JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Pete Carroll is at the Super Bowl, at last, wearing a hay-colored sports coat and a gold-patterned tie. He steps in front of the microphone with a grin and without an opening statement.
“Hit it,” the coach tells the media assembled at the Seahawks’ hotel.
When reporters precede questions with kind greetings, Carroll jokes that he didn’t know they cared. He is oddly disarming, funnier in his mind than in reality, but still able to relax a room.
“It’s extraordinarily fun to be here,” Carroll says.
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It’s also extraordinarily ironic that he can now say that about this area, the site of his most bewildering failure as a head coach. Twenty years ago, the New York Jets gave Carroll, then a game-changing, 42-year-old defensive coordinator, his first head-coaching gig. He lasted one crazy 6-10 season. And though Carroll tries to mask the pain with attempts at humor, it’s clear that he remains miffed about the Jets’ disaster two decades later.
Ask him if this New York/New Jersey Super Bowl represents a full-circle NFL journey, and Carroll rambles: “I hadn’t thought that. But I will for you right now. No, I don’t feel like that. I think my first time in New York as the head coach was kind of in the middle of the circle somewhere, or maybe it wasn’t even a circle. Might have been some other shape.”
Then, after a short pause, he says, “It was kind of a hairy time.”
Carroll was the classic first-time head coach who fell into an awful situation. He didn’t even realize how bad until being blindsided with the news that Jets owner Leon Hess was firing him in favor of Rich Kotite, who went on to lose 28 of his 32 games as the New York coach.
If Carroll weren’t preparing to win a championship, perhaps he would echo the words of his former Jets quarterback, Boomer Esiason, who told ESPN.com last week that the Carroll firing was a mistake.
“Why the hell did we fire him?” Esiason said. “I’ve talked to Pete over the years, and I still haven’t gotten a good answer. It’s frustrating as hell.”
It only makes Carroll’s comeback tale more remarkable, however. Twenty years ago, his antics — installing a basketball court at the practice facility, keeping the mood light with practical jokes, coaching in an excessively positive manner — served as fodder for criticism. Hess was a frequent listener of sports talk radio, and when the hosts went after the Jets, the owner started to sour on Carroll.
“I think I lost my job in New York because of talk radio,” Carroll once told The Boston Globe after being hired as the New England Patriots coach. He lasted three years in that job before being fired, his second straight disappointment to begin his head-coaching career. “Leon Hess, the Jets owner, started listening. They weren’t attacking me. They were attacking Leon. And he eventually, for the first time, responded. Why would he respond if he wasn’t listening? He was affected by it. It got to him.”
Carroll’s only year with the Jets didn’t start poorly. His team had a 6-5 record at one point. Then came an infamous loss that tore apart the season.
The Jets were playing their rival, the Miami Dolphins, and they led 24-6 in the third quarter. But Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino led a furious rally, capped by the greatest trick of his career. On the Jets’ 8-yard line in the game’s final seconds, Marino motioned to indicate that he wanted to spike the ball and stop the clock, but he merely did it to get the Jets to relax. When the Jets let up, Marino faked the spike and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Mark Ingram in a 28-24 Miami victory.
Carroll’s team lost its final five games. He went from a refreshing change to a young coach in over his head. Asked about the significance of the Marino play in the Jets’ late-season collapse, Carroll began his answer by saying, “It didn’t have to be.”
“When you look back on it, that’s what you would point to because we lost four games after that as well,” Carroll continued. “It was a moment when things turned. It didn’t feel like it turned. But it did show you how fine the balance was.”
That’s life in the NFL. One bad game can collapse an entire season. One bad situation can send a promising career spiraling before it even begins. Carroll was lucky; he rebounded. He took a year off after being fired from the Jets and Patriots, found himself and enjoyed an incredible run at USC. Now, he’s proving that his way works in the NFL, too.
If not for the Jets’ debacle, he might not have learned what he needed to succeed. He needed more control, so that he could do it in his unconventional manner. With the Jets, his general manager and biggest supporter Dick Steinberg, was diagnosed with stomach cancer late in the season, which further opened the door for change. In Seattle, Carroll has the final say on all football personnel matters. He looks back at the lack of control he had with the Jets and now calls it “an interim type of situation.”
“If I look back, I could’ve done some things differently,” Carroll says.
“It’s too long to tell you,” he says.
Then Carroll, days from coaching in the Super Bowl, grins and declares, “I’d do what I’m doing now.”
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.