RENTON — A group of veteran players was called to an impromptu meeting with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll one early-summer day in 2016. As he walked to the meeting in a second-floor conference room at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center, Bobby Wagner felt for a moment as if he was being summoned to the principal’s office.
Wagner, the Seahawks’ All-Pro middle linebacker, wasn’t sure what the meeting was about, and he wasn’t sure what to expect. During the four previous seasons he had played for Carroll, Wagner figured he had heard all the stories and seen all the motivational ticks the coach had to offer.
What Carroll said next struck Wagner.
What is your purpose?
That’s what Carroll wanted to know. And while asking his core players to contemplate that question, he took them down his path of discovery to show them how he came to find his own answers.
What Carroll shared stuck with Wagner.
“You know what? He really cares,” Wagner recalled thinking to himself after the meeting. “To ask us that question, that was pretty cool.”
Carroll’s sunshine has reigned in Seattle for a decade now. When he left USC to be the Seahawks’ coach — on Jan. 11, 2010 — he brought to the NFL a relentless energy, an infectious optimism and one audacious experiment.
His vision for the Seahawks 10 years ago? To build a team “better than it’s ever been done before,” he said in his introductory news conference.
“People wonder all the time: ‘How do you have as much fun as you do?’ Well, wait a minute. It’s football. That’s what you’re supposed to do,” he said in a recent interview. “It doesn’t make sense to people. But we’ve been able to create a way and an environment where we ask for people to give us everything they have and enjoy the heck out of it while they’re going, and feel connected to the whole approach.”
In the mid-1970s, as a young graduate assistant coach at the University of the Pacific, Carroll remembers first asking questions of players. He wanted to know what was important to them, what they were thinking, what motivated them.
“I didn’t know what the heck I was doing,” he said recently. “But I was doing the work, and I just didn’t know it at the time.”
The program’s veteran coaches thought he was crazy.
“You don’t ask the players. You are the authority — you tell them,” he recalled them saying.
For his master’s thesis, Carroll had studied psychologist Abraham Maslow and his theories of self-actualization. But even then, as a young coach, Carroll didn’t grasp the essence of the psychology behind the questions he was asking his players. “I was just doing what comes natural,” he said.
As Carroll would come to understand years later, by giving others the tools to discover their purpose — and understanding and fulfilling their potential — he could become a better leader and coach.
“It’s been years of peeling the onion to figure (that) out,” Carroll said.
He was still peeling during his first NFL head-coaching jobs with the New York Jets and New England Patriots in the ’90s. Those failures forced him to reset — to rediscover his purpose — and gave him new direction when he went to coach college football at USC in the 2000s. The peeling continued in Los Angeles.
Carroll’s understanding crystallized when he met Dr. Michael Gervais about 10 years ago in L.A. Soon after Carroll came to Seattle, Gervais joined the Seahawks as the team’s high-performance psychologist.
“He became part of the conversation in about everything I’m doing. … He understood all the crazy stuff that was going on in my head,” Carroll said.
The ongoing work with Gervais, Carroll said, has given him “clarity of purpose.”
“The more clarity you have in being who you are, I think, the easier it is to find your way back to that and the more consistent you can become,” he said. “I have found that, and it’s been really helpful.”
And he, in turn, feels better equipped to help others.
In 2013, Carroll and Gervais spoke with a group of Microsoft executives about their philosophies, and the positive reaction from that spawned Compete to Create, their vision for a mind-set training program. The goal: To show people their potential and give them the tools to reach it.
Among their clients are AT&T, Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing. Those companies typically enroll their employees in the training programs, offered online and in person. Individuals can also enroll in two-month courses online for $499.
“(Carroll’s) genius is creating an ecosystem where people do their best work,” Gervais said. “And my skill set is training the mind of people who want to do their best work.
“ … We want to help people understand who they are and then celebrate them, so they can be themselves. And when somebody knows themself and they can consistently be themselves across any environment — whether it’s calm or rugged — we’ve got really powerful human beings.”
A decade to remember
Carroll’s vision for the Seahawks has played out about as well as anyone could have reasonably hoped.
The Seahawks have experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows over the past decade, winning one Super Bowl and losing the next, and building an established foundation around quarterback Russell Wilson and Wagner to start this new decade.
And here they are again, back in the postseason, preparing for a divisional-round playoff game at Green Bay on Sunday afternoon.
“I loved it at ’SC,” Carroll said last week. “I really had the desire to see if our way of dealing with people would work in the NFL. … I wanted to see what it would be like if you treated people like they were your very own family. You care for them that much, and you look after them, and you try to help them find their best in every way that you can.”
Above all, Carroll is about competition and connection. Achieving the first at times has come at the cost of the second. Richard Sherman eventually had tuned him out; Michael Bennett was reading books in team meetings; Earl Thomas’ final gesture was a middle-finger salute.
Everyone goes eventually. The NFL is cut-throat. Even in the Culture of Love that Carroll has created at the VMAC, players are cycled through regularly — signed and traded, drafted and released, hugged one day and booted out the door the next.
“There’s a reality to it, that’s right,” Carroll said. “But that doesn’t mean, in the time that they’re here, that we’re not going to give them everything we’ve got — to find everything there is to know to help them. And if they go somewhere else, we’re cheerleading for them.”
In life after the Legion of Boom, Carroll has been reinvigorated. The Seahawks missed the playoffs two years ago, which began a roster reconstruction, which meant a new cycle of players, young minds and hearts Carroll wanted to connect with.
The Seahawks began this season with the fourth-youngest roster in the NFL. Carroll, at 68, is the NFL’s oldest coach. He has two seasons left on a contract extension he signed in December 2018, and he sounds as if he is enjoying this new chapter — with perhaps a renewed sense of purpose — as much as any point in his Seahawks tenure.
“I think we’ve done some things here, and some things back at ‘SC, that are pretty remarkable consistency-wise,” Carroll said. “There are numbers and hidden accomplishments behind the scenes that demonstrate our ability to connect with our people on a regular basis and more consistently than other people.
“And that’s something to take a lot of pride in. It doesn’t mean you always win. But it does mean you perform at a really high level consistently. That’s ultimately what we’re after.”