On Sunday, when the Seattle Seahawks host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, fans of both teams can thank the Pac-12 for providing them their respective head coaches. Likewise, the NFL has the Pac-12 to thank for fostering one of its more heated rivalries.
San Francisco vs. Seattle has developed into a heated series, this season going to a new level both on the field and between the fanbases. For head coaches Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, this isn't uncharted territory.
Stanford vs. USC, once an afterthought on the annual Pac-12 docket, became one of the more intense rivalries in 2007, Harbaugh's first season in the conference.
That year, the 41-point underdog Cardinal snapped the Trojans’ six-year, 35-game unbeaten streak at the Coliseum, in the process launching what has grown into a struggle for Pac-12 supremacy.
Richard Sherman played a critical role in Stanford's 24-23 upset of the top-ranked Trojans that October, catching a pass to convert a first down from former quarterback—and now Cardinal quarterbacks coach—Tavita Pritchard on 4th-and-20.
"Coach [Harbaugh] called a play, and I couldn't really hear him because that place gets really loud, so I called my own play...I got the coverage I wanted, and found [Sherman]," Pritchard said in the press conference following the landmark win, via GoStanford.com.
Sherman now plays a role of opposites: the opposite side of the ball, solidifying himself as one of the premier cornerbacks in the NFL; for the opposite head coach as a member of Carroll’s Seahawks; and on Sunday, he’ll be in the opposite situation, playing for the favorite with a noisy crowd in support of his team.
Sherman also knows what it's like to be on the opposite end of an awkward postgame exchange with Harbaugh, much like Carroll was in 2009. Carroll's encounter with Harbaugh following a 55-21 Stanford rout of USC became a seminal moment in their relationship.
Harbaugh and Carroll have both downplayed that moment, as well as the supposed animus between them in the years since. Still, their similarly competitive personalities are responsible for two of the most heated rivalries on the West Coast.
Former UCLA head coach and current Pac-12 Network analyst Rick Neuheisel described Carroll and Harbaugh to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Tim Kawakami as "kind of like the guy with the battery on their shoulder, 'Go ahead knock that off.'"
Neuheisel's reference to a late 1970s commercial featuring actor Robert Conrad fits the contentious nature both Carroll and Harbaugh have displayed for years now, well before either was in the NFC West.
And that same kind of intensity remains embedded in the Pac-12 programs they left. Stanford and USC combined for 21 wins in 2013. Each was ranked in the Top 20 of the final Associated Press Poll. And both made their mark with hard-nosed defenses that finished the campaign among the nation's 16 best in points allowed.
Stanford's blowout win in November 2009, date of the infamous "what's your deal" exchange, was the last time any game in the Stanford-USC series was decided by double digits. The Cardinal won decisions of 37-35 in 2010, 56-48 in overtime in 2011 and 21-14 in 2012. The Trojans exacted a measure of revenge with November's 20-17 victory.
If Sunday's playoff matchup can match that competitiveness, NFL fans are in for a memorable game—and Carroll and Harbaugh are in for another remarkable chapter in their shared legacy.
Though their rivalry has moved to the NFL, the flames will continue to burn in the Pac-12 for the foreseeable future—former Harbaugh assistant David Shaw and former Carroll assistant Steve Sarkisian had their own heated exchange through the media this past October.
Shaw leads Stanford against Sarkisian's USC team on Sept. 6 in the 2014 Pac-12 opener.