At one point, for a few minutes, there was just one other person at the table with Harbaugh. The 49ers coach was smiling and cracking jokes. It was the loose Harbaugh. It was all fun and games until he was asked about Pete Carroll.
Why do you two hate each other?
"Aha...hatred," he said, laughing. "That's such a strong word."
Is it an accurate word?
The hatred seems genuine, he was told.
Harbaugh chuckled again, "You keep using that word."
That's how the brief chat went. I asked, he dodged. Carroll has tried to say there is no hatred, and that the two men are actually friendly. Not friends, but friendly. That simply isn't the case.
It is a publicly unspoken hatred that is expressed in unnecessary two-point tries, in offhand remarks and in divisional chess moves that send tremors across the entire NFC West. It is expressed with curtness and cold handshakes. It drips with testosterone and pride. It is a hatred that has filtered down to fathers and sons, wives and teammates.
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, who played for Harbaugh at Stanford, has called Harbaugh a bully. In a Sports Illustrated story, Sherman's father was quoted as saying Seahawks players had a passionate hatred for Harbaugh. Corner Brandon Browner has explained he wanted to "put his hands around Harbaugh's neck."
Harbaugh's wife, Sarah, once said during a television interview, "I really don't like Seattle."
This week, San Francisco running back Anthony Dixon continued things when he tweeted a sexist yet unmistakable shot at Seattle. "Extra weight on the racks all week getting less sleep preparing for these She-Hawks," he wrote. "I love hostile environments Imma feel right at home."
He deleted the tweet Thursday, but not before plenty of people saw it: the She-Hawks.
Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright tweeted in response: "lol the she hawks!! I'll be sure relay the message to the fellas. Its gone be a long night for you and the forty whiners." Wright also later deleted his tweet.
Some of the idiocy aside, this dislike is outstanding. This is great. This is what makes football fun and this rivalry so imminently enjoyable.
The hatred is pure and raw, like fusion, and it will be on display again this week when the 49ers and Seahawks play in a game that has Super Bowl ramifications. This rivalry has eclipsed all others in the NFL, and it could be argued that 49ers-Seahawks is now the greatest rivalry in all of sports because of the genuineness of the dislike and the physicality of the games.
In some ways, the hatred is so captivating that it leaks out of the sports world. It's better than any reality TV show—better than Red Sox-Yankees, Kanye versus the paparazzi or people singing for a record contract.
When Harbaugh was asked one last time about Carroll while sitting at that table, he smiled some more. "Can we change the subject?" he said.
At that point, he was no longer laughing.
The hatred between Harbaugh and Carroll goes back to a singular moment in time. It was Saturday, Nov. 14, 2009.
Harbaugh was coaching Stanford, which had a solid tradition but was no match for the historical prowess of USC, then coached by Carroll. Harbaugh, as he is wont to do when he gets the opportunity, took the chance to shove his opponents' faces in the dirt. That day, Harbaugh went for a two-point conversion after Stanford's seventh score. Harbaugh beat Carroll 55-21. He'd go 2-1 against Carroll's Trojans.
It was a stunning statement by Stanford, a team that had Andrew Luck and Toby Gerhart, who combined for six touchdowns.
After the game, there was a highly tense moment resulting in the now-famous "what's your deal?" exchange.
And with those words, the best rivalry in the NFL would be forged.
Harbaugh is extremely intelligent and talented, but he can also be a pretentious ass. In the NFL, he would get into altercations with other coaches, including a postgame beef with Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz.
That moment with Carroll, however, would last longer. The amazing thing is that the tension hasn't eased, and that hatred has almost fuel-injected the rivalry between Seattle and San Francisco. The teams were destined to dislike one another—they're two big boys on the block—but the fact that the two leaders dislike one another has only intensified things.
And the barbs are continually launched, mostly by Harbaugh. When a number of Seahawks players were suspended for Adderall use, Harbaugh fired another photon torpedo, telling the Associated Press:
It has no place in an athlete’s body. Play by the rules. You want to be above reproach, especially when you’re good, because you don’t want people to come back and say, ‘They’re winning because they’re cheating.’ That’s always going to be a knee-jerk reaction in my experience, since I was a little kid. 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. And Bo Schembechler is about next to the Word of God. It’s not the Word of God, but it’s close.
Carroll responded partly, "I don't know about commenting about anybody else's team..."
The best part of all of this is none of it is fake, on or off the field. It's carried over into each team's personnel moves and strategies, which are designed almost specifically to counter one another. The best example was that after the Seahawks traded for Percy Harvin, the 49ers traded for Anquan Boldin—the same day.
This rivalry will always exist, but its pure luminescence will only last as long as Harbaugh and Carroll are the coaches. Some personnel men in the NFL believe Harbaugh will either burn out or burn his team out, but there's been no indication thus far that either of those things are happening. In fact, just the opposite.
Harbaugh has gotten the entire locker room to believe that the Seahawks are the enemy. They don't think this about the Cardinals or the Giants. Carroll has gotten his entire locker room to believe San Francisco is the enemy. This has served both of them well.
That day at the table, Harbaugh talked about how teams in the division were "public enemies numbers one, two and three."
We know who No. 1 is, and there really is no one else after that.