SEATTLE -- As new San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said this week, "He said, 'What's your deal?' I said, 'What's your deal?' And then from there, it's about as well-documented a six word sentence as there could be."
Harbaugh was talking about an exchange he had with then-USC head coach Pete Carroll in November of 2009, when Harbaugh was Stanford's main man and the Cardinals went for a two-point conversion in the process of beating the daylights out of the Trojans, 55-21. After the game, Carroll wasn't too pleased about Harbaugh's seeming need to pin the needle long after the game was decided.
On Wednesday, Harbaugh tried to put the incident behind him, as much as he knew it would come up — after all, the 49ers' season opener against the Seattle Seahawks at Candlestick Park will be the first time the two coaches had faced off since then. Carroll left USC after the 2009 season on the heels of violations that would seriously affect the program, while Harbaugh used his experience as an NFL quarterback and the development of quarterback Andrew Luck to become a highly sought NFL coaching candidate. He accepted the 49ers' job offer in January of 2011, and as far as he was concerned, that put the 'What's your deal?' story in a box.
"I just find it very irrelevant and not very intriguing. It had little to do with the game then and it has very little to do with the game now. I think the game is what the relevant thing is and probably what we should be spending our time talking about."
The last time the two coaches did talk, it was at the NFL owners meetings in March, and Harbaugh was picking up a few tips on how to manage the college-to-pro transition as a coach.
"I have great respect for Coach and what he's trying to do there in Seattle -- everything he's done in the profession and what he's meant for the game and for football. That's how I would describe it. I like him. I like being around him. We don't socialize. You wouldn't call us friends or anything like that. I've got to say that really, the only friend I have in the NFL is my brother [John Harbaugh] who's on an opposing team [head coach of the Baltimore Ravens]. We're trying to beat those guys, you know. It's that. I like him and I respect him."
On to current events, where Harbaugh is trying to redefine a 49ers team that hasn't put together a winning season since 2002, when Steve Mariucci had Harbaugh's current job, and Jeff Garcia was taking snaps under center. That seems like a lifetime ago — a decade in pro football bring an approximate professional lifetime for most people — but Harbaugh isn't intimidated by the challenge.
Right now, he's trying to figure out if he can make quarterback Alex Smith into a legitimate NFL starter. Smith was the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, and his relative failures to date show up in sharper relief every time it's brought up that San Francisco passed over a Bay Area kid by the name of Aaron Rodgers to select him instead.
"Throughout the training camp since we've been together, [he has a] great attention to detail, takes a lot of pride in his own personal performance and the offense's performance and the team's performance," Harbaugh said of Smith, who he convinced to come back to the team for one more year to see if it could work out. "Great leader, great team guy. I think he's getting more and more comfortable and confident in what we're doing and what he's doing."
Smith, who's had a different offensive coordinator every year he's been in the NFL, said on Wednesday that working with Harbaugh is an entirely different experience because the experience gap has closed. If Smith has a question about the position, his new coach played it for 15 seasons, has his name in the Indianapolis Colts' Ring of Honor, and was the last starter to take a snap for the Colts before Peyton Manning was drafted in 1998.
"There's an understanding there of what it's like," Smith said. "Dropping back, there are expectations, the language we're speaking — things like that, no question."
For the Seahawks, the challenge has been getting a bead on the 49ers team they'll be facing Sunday afternoon. New quarterback Tarvaris Jackson has been alternating between preseason tape and Stanford games in 2010, when Harbaugh and new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio set the tone schematically. Carroll echoed Harbaugh's sentiment that any bad blood in the past is best left where it belongs.
"Yeah, I think for both of us," Carroll said when asked if the matchups between USC and Stanford inform anything now between the Seahawks and 49ers. "We've both gone against each other before. He did a fantastic job there. I've got a great respect for the job that they did at Stanford. I think we have a feel for the style, where maybe other coaches that haven't gone against him might not. So there's some, but you hope to have some [intel] when you're going into games. We have a little bit, and they have a little bit as well."
These days, 'the deal' is just about getting that first 2011 regular-season win for two teams in transition. That's where Carroll and Harbaugh now have common ground.