Not long before he became the coach at USC, Pete Carroll visited the school with his daughter, Jamie.
Jamie Carroll was trying to settle on a college, and USC was on her list. Carroll had twice been fired from the NFL and was unemployed.
Sometime on the visit, according to the story Carroll tells, he ran into Paul Hackett, an old acquaintance and the Trojans’ coach at the time. Hackett invited Carroll to his office. He walked over to his desk and pulled out a piece of paper listing the reasons why a coach couldn’t win at USC: academics, the facilities, the rise of conference rivals.
“You could look at all those things as being true,” Carroll said during a talk at USC in February.
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By the time Hackett was fired and Carroll was hired, in 2000, Carroll paid no attention to Hackett’s earlier warnings. Nor did he listen when USC alums offered their own caution: It isn’t what it used to be.
Carroll won seven straight conference titles at USC. He came within 19 seconds of winning three straight national championships. He turned USC into the dominant team of the decade.
But in Carroll’s version of the story, his success at USC can first be traced to that meeting with Hackett and the list he produced. Carroll wanted his program to operate under sunnier skies.
“Now that I look at it, that was (Hackett’s) vision for the program,” Carroll said. “How could you ever get better than that?”
Carroll, who led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory in his fourth year as Seahawks coach, has spent the past 15 years under an intense spotlight. When expectations peak, when pressure bubbles, Carroll handles it not with the expected ruggedness of his profession, but with the approach of a self-help coach. He uses words like “empowerment” and “vision.” He quotes the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and mentions the “law of attraction.” He once said his job was to be a lighthouse and keep his players in touch with their goals.
“It isn’t about the words you say,” he said years ago. “It’s about the energetic message you send.”
Carroll’s methods haven’t always worked, and they’ve often been the target of cynicism, skepticism or both. Is he a master motivator or the beneficiary of good players? Is he a fresh thinker or a salesman peddling his own story?
“He sees the world through a lens that a lot of people just can’t see it from,” said Syracuse athletic director Darryl Gross, who helped hire Carroll at USC.
Time has proved that Carroll is a good X’s and O’s coach, but his greatest strength — and his greatest challenge this season as the Seahawks try to repeat last season’s success — might be his ability to coax the most out of talented teams facing lofty expectations. How he does that is another matter.
DOUG BALDWIN THOUGHT Carroll’s philosophy was BS at first. Golden Tate didn’t buy it when Tate played at Notre Dame. Chris Maragos thought the same. The list of people who had skeptical first impressions of Carroll is long, and even Carroll admitted earlier this year, “Guys don’t understand it right away. They don’t get it.”
The way Carroll talks, the importance he places on the metaphysical, sounds so idealistic it’s hard to think he can really believe it. Carroll’s message hasn’t changed since he became a head coach in the NFL in the 1990s, and during the buildup to last year’s Super Bowl in New York, the city where he was fired from his first NFL head coaching job, that seemed a point of pride.
But his exile from football hardened his commitment to his beliefs. It pushed him all in, and his fingerprints are all over the Seahawks.
A couple of times a year, Carroll opens the floor during team meetings so players can air what’s on their mind. One of the big complaints last year had to do with the team’s nutritionist taking away sugared cereal in favor of healthier options.
“He could have been like, ‘Stop bitching. It’s just cereal,’ ” Baldwin said, laughing at what he was saying. “He came in here and told them to put all the cereal back. Pete did. For our head coach to do that?”
After receiver Phil Bates and cornerback Richard Sherman fought during a heated June practice, Carroll held a team meeting the next day.
Recalled Baldwin: “He was like, ‘I want it to be like that. I love when you guys are that way. It makes us better. But sometimes we cross the line, and that’s OK, but we just need to rein it back in.’ It’s all so positive. Afterward, everybody was like, ‘Oh, I love you, man!’
“It’s just so weird. He does that as part of his program, but I also know that’s who he is deep down inside. It’s got to be real. That’s what I get from him, that he’s actually genuinely like that. He’s not just trying to put up this façade so people can be that way. It’s actually who he is.”
Carroll’s positive makeup, the way he deals with players and coaches, serves a practical purpose: to eliminate doubt and fear, two poisons that can erode performance. Everything Carroll says and does is aimed like a missile at dismissing those two variables.
In his 2010 book, “Win Forever,” Carroll highlighted a concept called the “inner game.” The premise is simple. People perform at their best when doubt and fear aren’t inhibiting them — what the book describes as quieting the mind. Carroll calls the concept “the most influential” on his philosophy.
“Most of my coaching,” he wrote, “has revolved around enabling players and teams to achieve this state of mind.”
IN A CRUMMY LOCKER ROOM, inside Oregon State’s stadium, Steve Sarkisian was feeling miserable. It was 2006 and Sarkisian, Carroll’s co-offensive coordinator at USC, had just watched the Trojans’ 27-game conference winning streak end, and his offense was partly responsible.
Carroll approached Sarkisian and told him what he was going to say to the team, how he was going to say it and what he was going to focus on. After he spoke with his players, Carroll came back to Sarkisian in the locker room and explained why he built the team up at the end of his speech.
Of all the moments he had with Carroll, Sarkisian said, that one in the losing locker room stuck with him because of Carroll’s readiness in an unexpected situation.
