Pete Carroll grew up in idyllic Marin County, Calif., during the turbulent 1960s, shaping the Seahawks coach we know today. His buddies recall a charismatic kid with a competitive streak.
GREENBRAE, Calif. — If you want to know Pete Carroll, and how he came to be the irrepressible coach, maybe it’s best to start at Greenbrae School.
That’s what I did during Super Bowl week in the Bay Area, driving over the Golden Gate Bridge into the lush environs of Marin County and arriving at the small, unincorporated community of Greenbrae, nestled within the town of Larkspur.
This is Carroll’s turf, and these are Carroll’s people, a small group of childhood friends with whom he spent his formative years — joyful ones, by all accounts — and remains extremely close.
Growing up Pete
Full name: Peter Clay Carroll
Born: Sept. 15, 1951 in San Francisco (age 64)
High school: Redwood (Larkspur, Calif.)
College: College of Marin (junior college in Kentfield, Calif.) and University of Pacific (Stockton, Calif.).
Family: Son of Jim and Rita Carroll. Irish on his father’s side, and Croatian on his mother’s.
Prep football: Played quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back, earning school’s Athlete of the Year as a senior in 1968-69 … Inducted into Redwood’s first hall of fame class in 2009.
College football: Played two years at Marin, lettering as a sophomore. At Pacific, twice earned all-league honors as a safety. Inducted into the Pacific Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995.
Degrees: Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in 1973. Secondary teaching degree and Masters in Physical Education in 1976, both from Pacific.
After graduation: Was cut after trying out for the Honolulu Hawaiians of the World Football League in 1973 … His only non-football job was selling roofing materials in the Bay Area. … Soon after, he became a graduate assistant coach at Pacific in ‘74.
Did you know: Weighed 110 pounds in the fall of his ninth-grade year and needed doctor’s permission to try out for football.
“The best thing I can say about Pete, he’s a really loyal friend,’’ said John Boro, whom Carroll likes to introduce as his “oldest friend” — he was 8 when they met. “We were doing stuff at the schoolyard, playing football, drawing up plays in the dirt, that he’s doing now in real life.”
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Boro is my tour guide for this instructive retrospective into Carroll’s roots. After driving by Carroll’s childhood home — a well-appointed rambler that became the informal gathering place for not only Carroll and his friends, but also his older brother, Jim — we head over to Greenbrae School, mere blocks away.
The school is gone now, but a park remains on the site of year-round athletic battles that honed Carroll’s “always compete” sensibility.
“A lot of people say he’s still got that kid in him,’’ Jim Peters, another boyhood friend of Carroll, told me by phone.
Boro pointed to the hills that the group of boys used to skateboard or “sled” down on broken-down cardboard boxes from the grocery store. Over there, he said, were the 8-foot basketball hoops where they’d pretend they were Gus Johnson or Rick Barry.
And that, he said with a gesture, is where they played a made-up baseball game called “double-or-nothing,” a four-person competition in which the object was for the outfielder to gun down the base-runner at second base.
“I think that’s one of the reasons Pete can still throw so well,’’ Boro said. “All of us guys in the neighborhood always had good arms from throwing from left field.”
These were simpler times, a “Leave it to Beaver” lifestyle — at least until the roiling social issues of the 1960s, like the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, hit hard when Carroll reached Redwood High School in Larkspur.
“Right here, under that light, we had Whiffle ball games every night of the summer,’’ Boro said. “We’d ride our bikes here, play all day, go home and eat dinner, and come back.”
Carroll was born in San Francisco in 1951 but the family moved to Marin County when he was young. In his book, “Win Forever”, Carroll describes his father, Jim, a liquor wholesaler, as “extraordinarily competitive” and his mom, Rita, as “about as open and giving as someone could be.” Both have passed away.
The Carroll home was characterized by one friend in a 2003 San Francisco Chronicle article as “a tiny form of Disneyland. Everyone was happy — genuinely — and nobody was allowed to be unhappy.”
Other articles referred to the Greenbrae neighborhood as “mecca,” and Pete’s brother Jim called theirs, in a Los Angeles Times article, “a dream childhood.”
Pete and Jim’s buddies congregated at the Carroll home to watch and play sports, drawn perhaps by the backyard pool but also the welcoming nature of Carroll’s parents. They’d all watch football games and then at halftime head to the lawn to play their own game of touch football, the older boys on their knees to offset the height and weight advantage.
“Their door was always open,’’ Peters said. “Pete’s mom, she always had Oscar Mayer hot dogs boiling in water. If someone showed up, she’d just throw another hot dog in.”
Dave Perron, another close Carroll friend, called Rita Carroll “kind of Pete’s lifeblood. His heart and soul was his mom. She had an attraction to her that everyone liked to be around her. She was an honest, irreverent type of woman, and she treated her boys like princes.”
But Peters said not to underestimate the influence of Carroll’s dad, who supervised about 50 people in his business and passed on “skills for organization, running a team, getting along with people. Rita was an unbelievable woman, but his dad was as competitive as they came. Pete’s compete thing came from his dad in a big way, too.”
