Harbaugh and Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio to Chase Thomas ’12 to fake an injury in the 2010 Oregon game was a pretty infamous moment that did not reflect well on the Stanford program. In particular, that incident put Stanford in inglorious company with Cal as two Pac-12 programs that resorted to dubious tactics in order to challenge the Ducks.

In addition, once Harbaugh reached the NFL, he made a point to endear himself to his colleague Jim Schwartz in their infamous 2011 post-game handshake. While I believe that Schwartz was certainly at fault for his emotional outburst in response to Harbaugh’s “bro back tap,” Harbaugh could have very easily maintained some semblance of professionalism at that moment.

On the other hand, Carroll is also not immune from angering people. In particular, the fallout from the Reggie Bush fiasco, which resulted in Carroll’s flight to the NFL right before the NCAA imposed harsh sanctions on USC and crippled his once proud-program, hurt Carroll’s image.

Carroll has also drawn additional criticism for the fact that numerous Seahawks players have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs on his watch. These Seahawks include cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond, defensive end Bruce Irvin, guard John Moffitt, offensive lineman Allen Barbre and safety Winston Guy.

In both cases, it appears to me that Carroll is either extremely naive, completely incapable of maintaining “institutional control” with regards to the multiple programs that he has led, or he is condoning this behavior by his inaction. I wonder which one it could be?

In the end, regardless of my thoughts on Carroll and Harbaugh, I completely agree with Winston that we will certainly be entertained by the great storylines that have come to define one of the best rivalries in the NFL. Sunday’s NFC Championship game figures to make for great theatre, and I fully expect that the viewing audience will be thoroughly entertained.

Do: Reader, let me take you on a journey.

Imagine that the Pac-10 conference of the late 2000’s is an idyllic cul-de-sac buried deep in the suburbs of Nowhereville, Calif. Looking at the scene, you can’t help but feel that the unifying factor of the picture, the “I,” so to say, is the sturdy, robust cardinal-and-gold house on the far side. It has a historic, powerful aura about it, and even the very houses around it seem to acknowledge its splendor, appearing almost as supporting characters in the grand scheme of the neighborhood. To outsiders, that house is the very representation of the neighborhood as a whole.

On the front lawn struts a dignified, regal mastiff. Reader, meet Pete Carroll.

Hidden in the splendid grandeur of the central house, easily passed over as an afterthought in the grand planning of the neighborhood, lies a small, tattered, broken, bruised outhouse. On one of its walls, one can just barely make out the faint outline of a tree — albeit a strange tree, with eyes, legs and what looks to be a human inside it. The owners are considering selling the outhouse but are reluctant to do so because of its once-proud history.

One day, a chihuahua appears. Nobody knows where he came from — rumor has it that he once lived in San Diego — but he immediately takes the neighborhood by storm. He treads freely on the other dogs’ territory. He yips to the left, yaps to the right, urinates on everything that moves and seemingly has no sense of shame. He seems to make his home in the outhouse, and because of that, nobody really takes him seriously. That’s right — enter Jim Harbaugh.

Little Jimmy packs a lot of spunk into his little frame. He immediately takes to openly challenging Pete’s authority. “I bow to no dog,” Jimmy said defiantly. He begins to chip away at the very pillars of the grand house, gnawing away at them with his teeth. It doesn’t seem as if he is making much progress, and the neighborhood writes him off as “that crazy new dog.”

But Jimmy persists. He continues on. He recruits a small army of the squirrels, raccoons and pests of the neighborhood to help his cause. On Oct. 6, 2007, with the help of a ferret known only as “Tavita,” a pillar of the house falls. Pete watches in horror. Outsiders take notice of the feisty Jimmy.

Fast-forward two years. Jimmy has made a noticeable dent in the house, helped in part by a rather portly greyhound known as “Chip.” Jimmy is relentless. His squirrels, raccoons and pests are bigger, better, faster, stronger. Pete is horrified. He has done nothing to disturb Jimmy, yet Jimmy has done nothing but disturb the natural order of the neighborhood since he first moved in. Pete doesn’t understand. All he wanted was to continue being comfortable as leader of the previously peaceful neighborhood. Pete is worried for his house, which is starting to show the stresses of Jimmy’s assaults.

Finally, the house falls. Jimmy unleashes a raccoon named “Toby” to wreak havoc on the aged walls and ancient facades of the house, and the house crumbles with Pete watching helplessly. To add insult to injury, Jimmy jumps all over the skeleton of the ruined house with an almost rabid fervor until every last board is splintered, every last pane of glass shattered. He then immediately proceeds to push the outhouse into the middle of the rubble and firmly plant its foundation.

