Pete Carroll, NFL's eternal optimist, is ready to turn heartbreak into triumph
This story appears in the Aug. 3, 2015, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Five months after “giving the game away”—his words—Pete Carroll introduces his latest guest at the Seahawks’ auditorium in Renton, Wash. Du-Shaunt Stegall, a 20-year-old professional dancer who goes by Fik-Shun, climbs atop the same stage where the Seattle coach has previously welcomed violinists, psychology professors, rappers, coaches, golfers and generals, as well as Grammy and Nobel Prize winners.
Fik-Shun is much like the players he will be addressing: He figured out what he wanted to do early on, mastered his craft and won Season 10 of So You Think You Can Dance.
Before he became famous, Fik-Shun competed on Live to Dance, another reality show, hosted by Paula Abdul. In the semifinals he flipped and landed funny; his hands buckled and his arms caved, and he fell on his face on national TV.
His pride was hurt most. The fall paralyzed Fik-Shun in performances, as he obsessed over perfection. He canceled gigs. He wondered whether he even wanted to dance anymore. “I had to stop blaming myself,” he says. “I had to accept what happened. I had to stop wondering, 'Is this the time I’ll fall on my face again?'”
That was four years ago. The Seahawks’ fall-on-your-face moment came in February, on a much grander stage: the final seconds of Super Bowl XLIX. Carroll’s choice to throw the ball on second-and-goal from the Patriots’ one-yard-line—where New England cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson, sealing a four-point win—is regarded by some as the single worst decision in title-game history.
Afterward, Carroll grieved for all of one morning. Then he moved on to 2015, the same way he confronted the previous off-season following the Seahawks’ win in Super Bowl XLVIII. Carroll, like Fik-Shun, believes in the power of perspective.
He believes, most of all, in his approach.
It sounds strange to hear Carroll say this, but it comes as comfortably as he might say good morning or hello: “It’s been thrilling to go through this. It really has.”
He means this off-season, the one after the game that will forever be remembered for Carroll’s call. He says this in June from his corner office at the Seahawks’ training facility, the stereo cranked way up, Lake Washington gleaming beyond the practice fields out the window. He’s resting on a couch, but this discussion—explaining how his team will rebound from a moment that most Seattle fans still can’t bring themselves to watch again—is more interrogation than psychotherapy. “If you hope I’m going to cry over the deal, I’m not,” Carroll says. “I’ve moved past that.”
In fact Carroll has so thoroughly moved past last season that he says he’s done talking about how the Super Bowl ended in any detail. The explanation hasn’t changed anyway: The Seahawks threw the ball because they wanted to maximize the number of plays they could run; an incomplete pass would have stopped the clock. They had also identified run-stopping defensive personnel. Still, all signs—three feet from the end zone, with three downs and one timeout remaining, plus a running back known as Beast Mode—pointed toward a simple run, straight ahead.
Carroll believes he made the right call. He’s never wavered there. Where some people say “worst possible decision,” he says “worst possible outcome.” That’s his distinction, and he’s sticking to it. But that won’t stop the questions. “I know you want to find out—everybody wants to find out, the intrigue, the depth and all that,” he says. “And how much it hurt.
“You’ll never know. I can’t make you understand. You pour everything in your life into something and—it goes right, it goes wrong—it’s in you. It becomes part of you. I’m not going to ignore it. I’m going to face it. And when it bubbles up, I’m going to think about it and get on with it. And use it. Use it!”
In 2014, Carroll approached Seattle’s Super Bowl win the same way. Even as he publicly downplayed all the distractions—the summer of red carpets, the celebrity softball games and movie cameos—he worried about and addressed them. He told his players to come back, ready to work, once they did what they had to do and processed what they had gone through.
“Now,” Carroll says, “it’s dealing with loss and giving the game away. Either way, you’re dealing.”
