Pete Carroll's journey through coaching brought him back to himself

Staff writerJanuary 31, 2014 

— To hear people who know him tell it, this is no grand revolution.

This is not a revamped Pete Carroll, who changed his ways and is back in New Jersey for redemption.

He’s not even back for affirmation. Carroll had settled on the majority of his coaching approach before he was fired from his first two NFL jobs. He lasted a year as the head coach of the New York Jets in 1994 and three with the New England Patriots from 1997-99.

Carroll’s return to New Jersey does finally carry with it an embrace of his chipper ways. It’s easy to be right when your team is playing in the Super Bowl.

Carroll’s style has incorrectly been described as laid-back or suggested to have him all but leading linebackers during meditation in the Himalayas.

Labels like “modern” and “zen” are applied to it.

"I don't know if it's modern; it's just the only way I know how to do it,” Carroll said. “I understand that the guys do respond pretty favorably. They like what's going on. They respond by the way they practice and the way they play.

“We've created a culture that hopefully allows for guys to be at their best.”

That’s where adaptation has been mistaken for weakness. Carroll’s philosophy is filled with stringent standards. He’s a defense-first coach, who loves the ferocious aspects of football.

He has evolved, the way everyone does through experience, but saying he’s changed is too strong. This is Pete Carroll at his peak, put in a situation where he has full control. Failure at his two prior NFL jobs and success at USC taught him that top-to-bottom freedom was crucial.

He found a perfect spot at a perfect time in Seattle and took it.

BEGINNING WITH COLLEGE, JETS

Carroll was a free safety at the University of Pacific. It’s where he met Greg Robinson, who would be attached to Carroll for years as each elevated through coaching. They were in the same fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, then were graduate assistant coaches at Pacific together in 1975-76.

Robinson was from Southern California, so he recruited there. Carroll took his home region of the Bay Area.

“We had a lot of thoughts, a lot of answers,” Robinson said. “We could teach everything and everybody. And of course, we knew what we were talking about. It was good time. It was a good time. Really tried hard to become the best coaches we could. At the same time, we used to talk about everything other than football and that’s how Pete is.”

They reunited at North Carolina State under Monte Kiffin in 1980. Carroll was the defensive coordinator, Robinson an assistant. Eight years out of college, Carroll still looked like he had just enrolled. Robinson’s hair was far from the full white it embraces now.

After pounding away in recruiting and playbook preparation, Carroll and Robinson – well, Carroll – had an idea that would illustrate his ongoing enjoyment of mischief which remains. The young assistants drove to Chapel Hill, where arch rival North Carolina is housed. At the SAE house, a party raged. Carroll and Robinson claimed to be SAE members from USC. In they went.

“They let us in to the party,” Robinson said. “There are football players and stuff in there and they have no idea. You talk about sleeping with the enemy.

“That was the kind of mentality we had. We drank a couple beers with the Carolina boys without them knowing who they were having beers with.”

Carroll and Robinson would part, then join up again. This time they were in New Jersey as members of the Jets’ staff under Bruce Coslet. Again, Carroll was the defensive coordinator and Robinson was an assistant as the defensive line coach.

Carroll, who was better known for playing the piano at 1 a.m. than being up in the morning, was early. He and Robinson split rides to the Jets’ facility, about a 15-mile trip, and Carroll was knocking at his door before he was out of bed.

Robinson’s wife answered.

“I’m looking for the new defensive coordinator of the Jets,” Carroll told her.

She, and Robinson, were confused. The day before he had left work under Coslet, whom they considered a friend. He had no idea later that night Carroll was called into the Jets’ facility because Coslet was going to be fired and Carroll promoted.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Robinson said. “He had no idea that that was coming down, but it did.”

At the end of the season, after Dan Marino’s infamous non-spike touchdown pass began a five-game Jets losing streak, Carroll was fired when his aging team finished 6-10.

Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott played his final season on that team. He still wonders why Carroll wasn’t given a full shot.

“They didn’t even put the ring on the finger,” Lott said. “Before the ring was even on the finger, they were pulling it off. It was almost like, well, we’re not going to consummate the marriage. There are things that we thought were what we thought, then there are things we didn’t know.

“I think perception sometimes is not reality. And I think the perception of Pete at the time was not reality.”

This was New York and this was Leon Hess. Carroll would dribble a basketball into Hess’ office, being himself. Once the season unraveled with five consecutive losses, the view of Carroll’s bubbly ways changed.

“I think (Hess) was overwhelmed by the style of Pete,” Robinson said. “(Carroll) wasn’t so much ahead of his time, as he just wasn’t in the right place.”