After the dust settles, an aghast Pete can only muster, “What’s your deal?”

With a grin, Jimmy answers, “What’s your deal?”

So, reader, you decide. Who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy here?

David Cohn and Winston Shi are too concerned about their reputations to fully take advantage of such a delightful prompt. Do-Hyoung Park, on the other hand, knows that ship sailed long ago. Let David, Winston and Do know who you side with at dmcohn ‘at’ stanford.edu, wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu and dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu, respectively.

About Winston Shi

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

About David Cohn

David Cohn '15 is currently a Sports Desk Editor. He began his tenure at the Daily by serving as a senior staff writer for Stanford football and softball, and then rose to the position of assistant editor of staff development. He served as the Summer Managing Editor of Sports in 2014. David is a Biology major from Poway, California. In addition to his duties at the Daily, he serves as the lead play-by-play football and softball announcer for KZSU Live Stanford Radio 90.1 FM.

About Do-Hyoung Park

Do-Hyoung Park '16, M.S. '17 is now the Chief Operating Officer and Business Manager at The Stanford Daily. He's also a Bay Area-based freelance sportswriter. He previously covered Stanford football and baseball for five seasons as a student and served two terms as sports editor and four terms on the copy desk. He was also a color commentator for KZSU 90.1 FM's football broadcast team for the 2015-16 Rose Bowl season. He covered the 2016 Minnesota Twins for MLB.com and has also contributed to The Bootleg and SI's (now defunct) Campus Rush. Hire him at dpark0027 'at' gmail.com or send him snarky Tweets @dohyoungpark.
  • Seahawk92

    That is the most fitting analogy of Jim Harbaugh I’ve ever read.

  • Samtheman

    For some strange reason, all 3 of you seem to equate Carrol’s players popping for PED’s to Carrol’s character…and you weigh it on the same scale as Harbaugh’s actual/factual tantrums and general weird behavior??? Pete’s an NFL coach and his players are grown men. Their decisions are their decisions. Are you implying he’s encouraging his players to take PED’s? If so, just how would an NFL coach go about that exactly? Also, Harbaugh seems to have made enemies by more than one person (Richard Sherman, Shultz, probably more…) but you can only site 1 specific moment where Pete took the low road and confronted Jim with the famous “What’s your deal”. Just this last weekend, while SF clearly had the game in hand and just needed to punt and run out the clock…Jim goes for the fake punt? Come on! At least try to weigh things with some sort of objectivity.

  • visionary_23

    “Are you implying he’s encouraging his players to take PED’s?”


    “If so, just how would an NFL coach go about that exactly?”

    By not strictly enforcing clubhouse rules against that sort of thing, and by not enacting self-policing punitive punishment when it does happen. Sort of like the Reggie Bush affair. If you’re pretty sure the coach wouldn’t mind you cheating, it makes it a lot easier to cheat. I fail to see the difficulty in understanding that.

    “you weigh it on the same scale as Harbaugh’s actual/factual tantrums and general weird behavior???”

    I agree. Carroll’s lack of team discipline are actual violations. Harbaugh’s are “tantrums” and “weird behavior” within the rules. There is no comparison.

  • s murphy

    The coach sets the tone for the team….Carrol obviously “overlooks” PED infractions…the Reggie Bush comparison is apt….he’s a cheat

  • Samtheman

    Drug policy is handled by the league (is it not?). Testing is done by the league. How exactly would you “enforce that in the clubhouse”? Are you implying guys in the locker room are juicing in plain view? Or, are you saying Pete should make more of an effort to express his views on PED’s and proclaim the gospel of playing clean? If so, can I re-direct you to Aldon Smith’s escapades this year…and him being back on the team despite some pretty deplorable behavior? Should Jim take a stand against that? Should we hold Joe Girardi responsible and slander his name over what ARod chooses to do?

    Pete’s “tacit” acceptance…are you saying that’s against the rules? Has Pete been punished? Is he violating any rules, has he been accused of anything? If not, you’re argument is garbage…as you are trying to imply a moral obligation and you don’t want to go that route…NFL coaches are NOT college coaches. NFL players are grown men, we don’t hold coaches responsible for their behavior, unless the accusation is the coach explicitly endorsed/encouraged said behavior.

  • Samtheman

    And another thing…never a good sign when a former college player rants against a former college coach (Sherman). It’s natural in NFL, can’t say I’ve heard another story like this regarding a college player (that didn’t quit the team), and his college coach. Classic!

    As a Cardinal…which one do you stand by…Sherman or Harbaugh? Pick one!