“So many times we see the smile and hugs and him having fun, but there is a lot of hard work there, a lot of dedication,” Sarkisian said with Carroll seated next to him at a talk at USC in February. “There’s so much contingency that takes place, and he was prepared for every moment, for whatever was around the corner. He’s always expecting something good around the corner, but for whatever might be there.
“That’s the biggest thing that sticks out to me: The preparation so that you develop the knowing that you’re worthy of winning, that you’re worthy of being successful.”
Carroll has instilled in his teams a belief in their dominance. The Seahawks’ brashness is not a coincidence. Carroll thinks great teams have earned the right to be confident because of their preparation, and whether his teams are more prepared or work harder is almost beside the point. What’s important is they believe it.
“Think of a dancer,” Carroll said while at USC. “Dancers work and they work and they work and they master their skills so far that improvisation just comes flowing out of them. Their natural expression of the best they can possibly be comes out of them because there is no boundary to hold them back … That’s the mentality that I’m trying to create, recreate and hold on to forever.”
But that hasn’t always been the case. Before a game at Washington in 2009, Carroll called a midweek meeting with his USC team in the locker room. That didn’t happen often. In fact, Carroll rarely went into the locker room.
What multiple players on that team remember is not what Carroll said in the meeting, but the vibe he cast.
“He just wasn’t Pete,” said Mitch Mustain, a quarterback that year. “He wasn’t his confident self. It was the first time we saw him really be mortal in the sense of the game. He was worried about it, he did not have confidence in us, and he did not think we were going to get it done.”
He added, “I think he sucked out pretty much any confidence we had.”
The Trojans lost to Sarkisian and the Huskies on the way to a 9-4 record, the worst since Carroll’s first season. In hindsight, maybe Carroll knew his team wasn’t that talented, or maybe he had grown bored.
“I sensed a little nervousness when we had team meetings,” USC safety Jawanza Starling said the next season, after Carroll left for Seattle. “I was telling myself, ‘Do we not believe we can beat teams?’ ”
Whatever the case, Carroll had filled his team with the one thing he had fought so hard to eliminate: doubt.
ON A JUNE NIGHT this year, Carroll and the Seahawks hosted a town-hall event with season-ticket holders.
Carroll jogged in carrying a football and high-fiving fans. He wore a wireless microphone, and had you not known he was a football coach, you could have easily mistaken him for a motivational speaker or an infomercial salesman.
It didn’t take Carroll long to strike at the heart of the challenge facing his team. Expectations can weigh teams down like anchors, and past success can leave them bloated. Carroll reminded the crowd that the Seahawks were favorites last season, and he addressed that right away with his players.
“Because if you’re going to be good for a long time, you’ve got to get comfortable with that kind of talk,” he said. “You have to know what the conversation is going to be like. And you have to deal with it properly and not let it affect the important things that make you who you are.”
He added of this year’s team, “Maybe we’re the favorite. I don’t know. Doesn’t matter to me. But what is important is we get comfortable with this kind of conversation.”
Carroll doesn’t talk about NFC championships or Super Bowls. He wants his team to focus on owning the NFC West each year, so the goal is always hanging.
It’s the coaching equivalent of attaching a $5 bill on a string and yanking it away just before someone grabs it. The $5 bill is always visible, but it keeps moving down the road whenever you get too close.
“And you know what?” he asked the crowd. “Sometimes it doesn’t work. Didn’t we screw it up in Atlanta two years ago? God, we did.”
At USC, when players arrived each spring, Carroll handed them a highlight DVD from the season before. He then made them change seats in the team’s meeting room.
“If they wanted to compete at an uncommon level and live our philosophy,” Carroll wrote in his book, “they needed a brand-new perspective on the upcoming season; by changing their seats, at least symbolically, they now found themselves with a new perspective.”
After a practice this summer, Carroll had 305-pound center Max Unger and 311-pound defensive tackle Brandon Mebane each kick a field goal, offense versus defense. Both attempts had other players laughing.
But Carroll’s practical jokes and antics are calculated. He wants his players engaged, and during a long season, he wants them never knowing what might happen that day.
If there’s a trait that has defined Carroll, it’s his sunny disposition. But while he often talks about the game with boyish enthusiasm — “You don’t work football; you play” — he bristles at the notion that he runs his teams with a light touch.
“When people think this whole thing is airy-fairy and fun and soft and fuzzy, they don’t get it,” he said earlier this year. “They don’t understand. This is a hard, disciplined regimen to undertake to become all you can possibly be. But it’s so freakin’ powerful because we just did it again. You just saw it happen.”
THERE’S AN ILLUMINATING moment from a segment “60 Minutes” did on Carroll at USC. The conversation had turned to his players and the inner-city kids in the Los Angeles area.
“Each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out,” Carroll said. “Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little support, a little coaching and the greatest things can happen.”
At his core, that’s how Carroll sees himself. He is responsible for creating the vision. He is responsible for gauging the pulse of his players. He must make them believe they are great. He must never let doubt or fear ruin them. He must be the lighthouse.
The “60 Minutes” interviewer listened to Carroll’s answer and asked the follow-up question critics and fans often want to ask.
“You believe that?” he said.
Carroll looked at him.
“No,” he said. “I know that’s true. I know that’s true. I’ve seen it. I’m living it.”