Pete Carroll and the Seahawks return to New England this weekend to play Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Belichick is headed to the Hall of Fame. Carroll could join him. So how did both of them fail? And what does that reveal about the fragile nature of genius?
Even on cold, static pages, Pete Carroll’s frustration crackles.
“Eventually, in time, people will understand me a little bit better,” Carroll said in October 1997.
“I don’t like living with this cloud over us,” he said one month later. “This isn’t what I pictured my life to be.”
Seahawks @ New England, 5:30 p.m., Ch. 5
By the next year, his tone had only sharpened. “When are you going to figure it out?” he said in 1998. “When are you going to figure out there’s more than one way to do this? The problem is with you, not me.”
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Carroll was the coach of the Patriots at the time under owner Robert Kraft. He had replaced Bill Parcells, the Big Tuna, who went to the Super Bowl the previous year by being a hard ass. Carroll hugged his players and shot baskets. The image of Carroll as the laid-back California surfer was so pervasive that Carroll felt compelled to mention that he never owned a surfboard.
But the clash of styles was a façade, the outer layer. The real problem roiled deep in the organization.
Carroll didn’t have control. He couldn’t choose his own players. He clashed and collided with Bobby Grier, the Patriots’ vice president of player personnel. Players would literally go up the back stairs to Grier’s office. As The New York Times wrote in 1997, “Kraft has put much of the present and future of his franchise in Grier’s hands. Grier has total control over all Patriot personnel moves, including the draft, free-agent selections and trades.”
Carroll lasted three rocky years in New England. He won the division his first year, lost in the wild-card round in his second year and missed the playoffs in his final season.
Carroll took a year off from coaching. The Patriots replaced him with Bill Belichick, who had been fired in Cleveland. At his first news conference, someone asked Belichick: Who had final say on personnel matters? Who had control?
“I do,” Belichick said.
Carroll and the Seahawks return to New England this weekend to play Belichick and the Patriots. Belichick is headed to the Hall of Fame. Carroll could join him. So how did both of them fail? And what does that reveal about the fragile nature of genius?
Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, has made a career out of studying creativity. What allows employees and companies to thrive? And why do they fail?
Amabile’s research led her to six managerial practices that affect creativity: challenge, freedom, resources, work-group features, supervisory encouragement and organizational support. It is easy to translate those categories to football terms.
• Challenge: winning
• Freedom: roster/personnel control
• Resources: money for free agents, facilities and staffing
• Supervisory encouragement: encouragement from the owner
• Work-group features: diversity of personalities, skills and approach within the coaching staff and front office
• Organizational support: trust and backing from ownership on down
What Amabile found in her years of research is that more often than not creativity gets killed. The culture of a workplace suffocates success, innovation and productivity.
It’s tempting to think of talent as all-conquering. The cream always rises to the top. The career arcs of Carroll and Belichick can be viewed through that lens. But they can also be seen as proof of something else: The inescapable importance of environment, even for two football geniuses.
For more than two years, Amabile and her team studied dozens of teams in seven companies spanning three industries: tech, consumer products and chemicals.
What she found is that successful teams were “given a great deal of autonomy to make their own decisions about product development.” Those teams had support and structure, but in the end, “people were given real freedom around the implementation of the goals.”
Pete Carroll wasn’t going to the NFL without control. He experienced that freedom at USC and reaped its benefits with national championships. It wasn’t that he never failed in college, but his failures were completely his own.
“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,” said Brennan Carroll, Pete’s son, a few years ago.
Carroll felt undermined in New England. Too much was out of his control. A sliver of doubt always remained. He couldn’t build his own team.
Carroll arrived at a complicated time in New England. Parcells had gone to the Super Bowl, but left on bad terms after a fight for total control of the roster.
That was the environment Carroll entered.
Belichick was hired by Browns owner Art Modell in 1991. He led Cleveland to the playoffs in 1994. His team had Super Bowl aspirations in 1995, started the year 3-1 and then the whole thing fell apart. Modell announced midway through the season that the team was moving to Baltimore.
Belichick described that year to Peter King as “the most off-the-charts, negative situation maybe in football history.”
Modell later told the Los Angeles Times that he was “sold a bill of goods on Belichick.” Modell and Belichick clashed in personality, approach to the media and in style. It was never a good fit.
“To Bill, everything was like the Normandy invasion,” Modell told the L.A. Times. “I couldn’t talk to him during practice because he was coaching.”
Modell fired Belichick after the 1995 season. Belichick became the defensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting for the Jets.
So what happened in the three weeks between Carroll’s firing in January 2000 and Belichick’s hiring? A lot.
Kraft met with Belichick and promised him the control he didn’t allow Parcells or Carroll.
“He assured me that I could have everything that I needed and wanted to be successful,” Belichick said then. “If I felt … that somebody was going to be making a lot of decisions for me, then I wouldn’t be sitting here.
“Now, do I want to join into a marriage with someone else to help make decisions? Possibly. It depends. If it’s the right person, sure. If it’s not, no. But I feel I’m going to have a big say in that one way or the other, whichever way it goes, and (Kraft) has expressed that to me. I’m totally confident that the decisions the New England Patriots make will be supported by me.”
In other words, Kraft was willing to change. He made concessions. He learned from his experiences with Parcells and Carroll.
“I didn’t give Pete all the power he should have had,” Kraft told NFL Network before the Super Bowl in 2015. “I was also evolving as an owner, understanding what could be best. And at the time, I didn’t give Pete enough freedom to bring in the players he wanted, and I think it hurt him.”
This is what Teresa Amabile called “the important lesson” of her research.
Fostering or destroying creativity is in the hands of managers, the people in charge. They are the soil, the hose, and their handling determines the success of the crop.
“Creativity often requires that managers radically change the ways in which they build and interact with work groups,” Amabile wrote. “In many respects, it calls for a conscious culture change. But it can be done, and the rewards can be great.”
Carroll and Belichick met in the Super Bowl in 2015. A collision of past and present. Two coaching giants, forever different yet forever linked. First by their failure. Then by their success.
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