  • Samtheman

    It’s not Carrol’s job to enforce PED’s…it’s a league issue. No more than it’s Harbaugh’s job to punish Aldon Smith for his off-field behavior (and allowing him back on the team). No one blames Harbaugh for that, as no one should. The NFL is grown men! Only time an NFL coach is held responsible is when something negative has directly come from the coach or his staff (Bill Belechik and the whole “SpyGate” thing.

    Be careful with this whole moral imperative thing…not sure you’ll want to stand by it when a 49er has a similar infraction…or God forbid…something worse than PED’s (gunshots at a player’s house, DUI, etc…).

  • visionary_23

    “Should we hold Joe Girardi responsible and slander his name over what ARod chooses to do?”

    If ARod, Jeter, Cano, and another guy were guilty of using PED’s during the time he was manager, and he has a history of presiding over guys who have rules violations in the minor leagues, then, um, yea.

    “Is he violating any rules, has he been accused of anything? If not, you’re argument is garbage…as you are trying to imply a moral obligation and you don’t want to go that route…NFL coaches are NOT college coaches. NFL players are grown men, we don’t hold coaches responsible for the players’ behavior, unless the accusation is the coach explicitly endorsed/encouraged said behavior. If you have proof/allegations of that…link please!”

    Sort of hilarious that your threshold for thinking lowly of Pete Carroll requires “proof/allegations” and “links” as though it were a court of law, but accusations of “weird behavior” is enough for you to side against Harbaugh. Methinks someone has a bias…

  • Samtheman

    Wow! If there was an award for fallacies and red herrings…you’d win it! Pete was never accused of anything while at SC. The charges from the NCAA were related to the school “should have known” what Reggie was getting on the side. That’s it!


    You never responded to my points regarding Aldon Smith…have you read his rap sheet (gunshots fired at his house {allegedly by him}, stab wounds from a party at his house, multiple DUI’s, possession of marijuana, felony possession of illegal assault weapons)???

    Should we hold Harbaugh accountable for that behavior? Or how about just for shopping at Walmart? Come on guy! You make enough money to not shop at an evil corporation with no morals/ethics. That’s just weak! Show some solidarity with your fellow man.

  • visionary_23

    Again, there’s the fact that violations apparently occur to teams with Carroll at the head of them. You think that’s coincidence. I think it’s a pattern. I’m willing to bet most people agree with me. Yet you’re willing to castigate Harbaugh for amorphous “weird behavior”. It’s like saying the guy who’s the CEO of multiple companies that wind up convicted of fraudulent activity over and over again is better than the CEO who has no such violations but makes spirited and borderline mean speeches. It’s absurd logic.

    As an aside, there’s a difference between the activities that you mentioned, and your teams being guilty of violations that affect the spirit of the game. For instance, Aldon Smith getting a DUI does not merit a competitive advantage when he plays football. Having 3 of your 4 members of your secondary (which is arguably the lynch pin of your number 1 defense) be on performance enhancing drugs does.

    And for the record, Pete Carroll ALSO allows star players to play with pending DUI cases and previous gun charges (see Marshawn Lynch and his DUI cases and misdemeanor gun charges). So even if you want to go there, they’re even (heck, Aldon Smith actually WAS suspended by Harbaugh — Lynch, surprise surprise, was not by Carroll).


  • Samtheman

    Please enlighten me when SC was accused/convicted of “recruiting violations”? You’re starting to show your ignorance of the case against SC and Reggie Bush…had absolutely nothing to do with recruiting. The violation gave no advantage to SC, in fact, it hurt SC, as the guy giving Reggie’s family money was trying to lure Reggie into the pros and forego another season at SC. Never has it been proven SC has anything to do with it, or could have known it was happening. The only case the NCAA had against SC had to do with a photo/phone call between the agent and an Asst. Coach (Todd McNair). As it happens, this case has turned legal and is pending. The NCAA refuses to disclose the phone call and other emails (meaning: there was never a strong case to punish SC like they did). I can educate you some more???

    As for the PED’s at Seattle, it was all about Adderall…not steroids or anything else nefarious. Only 2 players were convicted (Sherman got off). I agree they should not have done it. As silly as it is to think Adderall can make much of a difference (similar to ephedra back in the day), they did the crime knowingly. Don’t think Pete has anymore control over that than if a Niner wants to take it.

    If memory serves…SC beat Stanford this year right? Unless you want to go to the past…then it becomes how far in the past (overall record vs. SC?) Or selectively pick the optimal time range?

    What’s your take on Sherman vs. Harbaugh? Funny.