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At long last, Carroll ready for NFL

Editor's note: This story originally ran on Friday, Jan. 8. On Monday, Jan. 11, Pete Carroll officially left USC to coach the Seattle Seahawks.

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Whenever Pete Carroll entertained NFL suitors before -- he interviewed with the Miami Dolphins following the 2006 season, he held conversations with the Atlanta Falcons a year later -- the question most of us asked was, "Why would he leave?"

This time, if reports of the Seattle Seahawks' overtures are correct (according to the Los Angeles Times, team execs interviewed the USC coach in Los Angeles earlier this week), the more pertinent question may be, "Why would he stay?"

Carroll, former head coach of the Jets and Patriots, has never lost his connection to the NFL world. He watches it. He studies it. Whenever a spot on his coaching staff opens up, he usually fills it with someone from the pro ranks (most recently offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates). He obviously remained open over the years to the possibility of one day returning to the league, but he couldn't bring himself to give up his ultra-cushy seat at the throne of the USC empire he created.

But if ever there were an ideal time for Carroll to make the jump, this is certainly it.

Carroll has had an unquestionably glorious nine-year run with the Trojans -- a 97-19 record; a pair of national championships; seven straight Pac-10 titles. He's the unquestioned CEO of all-things USC football and he's paid royally (a reported $4.4 million per year) to do it.

But this year, for the first time since his debut season in 2001, Carroll faced a slew of adversity, starting nearly a year ago, when he rubbed a whole lot of people the wrong way with his critical comments about Mark Sanchez's decision to turn pro.

He lost both his offensive (Steve Sarkisan) and defensive (Nick Holt) coordinators to Washington, dealt with replacing nearly his entire starting defense, made the much-questioned decision to start a true freshman quarterback (Matt Barkley) -- and then suffered through a humbling 8-4 regular season that ended in the Emerald Bowl.

Carroll, as befits his competitive nature, was fully capable of dealing with all that. You could almost see him relishing the challenge of getting things back on track for next year as much as he did all those championship seasons -- shoring up his staff, hitting the recruiting trail even harder. Whatever he could control, he would, in his mind, overcome.

But then came the Joe McKnight incident.

For the first time in recent memory, Carroll, the consummate man in charge, seemed truly blindsided by USC's investigation into the running back's use of an SUV allegedly purchased for his girlfriend by a Santa Monica entrepreneur. Carroll spent the week of the bowl game fielding McKnight-related questions for which he literally didn't have an answer.

L.A. Times columnist T.J. Simers penned this Dec. 23 column about the incident, saying Carroll had been "hung out to dry" by bumbling USC AD Mike Garrett and chronicling the coach's rough 2009. Based on some of Carroll's comments in the article, he didn't seem to disagree.

"You're right," Carroll said of his program's recent p.r. hits. "And it hits you right in the gut."

McKnight on Friday disclosed his intention to enter the NFL draft. He's no longer Carroll's problem. But the rupture it may have caused between coach and AD won't go away as quickly.

Garrett this week announced self-imposed penalties (including a postseason ban) for the Trojans' basketball team pending an NCAA investigation into the ill-fated O.J. Mayo era. Carroll's program remains a part of that ongoing probe dating to the 2006 allegations regarding Reggie Bush's illicit involvement with an agent and sports marketer. While Carroll has expressed little concern over its potential outcome over the past three years, recent news that a Bush-related lawsuit has been green-lighted to go to trial opens the door for the NCAA to finally get its hands on some court-sworn testimony.

Whatever the eventual result, it sounds like the Seahawks showed up this week with a conveniently timed "get out of jail free" card. Carroll can stay at Heritage Hall and ride out the storm, or he can move on to a fresh new challenge. His ego would certainly welcome the opportunity for NFL redemption, but he'll need to be assured the type of all-encompassing authority over personnel decisions he's enjoyed at USC -- and which he's long lamented to be a pitfall of coaching in the pros. Nick Saban returned to college largely for that very reason.

If Carroll does leave, the ripple effect is ... wow. Who would have imagined a year in which three of college football's giants -- USC, Notre Dame and (possibly) Florida -- all went through coaching turnover?

For the Trojans, the timing could not be much worse. Had the Seahawks come calling a year earlier, USC could have simply promoted Sarkisian rather than watching him leave for another Seattle coaching job. There is no logical successor on Carroll's staff. Any potential new coach will almost certainly be an outsider, and all those five-star recruits who signed on to be part of Carroll's one-of-a-kind environment (the NFL-replica offense; the practice-field pranks; the team sing-alongs to "Lean on Me") will have to adjust to a completely different personality.

Meanwhile, Carroll's potentially monstrous upcoming class would be caught in upheaval.

Next weekend, USC is scheduled to host official visits from 10 elite prospects, including three players -- receiver Robert Woods (a USC commit), running back Lache Seastrunk and defensive end Ronald Powell -- ranked among Rivals.com's top five players in the country. Rivals' No. 2 player, receiver Kyle Prater, is an Illinois native committed to USC who would undoubtedly think twice about heading west if Carroll is out of the picture.

"If Carroll goes, it will put USC into an insane [recruiting] spot," said SuperPrep's Allen Wallace. "They'll have to bring someone in real quick to hold that conglomeration of talent together."

ESPN's Bruce Feldman reported Friday that parties connected with the program have already made overtures to Oregon State coach Mike Riley as a potential Carroll replacement. Ironically, Riley (then with the San Diego Chargers) was one of Garrett's original targets for the job (along with Dennis Erickson and Mike Bellotti) upon firing Paul Hackett in 2000. He settled on Carroll at the insistence of then-aide Daryl Gross (now the AD at Syracuse).

Riley is a great coach -- but he's no Pete Carroll. Not too many guys are. Whoever took over would be stepping into an incredibly daunting situation. How do you follow in the footsteps of a program savior? How do you walk into a school where the expectations are already so high that this year's nine-win season was considered an epic failure while trying to salvage a recruiting class and deal with potential NCAA sanctions?

The Trojans' could avoid all this if Carroll stays put, but based on Don Banks' report that he's already assembling a coaching staff, it doesn't sound like that's his intention. And it's not like there's anything more USC can possibly offer to maintain him. He already has everything a college coach could want. The question is whether he wants to remain in college.

Maybe the Seattle deal will fall through. Maybe Carroll will get cold feet.

If not, the landscape as we've known it for most of the last decade, both in the Pac-10 and nationally, is about to change enormously.

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