PHOENIX – There was a time when Pete Carroll was seen as a coaching failure, a bridge between Patriot legends, the unfortunate soul who succeeded Bill Parcells and was fired three years later, clearing the way for Bill Belichick’s run of success in New England.
“Things look different than they did back in the day,” Carroll said Friday at a Super Bowl press conference with Belichick. “I got pounded a couple times and fired a couple times in the league. Everybody likes to have fun with that. My therapist tells me I should always talk about it and not hide from it.”
Carroll, who was also fired after one year as Jets coach in 1994, doesn’t hide from anything. His life is an open book. He wrote one called “Win Forever,” in which he talked about “bringing forth his truths.” What other coach talks about his therapist? The guy could be a therapist himself.
This is not your stereotypical football coach. Carroll is a laid-back northern California native who was a regular at Grateful Dead shows in his youth. He’s 63, but seems much younger. At coaching clinics, he has been known to quote both John Wooden and Jerry Garcia.
He’s pals with comic actor Will Ferrell. He has had Ferrell address his team. These aren’t seen as typical assets for an NFL coach. In his three-year stint with the Pats, Carroll tried to be the easygoing players’ coach. He gave his young players a lot of rope, asking them to lead. It was the antithesis of Parcells’ hard-edged bullying approach.
It got Carroll fired, though he went 27-21 in three seasons. Critics felt his style was meant for college, for younger players. Others felt he got a raw deal. It still eats away at him.
Carroll spent a year out of coaching after being fired in 2000. He did some consulting work and column writing. He had a lot of time for reading. He was reading Wooden’s book about his success at UCLA, which emphasized how vital it was to have a clearly established philosophy.
When Carroll read that Wooden hadn’t won a national title until his 16th season at UCLA, he slammed the book closed, leaned back in his chair and smiled.
“Once he got it, he just nailed it,” Carroll said a few years back. “Once he figured out what was right for him, how to engineer his program in the way that best exemplified his philosophy, nobody could touch him.”
A year later, in 2001, Carroll took the head job at USC. He didn’t change his basic plan; he articulated it fully. He got control of every aspect of the college program. He created a winning pyramid, no doubt inspired by Wooden’s pyramid of success. He gave his players freedom, but he wanted them to be tough, smart and enthusiastic, to protect the team and respect everyone.
Carroll was a huge success at USC. In nine seasons, he went 97-19 and won two national titles. He used his charismatic personality to attract the top recruits and used the 4-3 “Under” defense he had learned from Monte Kiffin at Arkansas. He has used variations of that defense his entire career. It’s essentially a one-gap scheme with aggression as its driving principle.
“To be successful on defense, you need to develop a philosophy,” Carroll said. “If you don’t have a clear view of your philosophy, you will be floundering all over the place. If you win, it will be pure luck.”
His critics felt there was more than luck involved. Carroll’s magical run came to a crashing end amid revelations that Reggie Bush’s family had received improper benefits. Carroll left five months before NCAA sanctions hit and invalidated one of USC’s national championships.
Carroll was harshly critical of the NCAA’s investigation. It was never made clear how much he knew about violations in the program. But there was widespread belief that he skipped town to stay ahead of the posse.
Seattle, which had gone 9-23 in the previous two seasons, came calling in 2010. Carroll was regarded as a weak, desperate choice, someone whose methods were good for college kids but unsuitable for the pros. There was also a belief that his defense wouldn’t thrive in the NFL.
But the opposite was true. Carroll’s defensive schemes were more suited to the NFL, where the players were older, stronger and better capable of executing the nuances of his attacking 4-3.
Carroll and his general manager, John Schneider, assembled a defensive roster that is widely acknowledged as the best in the NFL, one that has led the league in passing defense two years in a row and will be looking to win a second consecutive Super Bowl on Sunday.
The Seahawks have taken to Carroll’s easygoing manner. He allows the players to be themselves. Cornerback Richard Sherman can make his defiant public pronouncements. Marshawn Lynch can avoid the media altogether.
No one accuses Carroll of being too nice when his team wins. Players shoot hoops in the meeting room before practice. Rap music pounds over the loudspeakers at training camp. Carroll has “Competition Wednesdays” and “No Turnover Thursdays” to keep guys loose.
“What you see is what you get with Pete,” Sherman said. “He’s just like he is with the media in the locker room, outside the locker room, at home. He’s a great guy, a great coach. Calm, cool demeanor. Laid back. He allows his players to bump their heads and scrape their knees, and learn from their experiences on and off the field.
“He trusts his players more than I think a lot of coaches do, and we appreciate him for that.”
Carroll appreciates knowing that his methods translated to the NFL game, that in the end, it’s just football.
“I had really great years at USC that were so much fun,” he said. “Then, to take the approach to the NFL, and to see how it goes if you treat people,” sincerely, “and you help them feel like you really do care for them and you do care that you bring them to the best of their capabilities.”
He did it his own way, and it worked. Carroll and Belichick offer a stark contrast. Carroll happily climbs on the therapist’s couch in public. Belichick is tight-lipped, defensive, suspicious of outsiders.
Carroll gave long, expansive responses during Super Bowl week. He gave a 481-word answer to a question about a tackling video on Wednesday. He was briefer in his session with Belichick, as if determined not to seem too glib at the Hoodie’s expense.
He’s a deep, emotional man. Carroll still chafes over his early firings. At the same time, he seems grateful for the chance to prove himself. Bills fans can take hope in knowing that a brilliant defensive coach was run out of a rival AFC East town, but resurfaced elsewhere to win a Super Bowl.
In fact, Carroll is one of three men to win an NCAA title and a Super Bowl, along with Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer. A win Sunday would make him the first man to win both twice (the vacated NCAA title notwithstanding).
“Well, coming from a ‘retread’, it’s just experiences,” Carroll said, laughing. “This is a really difficult job the first time. There are so many things that happen that you just can’t predict and you don’t see coming in your preparation. You have to deal with it as it hits you.
“Everybody is going to falter and make mistakes and say, ‘I wish I would have known then what I know now.’ So often, guys get kicked out. I got kicked out. I was a mess. But those experiences are extraordinarily valuable, and I can see why owners look to a guy who has had experiences.”