When Pete Carroll was fired as the head coach of the New England Patriots after the 1999 season, it ended a three-year campaign in which he was stuck between two Super Bowl-winning coaches Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick whose more overtly disciplined and less personal styles seemed to be the preferred norm at the time. Carroll was perceived as too collegiate too rah-rah to meet the demands of franchises paying hundreds of millions of dollars on veteran players who have seen it all, and high-caliber rookies who think they know it all. Over much of the next decade, as he built an incredible record of success at USC, there was still that disclaimer next to his name.
In a column that summed up Carrolls Patriots tenure on the last day of the old millennium, Michael Felger of the Boston Globe said it best. Where Parcells team was perceived to be disciplined and hardworking, Carrolls was said to suffer from his laid-back, non-confrontational style. When fans heard Carroll say things like jacked and pumped, they stuck a finger down their throats. When they saw him get tackled on the field by a team intern following a big win, they quickly looked away. When Carroll said he was dangerous, they laughed. The phones rang off the hook at talk radio stations. Newspaper columnists had a field day.
And when the Seahawks gave Carroll the re-entry into the NFL he wanted before the 2010 season, many fans and observers prepared to condition their gag reflexes all over again. It didnt help that, in his first press conference as the teams new head coach, Carroll came across like a Jack Russell terrier on amphetamines and seemed to talk for the first 12 minutes without taking a single breath.
Scattered. Not serious. A players coach. They will walk all over him.
Carroll, as astute an observer of public perception as exists in sports of any kind, knew precisely what people were thinking. He also knew that, given the West Coast preferences hed always had, this job might be his last chance in any program that proved to be an upward move of any distinction. Blowing this opportunity and coaching Stanfords defense for the next five years? Not really an option.
Im very different than I was, Carroll said two days after the playoff win over the Saints that seemed to finally solidify the notion that he could accomplish whatever needed accomplishing at the NFL level. I know more whats important to me, and whats important to teach. I know how to represent whats important to me as the head coach. Thats truly been the change. It took a lot of years in coaching before I kicked myself in the butt, and got my act together, and figured it out. I thought I knew, but I didnt really know until the year I was out between New England and going to USC. That was the time when things changed.
When he finally did come back, it was an adjustment period on both sides. While Carroll understood the young athlete better than ever from his time at USC (when he was essentially running the NFLs 33rd team from a personnel standpoint), he had to buck the idea that his lack of mordant seriousness would be his fatal flaw. He couldnt change his personality; the Seahawks had already seen enough of the surface-tough Jim Mora to know what the real thing didnt look like.
Carroll would have to strike an entirely new balance between the positive motivation he prefers, and the harsh realities that populate the NFL. He came up with the simple concept of competition, and then drilled it into the heads of every single person in the organization in a very specific way.
If you did not care about this thing as much as he did, you would not be around to observe and participate in it.
The confrontation came from competition, and though veterans rolled their eyes once in a while at the signage and sayings, Carroll also planted seeds with veteran leaders like Matt Hasselbeck and Lawyer Milloy, and watched the message trickle down. He now knew from his days running a serious college program that if you had the seniors on board, the younger kids would follow. It was one of the most effective concepts he brought to the team.
He also rewarded those veterans with an inclusive approach that many of them had never seen before. Hasselbeck, who took virtually every important step of his professional career under Mike Holmgrens wide shadow, discussed the differences between Holmgrens more businesslike approach and Carrolls take on things.
Mike was a great coach and teacher and mentor for me, the quarterback said. But we never shared a meal together. I didnt have his phone number I mean, if I had to get in touch with him, I couldnt text him although I doubt hes a texter (laughs). With Pete, I think theres always a natural relationship between a quarterback and a defensive coordinator-type person, where you have those conversations. My relationship with Pete has been great; hes been an awesome head coach. Hes been very consistent and easy to play for. Demanding and tough I think every guy thats been with him now has learned a lot from him.
Even though hes not a quarterbacks coach (as Holmgren was), theres so much that Ive learned from him. Even going back to this last game the game started off really poorly. They won the toss, they scored, and my third pass was intercepted. Theyre about to score again, and he comes right over to me right into my head. He set the tone and sent the message what hes looking for. It gave me a sense of, Okay heres what hes thinking; here are the marching orders lets go. It allowed me to focus more, our offenses executed, and we scored.
Its been like that all year. It hasnt always been easy, and it hasnt always actually worked out, but its just been great communication.
Observant NFL minds will remember that the Bill Belichick who replaced Carroll in New England first had to be forged by a disastrous stint in Cleveland a few years earlier, when all his worst tendencies were on display, and the refinements were not yet made. And the Parcells that preceded him in Foxboro had his own difficulties before the magic note was finally struck.
It took a long time, and he had to wade through a great deal of skepticism along the way, but Pete Carroll is the perfect coach to lead a team of misfits and afterthoughts.
More than he ever did before, Carroll is fighting their fight.