Santa Clara, Calif. — Richard Sherman looked his lively self this week bantering with teammates inside the spacious 49ers locker room.
And why wouldn’t it be a fun moment for the future Hall of Famer one victory away from getting another chance at his second Super Bowl ring?
But the fury of how his journey began bubbles just beneath the surface even a decade after graduating from Stanford — especially when the topic turns to Jim Harbaugh.
The former Cardinal coach who led the 49ers to their last Super Bowl in 2013 always will be the villain in Sherman’s story. A mention of his name always will make his blood boil.
It does not matter that Sherman, 31, is a five-time All-Pro cornerback who has reinvented himself as the leader of San Francisco’s vaunted defense after successfully recovering from an Achilles rupture that ended his decorated career with Seattle.
It does not matter that he is one of the reasons the 49ers are playing host to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in the NFC Championship game. It doesn’t even matter that a third Super Bowl appearance is in Sherman’s line of vision.
“There is nothing to mend,” Sherman said about Harbaugh. “The bridge was burned down, torn down and built another bridge at another place. But the bridge in this particular relationship will never be rebuilt. I don’t think he is interested in it, and I’m not interested in it.”
Since leaving the 49ers after the 2014 season, Harbaugh has led his alma mater, Michigan, to five consecutive bowl games.
Harbaugh has not publicly answered Sherman’s criticism over the years other than to dispute the former Seattle star’s allegation that the coach honked his car’s horn at the Seahawks’ bus after a 49ers home victory.
Sherman, who regularly returns to Stanford to talk with players and coaches, said his college experience helped him become the outspoken, thoughtful — sometimes bombastic — player NFL fans have come to know.
After getting drafted in the fifth round in 2011, Sherman became the loud leader of the “Legion of Boom” defense that led Seattle to two NFC Championships and one Super Bowl victory.
But, recruited to play wide receiver at Stanford, he never planned to become a defender.
“It was more of a force than it was me having a vision and me having the foresight,” he said this week.
Sherman previously has discussed some of what happened between him and Harbaugh, including how the former Stanford coach allegedly blamed him for quitting on the team after Sherman underwent season-ending knee surgery in 2008.
Sherman added this week that Harbaugh — who had taken over for Walt Harris — encouraged him to transfer to another school at the time. But it wasn’t just Harbaugh — the entire new coaching staff had been having trouble adjusting to Sherman’s colorful persona.
“During spring practice he was a diva,” demanding quarterbacks throw him the ball, recalled Ron Lynn, the co-defensive coordinator. Lynn told Sherman “You’re acting like a spoiled brat. I’ve coached really good players who don’t act like that.”
But Sherman couldn’t tamp it down. In 2007, Harbaugh suspended his leading receiver for screaming at teammates on the sideline during a run-centric loss against Washington.
Sherman — who was a two-way star at Dominguez High in Compton — already had been thinking about a switch to defense as one way to distance himself from his former NFL quarterback/current head coach when the transfer suggestion emerged.
But for Sherman, leaving was not an option. It already had taken too much perseverance to get to Stanford after growing up in a gang-infested neighborhood near Los Angeles.
To stay on the football team, Sherman said Harbaugh gave him a contract that included 5:30 a.m. workouts. Sherman also said Harbaugh told him he wouldn’t be part of the Andrew Luck-led offense — which was fine with the big-play receiver who already had made peace with his future.
He had lobbied then-offensive coordinator David Shaw: “Coach, I’ve got a defensive mentality.”
Lynn said defensive coaches put some restrictions on Sherman, who did everything they asked. He started at the bottom of the depth chart behind the walk-on players but quickly moved into a prominent role.
At the time, Sherman also launched a decade-long grudge against Harbaugh.
Having been a receiver, Sherman knew what the offense was going to do by the way it lined up. So, he would yell out the formations and splits during practice to aggravate Harbaugh, Lynn said.
Shaw, who was promoted to head coach in 2011, understood the clash.
“Strong-willed, big-time competitors that have unique opinions don’t always co-exist,” he said. “Our charge here was to find a way to get everybody on the same page. We were able to do that.”
Shaw has nothing but admiration for how Sherman has become a dominant personality in the NFL.
“Richard is not swayed by anything other than what he sets out to achieve,” Shaw said. “A lot of guys push themselves. Richard is going to put everything into it. You don’t get a little bit. You get all of it at all times.”
Shaw said some people are put off by Sherman’s outbursts whereas others are surprised by them.
“If you take the time to get to know him, you realize that drive helps him be successful,” Shaw said. “He’s not always going to say things you want him to say. He’s not always going to do things you want him to do. He’s methodical, he’s systematic and when he believes something he is going to go 100 miles an hour in that direction.”
A decade later, Sherman believes everything that he experienced at Stanford prepared him for NFL stardom. His clashes with Harbaugh also gave Sherman the confidence he could overcome adversity, he said.
“The moment you give up is the moment it is done,” he said.
San Francisco vs. Green Bay
Kickoff: 6:40 Sunday Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
Records: San Francisco 14-3, Green Bay 14-3
Line: 49ers by 7.5