There are two Pete Carrolls, but we usually only hear about one of them. That’s the guy we see chomping gum on the sideline and heaving footballs before games and generally having a blast. That Pete Carroll is 62 going on 30 and was once considered unfit for the NFL. Today he is held up as the antithesis of what is expected from an NFL coach.
“He defies age,” safety Earl Thomas says.
But what about the other Pete Carroll? He’s the one who notices when a player’s foot placement is slightly off at practice, who constructed the blueprint for Seattle’s defense and who will rip a player when needed.
The perception of Carroll through the years has played out like a game of tug of war. Can the coach deemed too laid back for the NFL be the same one whose team is now on the verge of the Super Bowl?
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“With the talk about all the rah-rah stuff, it sort of misses the point of it,” says Spencer Torgan, a walk-on under Carroll at USC. “He’s deadly serious when it comes to football. He just believes it’s OK to have fun doing it. But if you step out of line or cross him, you’re either gone from the program or you might as well be dead to him.”
Everyone has a Pete Carroll story. Receiver Doug Baldwin settles on one in seconds.
Chicago last year. Baldwin’s on the field when he sees Carroll emerge from the locker room. He scoops up some snow, packs it together and fires a snowball at his coach. Nails him. Carroll vows revenge.
New York this year. Carroll comes out of the locker room again, and again Baldwin is ready. Nails him. Carroll grabs some snow and comes back at his third-year receiver.
“He didn’t get me,” Baldwin says. “He missed his opportunity, right?”
“Pete sneaks on the bus with a snowball,” Baldwin continues. “He’s hiding behind somebody and is creeping on the bus and then he hits me in the head.”
Pete Carroll is the kind of guy you can get in a snowball fight with. But he’s also the kind of guy who will drill you in the head.
The Boston media called Carroll “Daddy Pete,” a “substitute teacher” and a “yes man.” The New York press called his first training camp with the Jets the “Good Ship Lollipop” and his team “Team Happy.”
They were shots launched at everything Carroll believed in. They turned his greatest assets into weaknesses. His enthusiasm, the way he interacted with players, the music — all of it convinced people Carroll couldn’t coach in the NFL.
Too soft, too laid back.
Carroll made the playoffs in two of his four years and had only one losing season as coach of the Patriots and Jets. But there were reports that Carroll lost respect in the Patriots locker room. Fans ripped him for not being more like his predecessor, Bill Parcells.
Many wrote Pete Carroll’s NFL obituary.
The funny thing is that Carroll still does many of the same things he did then. The New York Daily News described his pickup basketball games against players and coaches as “not very coachlike.”
“Then again,” the Daily News continued, “neither is a family barbecue in the middle of training camp. Neither is a boss who plays catch with the locker-room attendants during practice. Neither is the guy who prowls the sidelines with the exuberance of High School Harry.”
All are staples of Carroll’s time in Seattle. When Carroll named Russell Wilson his starting quarterback last season, he was shooting three-pointers and asked Wilson if he wanted to play one-on-one before telling him the news.
Carroll says he used his year off in 2000 between the Patriots and USC for self-exploration. The thinking goes that from his exile emerged the coach we see today. But the fact that Carroll is simply a good football coach often falls in the shadows of everything else.
“People like to make things simple and say, ‘He got fired from the NFL, and he’s perfect for college,’ ” says Daryl Gross, Syracuse’s athletic director and an influential person in hiring Carroll at USC before the 2001 season. “ ‘This is where he should have been all along.’ I’d always say, ‘Please don’t say that. Please don’t market that.’ He told me a long time ago, ‘One day, I might go back and win the Super Bowl.’ ”
Mitch Mustain is the quarterback of the USC scout team in 2008. One day at practice, Carroll notices two freshman defensive linemen dogging it. Four-star recruits. Oozing with talent. But they don’t want be on the scout team.
The next day Carroll comes to the team meeting steaming. He rips the freshmen. Tells them they’ll never play if they pull that again.
“He could just as easily let them go,” Mustain says. “But he lit into these guys. He made everybody feel about a foot tall, and I’m sure these guys felt about six inches tall.
“It was Pete Carroll at his deepest. He was probably mad, but he was really hurt. Honestly, I think that meeting turned those two around. It was Jurrell Casey and Armond Armstead and they ended up doing pretty well.”
Casey and Armstead are each on NFL rosters.
Lane Kiffin tried to be Pete Carroll. He implemented many of Carroll’s concepts when he became the Raiders’ coach in 2007. Tell-the-truth Monday. Competition Wednesday. He put heavy emphasis on winning the turnover battle, same as Carroll.
“I was with Lane Kiffin in Oakland, and he tried to do some of that stuff,” tight end Zach Miller says. “But it didn’t feel like it was coming from him. It felt like he was trying to copy Pete’s style. Guys could tell that, and he didn’t have the same enthusiasm that coach Carroll has. He has an infectious personality that makes you just want to play well.
“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had.”
Carroll’s style works for many reasons, but there is only one truth. “We’re winning,” veteran quarterback Tarvaris Jackson says. “That also helps.”
