Seahawks coach Pete Carroll faces the New England Patriots, the team that fired him in 2000, Sunday. He says he became a different coach before his epic success at USC and his return to the NFL in Seattle.
The last time Pete Carroll was fired, he went to Disney World.
That’s not entirely surprising given Carroll’s extreme optimism, which allows him not only to see the cup as half full but to believe it’s going to be served alongside a hot fudge sundae. So when the New England Patriots fired Carroll in January 2000 after three seasons, the coach took his family to Orlando for a visit to the happiest place on earth.
“That’s always kind of been my mode when something like that occurs,” Carroll said. “So we packed up and went south.”
It’s funny now that he has rebuilt his coaching career, first with unprecedented success at USC and now in a return to the NFL with the Seahawks. It’s a moment that is quintessentially Carroll, capturing his resiliency. But back then, there was no guarantee he would resurface after the Patriots fired him, the second time in five years he had been dismissed as an NFL head coach. It wasn’t a vacation that brought him back, but months of introspection and a wholesale overhaul of his coaching approach.
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On Sunday, he will face his former employer for the first time, but if you think there’s a desire for revenge swirling somewhere in there, then you’re missing the point. Carroll’s comeback to the NFL wasn’t about showing anyone they were wrong about him as much as it was about demonstrating how he had changed.
It’s a mindset, more than anything else, according to Carroll. An approach to competition in general and football specifically that he believes brings out the best in his players and this team. He’s detailed it in a book titled “Win Forever,” laid it out on a website. If there are times he sounds like a self-help guru, that doesn’t mean he believes it any less.
Seattle is 3-2, attempting to resurface after four consecutive losing seasons. But this isn’t about vindication so much as validation of the changes he has made.
“Everything that now is the philosophy, the approach, the mentality, the language, everything came out of that experience,” Carroll said. “It is classically one of those deals where you get kicked in the tail and come back better. I hate to learn the hard way. I like the other guys to learn the hard way. It did give me an opportunity to put something in motion that I’m really, really proud of.”
Hazards of the job
Hired to be fired.
It’s a description coaches use to emphasize the reality that their jobs have a shelf life. And the details of Carroll’s departure from New England were pretty standard as far as coaching dismissals go. He had been hired to replace Bill Parcells in 1997, inheriting a team that had gone 12-4 and reached the Super Bowl. The Patriots won 10 games in Carroll’s first year, nine the second and he was fired after finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs his third year.
“At the time, we had a lot of immature players,” said Willie McGinest, a player from that team who is now an NFL Network analyst. “Some of the players that we had just didn’t buy into the system … We just couldn’t put it all together.”
There was a culture clash, too. Carroll’s West Coast persona was a little too laid back when contrasted to the old-salt approach of not only Parcells, but the man who succeeded Carroll with the Patriots, Bill Belichick.
Belichick was a second-chance hire, as well, let go by Cleveland as the Browns left town in 1995 after going 36-44 in five seasons. He made the playoffs once, and was known as Garbage Bag Bill for his penchant for wearing a rain poncho on the sidelines.
Since replacing Carroll in New England, Belichick has appeared in five Super Bowls and won three of them, the most sustained success of any franchise since the salary-cap era started in 1994.
Did Belichick reinvent himself after that firing?
“Um, no,” he said in a telephone interview this week.
That’s a football coach’s answer, defying introspection, and making the unspoken assertion that it was as much the situation as the coaching that was responsible for earlier struggles.
Compare that to Carroll, who was asked the same question about the similar success he found at USC after a firing. Did he reinvent himself as a coach?
“There’s no question,” Carroll said.
This wasn’t about the X’s and O’s, but how he related to Jimmy and Joe.
That process started the year he took off from coaching. He read John Wooden’s book, “Pyramid of Success,” and realized the man went from a good basketball coach at UCLA to a great one. Carroll was struck by the thought that once you figured out how to win, you never had to stop. And if there’s a little hubris with Carroll’s reference to Wooden, there’s also something to be said for Carroll’s willingness to point to his improvement as the reason for subsequent success.
“Getting spanked, and getting knocked out of there was a great chance for me to regroup,” Carroll said. “And I really found the approach and the language, the specifics, because of the necessity and the competitive opportunity.
“I needed to get my act together or I was never going to get another chance.”
When Carroll finally did get another chance, it was fundamentally different from his two previous opportunities as an NFL head coach, first with the Jets in 1994 and later with the Patriots.
Carroll had control issues.
Namely, he didn’t have it in New England, where the personnel decisions were made by Bobby Grier. The disconnect between coach and general manager was most clearly illustrated by one fact: in what turned out to be Carroll’s final game, he started only three of the 27 players the team drafted in his three years as coach.
“What I learned from that situation is to be a really successful head coach you need to have control,” Carroll said.
He wasn’t going to get another head coach’s job in the NFL after being let go in New England, let alone be given enough juice to have autonomy in terms of personnel. So he took a year off, and wound up at USC, where he became the poobah of all things pigskin.
“At USC — because of the autonomy — I got to do everything,” Carroll said. “General manager, coach, the whole thing.”
The result was one of the most successful runs a college coach has ever had. And while hindsight has convinced many people Carroll skipped town one step ahead of the NCAA hitting the Trojans with probation, Carroll has always insisted that it was the opportunity Seattle presented — and not the fear of sanctions — that prompted his departure.
“I never thought I’d ever leave there,” Carroll said. “Because I never thought I’d get an opportunity that was like that, and I wasn’t leaving unless I did.”
He found it in Seattle, where Paul Allen, the NFL’s richest owner, decided it was time to press the reset button, declining to renew Tim Ruskell’s contract as president and firing coach Jim Mora after one season. Carroll was hired first, then got to help select the team’s general manager. That’s the opposite of how it usually works.
Now Carroll’s job in Seattle will define how he’s remembered.
Was the epically successful college coach better equipped to coach amateurs? Or was this a coach who was good enough to get an NFL gig back in ’90s, but found the key to greatness during the 10 years that followed his dismissal from New England?
The result of Sunday’s game won’t answer that question. Only the result of his Seahawks’ tenure will.
“I’m hoping — when we look back here — that we’ll see the benefit of all of that time can be seen in our program here,” Carroll said. “The philosophy, the approach, the dedication to what we believe in. Our mode and our language and everything about this thing, was successful there, was successful here and I will have felt like it meant something.”
Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @dannyoneil.