No one knew it at the time, but Carroll’s coaching persona was being formulated. It was aided by men he revered, led by Bob Troppman, the head football coach at Redwood High School. Working at and attending Troppman’s “Diamond B” football camp in Boonville, Mendocino County, was a formative experience for Carroll. When he reached the highest levels of coaching at USC and in the NFL, a weekly Carroll ritual was to call Troppman just before kickoff to pay his respects and get Troppman’s decision on whether to call heads or tails. He died in 2012 at age 89.
Carroll was the guy who always ran around getting teammates fired up, recalled Henry Diaz, another member of Carroll’s inner circle of friends.
“He loved sports, and he loved to compete,’’ Diaz said. “It all connects. We’re all going to turn 65 this year, and as you get older you look back at the people you grew up with and at yourself and think about how all this happened. With Pete, it just seemed natural. He was very competitive, but always in a very positive way.”
Diaz remembers when they were on varsity together at Redwood. Carroll, an undersized but versatile player — he played halfback, receiver, defensive back and a touch of quarterback — was determined to win the annual scrimmage between his junior class against the seniors at the end of fall practice.
“Pete called a bunch of us to come over to his house and said, ‘OK, we’re going to win this game, and this is how we’re going to do it.’ He drew up some plays and things,’’ Diaz said. “I can’t remember the outcome, but that was the first time he really, in my mind, went that next step to be a leader.”
As we drive around, it’s easy, in my mind’s eye, to strip away all the development that’s taken place in the ensuing four-plus decades, as well as the mind-numbing traffic congestion, and envision the family-centric community that Boro termed “idyllic.”
You could climb Mount Tamalpais, hang out at Stinson Beach, or sneak off to ski at Tahoe. Boro points out the redwood-lined street that Janis Joplin lived on.
“The Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane — all those guys used to live right up there,’’ he said with a gesture.
And it’s easy to see Carroll cruising around in the red Valiant convertible that was his signature — push-button transmission, blaring the Motown music Carroll thrived on. James Brown was his favorite, the radio invariably tuned to KDIA Lucky 13, the soul station out of Oakland, when he wasn’t listening to Russ Hodges call the games of Carroll’s beloved Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants.
“The top was always down,’’ Boro said. “Pete had a habit of stashing stuff in the back seat. There was a lot of stuff back there.”
One famous story involves Carroll crouching down in the passenger seat, using his left hand to steer and his left foot to manipulate the accelerator. Then he’d drive slowly down the street and honk and wave at people, to whom it appeared the car was driverless.
“Who else but Pete?’’ chuckled Boro.
Boro drove me to Redwood High School, where the football field has artificial turf now, but doesn’t look all that different, he said, than it did back then. Some kids used to call the school “San Quentin West,’’ said classmate Bruce Magowan, because of the similarity (in their minds) to the famed prison on the other side of Highway 101.
Oddly, Carroll doesn’t remember high school with particular fondness. A three-sport star in youth ball, he watched others get their growth spurt before him and pass him by athletically. When Carroll turned out for freshman football at 5 feet 4, 110 pounds, he didn’t reach the minimum 125-pound weight requirement and had to get a doctor’s note to be allowed to play.
“I didn’t like high school,’’ Carroll told Esquire in 2009. “I was always pissed because I wasn’t who I wanted to be — the person I knew myself to be just wasn’t happening. At one time I was the best. And then in high school … I looked like the mascot in the frickin’ team picture.”
His athletic success would come belatedly at College of Marin and, especially, the University of the Pacific in Stockton, where Carroll became team captain and an all-conference defensive back. But adding to those discomfiting days at Redwood High — where a quiet cross-country runner and drama student named Robin Williams was in Carroll’s class of ’69 — were the turbulent social issues of the day.
The free-speech movement was brewing across the bay at Cal. “Hippies” were everywhere, and the “Summer of Love” was launching in San Francisco. Anti-war protests were rampant, as were civil-rights disputes. The military draft hung over every teenage boy. The idyllic bubble was being burst.
“Politics, and the war in particular, was becoming a divisive thing in high school,’’ recalled Diaz. “The days of crew-cut haircuts and the homecoming queen and all that stuff was starting to be challenged socially in high school … It became a statement to wear your letterman jacket, where before you wore it proudly.”
But Carroll and his buddies remained dedicated to their athletics, and their coaches, as the chaotic ’60s played out.
“That was all in the background of an important time of trying to figure out what the hell to do with our lives,’’ Diaz recalled. “Athletics, in the end, was our good place to go. We could try to beat the other team, and it was free of all that. That was our safe place, and it was really, really helpful.”
Boro’s final stop on my tour was College of Marin, which has dropped football but still maintains the football field where Carroll played. Now it is the site of their beloved “Turkey Bowl,” the Thanksgiving Day football game started by Jim Carroll and his friends and maintained as a tradition to this day.
This past November, in fact, was the 50th anniversary (more or less) of the game originally played at Greenbrae School before moving to various venues. Carroll couldn’t make it — he had a Seahawks game to get ready for — but by special request, he drew up a play for them to run. It closely resembled the fly sweep on which Percy Harvin gained 30 yards against Denver in the Super Bowl.
On Game Day, the gang congregated at College of Marin — they play the width of the field now, not the length, out of deference to age — and Diaz summoned Carroll via Facetime. He greeted each friend individually, and then excitedly watched on his cellphone as they ran his play.
“Pete was here in spirit,’’ Peters said.
A spirit that was honed and polished on the idyllic fields of Greenbrae.