Whether the Seahawks buy in because they’re winning or whether they’re winning because they buy in is a chicken-or-egg question. But that’s not the point. The point is that Carroll is doing it his way, in his voice, with his style. He is doing it the only way he knows how.
“He’s, like legitimately, always positive,” Baldwin says. “It’s kind of weird.”
Throughout his three-year tenure in New England, Patriots fans clamored for him to be something else. Parcells criticized his players in public; Carroll occasionally hugged his players in public. Parcells made demands; Carroll asked for input.
In many ways it was an unfair comparison because it undercut the rest of Carroll, especially his cutthroat competitiveness, but the perception stuck.
Carroll never felt he had the control he needed to succeed, the kind he had at USC. After firing Carroll, Patriots owner Robert Kraft changed course and gave Carroll’s successor, Bill Belichick, total control of the organization. As Kraft explained to The Boston Globe when discussing Carroll in 2010, “Sometimes you meet special people, but it’s just not at the right time of your life.”
Control was a deal-breaker if Carroll was going to return to the NFL, but he didn’t think he’d find a team willing to give it to him. Four or five teams reached out while Carroll was at USC. The Seahawks were the only one to meet his terms.
That meant Carroll could get players with the edge he was looking for. If they didn’t have that, or if they didn’t buy into his approach, he could replace them.
“When you know you’ve got your hand in everything and the product you’re about to display on the field has your stamp on it, there are no questions in your mind,” says Carroll’s son, Brennan, the receivers coach at the University of Miami. “There are no other forces pulling on you, whether it be someone wanting this player to play or wanting this defensive set. It’s all coming from a centralized location. At least the message will be the same.”
Carroll and general manager John Schneider have built the Seahawks largely with homegrown players. Thirteen of Seattle’s 22 starters count Carroll as their only NFL coach. His way is the only way they know.
“So you assume it’s like that all around the league,” says receiver Golden Tate, and he laughs at the thought.
The headsets are off. The Trojans are taking a knee. The game is over.
And then it isn’t.
Carroll and his USC team lead rival UCLA 21-7 with 54 seconds left in 2009. Quarterback Matt Barkley takes a knee and flips the ball to an official when something strange happens. UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel calls a timeout.
The cameras cut to Carroll on the sideline talking with assistant coach Jeremy Bates, who motions for Barkley. The Trojans line up again. Carroll paces the sideline grinning.
And then, with much of the crowd gone, Barkley fakes a handoff and launches a 48-yard touchdown pass behind the defense. The fans erupt. The broadcasters are stunned. Carroll raises his hands in celebration, jogs to Bates and hugs him.
“That’s all that was: An ‘F you,’ ” says Mustain, who high-fived Carroll after the play. “He has that in him.”
Carroll’s style works because he never stopped believing it would. Behind all the focus on his persona, on his transformation after getting fired, is a confidence that never shook. You can read it in his quotes through the years. He is defiant. His approach didn’t fail. It wasn’t given the chance to succeed.
“It’s too bad you didn’t get it,” Carroll told one of his biggest critics, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, in 2007. “You didn’t figure out what I could have brought you. You guys never knew. You never asked me any questions. You guys never figured out who I was. You never even asked. We talked about hamstrings and shoulders and stuff. You guys never did figure it out. It was terrible and it didn’t have to be like that. But all of that having been said, we were just a couple of football decisions from being on the other side of it.”
The word he has used to describe his feelings after getting fired from New England is ‘pissed.’ He knew he could win in the NFL. And he knew he could have fun doing it.
It’s the first day of Seahawks rookie minicamp in May. Tight end Luke Willson is sitting in a quiet room filled with other rookie draft picks, some guys who didn’t get drafted and some longshot free agents.
Then Carroll bursts in. Who are the kickers, he asks. Carroll brings them to the basketball hoop in the front of the room. He wants to have a shootout. Whoever wins, he tells the kickers, stays. Whoever loses gets cut.
He’s joking. The room cracks up.
“The next thing we know we’re shooting basketballs, he’s got a couple of YouTube videos and we go out to practice and music is blaring the whole time and he’s dancing around,” Willson says. “I was like, dude … this guy is kind of crazy.”
The year is 1991. Carroll is the defensive coordinator for the New York Jets. He is 40 years old and has never been a head coach. The Jets are playing the Patriots. They need a goal-line stand. A timeout is called. Carroll’s defense heads to the sideline. “Do you understand how exciting this is?” Carroll asks his players, according to the book, “Conquest: Pete Carroll and the Trojans’ Climb to the Top of the College Football Mountain.” “How great is this?”
The defense holds.
The year is 2013. Carroll is the coach of the Seahawks. He is 62 years old and the head coach of his third NFL team. The Seahawks are playing the Rams. They need a goal-line stand in the final seconds. A timeout is called. Carroll’s waiting for the defense to come over, but only a few stragglers make it. The rest are too tired. It’s too bad. He has a message ready.
“How cool is this?” he says.
The defense holds.
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org