LEARNING A WAY WITH 49ERS, PATRIOTS

Carroll returned to the Bay Area for two years as defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers. He saw behind the curtain during that stretch.

Bill Walsh was a consultant. Carroll had always been a 49ers fan when growing up in the Bay Area and San Francisco coach George Seifert had let Carroll pop in during the 1980s, before Seifert was head coach.

Now as part of Seifert’s staff, Carroll was able to receive a full look at the continuity within a winning franchise. From the head coach to the owner, things were done a certain way. Practice went a certain way. Excellence was demanded a certain way.

Carroll constantly quizzed Walsh about why they did what they did. The explanations fit.

“It made tremendous sense to me,” Carroll said.

The New England Patriots brought Carroll back to the Northeast in 1997. There, he would be replacing a legend, Bill Parcells.

Parcells fit in New York. When he ran the Giants with a gruff approach, which earned them two Super Bowl wins, he was the perfect blend of surliness and know-how for the region.

After moving on to coach the Patriots, Parcells left while still under contract. The salary cap had just been introduced and now, when personnel decisions were made, they could strangle a franchise for years if they were bad choices.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft had this in mind when searching for Parcell’s replacement. He didn’t want a new coach who would be there for the short-term making decisions, then departing while leaving the Patriots with cap problems.

Carroll was so different than Parcells, Kraft says it was like, “Manna falling from heaven.” Kraft was thrilled by the upbeat Carroll.

He was also feeling pressure. Kraft had spent a then-record $175 million to purchase the Patriots outright in 1994. He took on debt to do so. Not just that, but he was also born in Brookline, Mass., just outside of Boston. He was now in charge of the hometown team.

Really, Carroll was up against it from the start. In part because of the psychosis of what Kraft calls the “neurotic Northeast” and part because how Kraft felt his next head coach relationship needed to be after some rough times with Parcells.

“He would have had to win the Super Bowl in the first couple years to earn the respect of the players, media and fans,” Kraft said.

Carroll’s three seasons were moderate successes. The Patriots made the playoffs the first two years. Like the year with the Jets, his final season came undone when the Patriots finished 8-8 after a 6-2 start. The late downward spiral again prompted his firing.

Because of his affinity for Carroll, Kraft said he felt “horrible” during his termination conversation with Carroll. Talking about Carroll today, there are two prevailing points from Kraft: first, he can’t say enough good things about him. Second, part of the failure in New England rested with how Kraft structured things.

“He was a brilliant coach,” Kraft said. “He’s so much fun to be around. A lot of coaches aren’t fun to be around. I don’t think anyone could be more of a fun, collegial guy. That was a great experience for me, our three years together.

“I think what happened when Pete came, I didn’t give him the kind of control that he probably needed and deserved, in retrospect,” Kraft said. “I think in part that did more to not allow him to shine to his best.

SUCCESS WITH USC, SEAHAWKS

For once, Carroll had some time off. He was hired by USC two years after being fired by Kraft. Carroll says it was midway through his USC years that he realized the same thing Kraft now realizes. For his style to work, he needed full say.

Carroll had been compiling lessons. He was hired by Bud Grant to be the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive backs coach in 1985. Grant was straight and stern. Unlike Carroll, Grant would be expected to emerge if a box marked “traditional football coach” was opened. Grant was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame the year Carroll was named head coach of the Jets.

From Grant, Carroll took self-belief.

“He didn’t care what anybody else thought and he was really clear about how he expressed that,” Carroll said. “I thought it was empowering to know that when you get to a certain part in your life and in your coaching career you can have a really strong, solid opinion whether everybody agrees with it or not or if they like your choices.

“What’s right is what you know is right at the time. He talked that way and he taught me that. He lived that way.”

Grant, 84, counters by saying he didn’t teach Carroll anything. He’s flattered, of course, but he hired Carroll to reap what Carroll could provide.

“He brought his style here and it hasn’t changed,” Grant said. “He has a high, what I call, instinct to do things. Football is not that complicated. We make it more complicated than it is.”

Which may be the case when looking back at Carroll’s first two NFL stops. Wrong place, wrong time makes for a short, disengaging story. Right place, right time doesn’t mesmerize the way calling Carroll’s approach a New World Order does.

When former Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke and owner Paul Allen presented Carroll with the scenario his lessons had taught him was necessary – freedom to work a consistent philosophy – he finally left USC.

Now, Carroll is 60 minutes from becoming only the third head coach to win an NCAA Title and a Super Bowl, which would allow him to join Barry Switzer and Jimmy Johnson.

It’s not redemption. It’s just the way it is.

Todd Dybas
todd.dybas@thenewstribune.com
@Todd_Dybas

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