Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was doing a great job Tuesday, saying nice things about Stanford and coach Jim Harbaugh. He called Harbaugh "a very good football coach" and "passionate."
But then he made a joke.
"I don't think he's the best Harbaugh," Kelly quipped. "I think Jack is the best Harbaugh of the Harbaugh coaches. There's no question. Jack is a good friend of mine."
Jim Harbaugh probably would agree that his dad -- a highly respected coach -- is the best Harbaugh. But Jim Harbaugh also is a man who feeds voraciously on motivation, and part of that is zeroing in on the smallest of slights. Anything to feed the fire. Anything to add an iota of oomph to his and his team's preparation for and execution on game day.
So, in short, Harbaugh probably is thinking, "Oh, yeah? We'll see who the best Harbaugh is on Saturday when my team plays your team, Brian!"
Does that sound like a whimsical exaggeration?
Well, consider this: Harbaugh went for a 2-point conversion with six minutes left while up 48-21 at USC last year. After the game, Pete Carroll famously asked Harbaugh, "What's your deal?" To which Harbaugh replied, "What's your deal?" thereby creating an innovative catch-phrase for Stanford's season-ticket campaign this year.
Or what about this: Last weekend, Wake Forest lined up for a field goal with 10 seconds left before halftime. The Demon Deacons trailed 41-7. Harbaugh called time out in order to ice the kicker.
Or this: With 5:25 remaining in the fourth, and Stanford up by 44 points on the overwhelmed Demon Deacons, Harbaugh challenged an incomplete pass hoping it would be ruled a fumble.
When asked this week if he has created a "ruthless," "merciless" team, Harbaugh laughed -- or was it a cackle? -- and called those "big words."
"They take great pride in being strong and being a tough football team," he allowed.
Harbaugh is an interesting cat. When he likes a question -- such as an inquiry about fullback Owen Marecic or quarterback Andrew Luck -- he can be extremely colorful. When he doesn't -- such as when he's asked about injury information -- he can be bland or even snappy.
What's clear, however, is he's got No. 16 Stanford playing at an extremely high level. The Cardinal outscored UCLA and Wake Forest 103 to 24 on consecutive weekends.
Stanford center Chase Beeler is the quintessential Stanford player. He's a former National Merit Semifinalist who is majoring in history and peppers his speech with words bigger than "ruthless." And he's pretty much a badass. He's a three-year starter who earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors in 2009 and he owns a reputation for finishing his blocks with a, er, certain bit of crispness.
Beeler admits there is a philosophical basis to Harbaugh's football culture at Stanford.
"One of our mottos is, 'We're going to win with character but we're also going to win with cruelty,'" he said.
That motto isn't likely headed to a Hallmark card anytime soon, but here's a guess a couple of high school football coaches just got a new phrase to try out Friday night.
Tough and physical is one thing. Those qualities can make a team competitive. But to win the Pac-10, you've got to have elite playmakers. That's where Luck comes in. He's thrown 10 touchdown passes thus far and no interceptions. At his present trajectory, he's one or two big performances away from becoming a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.
"I think he had a 50-something yard run for a touchdown [52 yards, actually], so his ability, his escapability, I didn't know what it was. I now know what it is," Kelly said. "The guy is extremely athletic, as well, and he can run. So he brings a big dimension to the table and not just throwing the football."
Luck and his offense, which ranks third in the nation with an average of 51.7 points per game, are probably eager to face a Notre Dame defense that is struggling, ranking 102nd in total defense. The Fighting Irish offense, however, will provide a good test for the Cardinal's apparently rejuvenated defense. Junior quarterback Dayne Crist, who is buddies with Luck, leads an attack that averaged 451 yards per game, including 318 yards through the air.
Stanford's big question entering the season was pass defense. It presently leads the nation, surrendering just 80 yards through the air. But a game at Notre Dame will be a far bigger challenge than home games vs. Sacramento State, UCLA and Wake Forest, an FCS team and two others that don't throw the ball well.
If Stanford takes care of business decisively as most expect it to, then it will head to Oregon on Oct. 2 for a game that could resonate nationally as well as in the Pac-10. But first things first. Overlooking Notre Dame would be a mistake.
"Every week we're in a fight for our lives," Harbaugh said.
And Harbaugh and his Cardinal plan to fight with character and cruelty.