What he didn’t do is tell his players to forget about the defeat. He doesn’t want them to. He’ll never forget the 2006 Rose Bowl, when as USC’s coach he left Heisman winner Reggie Bush on the sideline and handed the ball to LenDale White on a fourth-quarter fourth-and-two from Texas’s 45. The Longhorns stuffed White and scored on their next drive to win the game, and the same critics who panned Carroll for throwing late against the Pats lambasted him for the decisions he made against UT. He never ignored that moment or banished it from his memory or said it didn’t hurt like hell. He confronted it. And it has fueled him. Says Carroll, “It’s much easier for me [to move forward] than most people.”
The NFL calendar allows little time for the Seahawks to recover anyway. They traded for Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, lost free-agent cornerback Byron Maxwell to the Eagles and signed Philly’s Cary Williams to replace him. They drafted Michigan defensive end Frank Clark and had to answer questions about his arrest record. They negotiated with Wilson on a new contract but have yet to reach an agreement.
No rest for the conquered. Few Seahawks mentioned the Super Bowl after February, unless someone asked about it. Carroll focused instead on his team’s tempo and energy and attitude. He spewed the sort of New Age performance psychology that led one of his players to compare him to Willy Wonka.
Looking at his roster, Carroll says this team is deeper than it was a year ago, closer to what it was when they won Super Bowl XLVIII. “The challenge is out there again. Here we go,” he says. His eyes narrow. “Do you hear what I’m saying?
“We’ll come out of this better than if we had won.”
The email from Ben Malcolmson, Carroll’s assistant, landed in the in-box of Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at Penn. Duckworth had never heard of Carroll, so she prepared to politely decline his invitation to connect. That is, until one of her research coordinators, a sports fan who knew of Carroll and his coaching methods, suggested she might learn something from the coach.
Carroll had become aware of Duckworth through a TED Talk she gave, the inspiration for which was that she couldn’t figure out why the brightest middle and high school math students she once taught hadn’t always handed in the best work. She zeroed in on a concept that felt familiar to Carroll. Unknowingly, she was talking about his approach, and she had a name for it: grit. “I’m interested in how culture influences grit,” says Duckworth. “And Pete has very deliberately created a culture that encourages passion and perseverance—the two components of grit.”
In Carroll she sees what psychologists call an authoritative parent: warm but demanding, unconditionally supportive but with high expectations. And so she agreed to meet with the Seahawks. No one mentioned the Super Bowl by name, but everything they talked about was really about Seattle moving past it.
The Tao of Pete didn’t fully form until Carroll was well into his 40s, in his third decade as a football coach. He had a personality and a style, but he didn’t have a system. Nothing that he’d written down. Or turned into a book. The Jets fired him from his first head coaching gig after one season, the Patriots after three. It’s not that Carroll failed; his record in four seasons as an NFL coach stood at a respectable 33–31. But major success had eluded him.
He took a sabbatical, almost a year off, in 2000. There’s a famous story about the epiphany Carroll had around this time. He was reading a book by John Wooden that described how it took the old UCLA coach 18 years to win his first national title. And then Carroll slammed the book shut, inspired. He took the USC job in December of that year and started to write down not only what he wanted to accomplish but how he would go about it. He filled legal pads and the outsides of manila folders with so many notes that he ran out of space to write. He dissected every aspect of performance. Details that seemed small—like having players preorder for the Trojans’ omelet station in order to save a few minutes at breakfast each morning—were implemented to improve efficiency. He asked his assistant coaches to explain their vision in 30 words or less, and then he invited Snoop Dogg and Bubba Watson and janitors and actors and CEOs onto campus and asked them the same thing.
He turned the Trojans into a powerhouse and all those notes into a book called Win Forever. To Carroll, it became less about the victories and more about the process. He exposed the Trojans to myriad influences, demanded they put in the work and then supported their follow-through. If it all felt a little rah-rah—some called him Pom-Pom Pete—what mattered most was that his players believed him. “Pete’s done it differently than anybody’s ever done it,” says Yogi Roth, who co-wrote Carroll’s book. “He’s so far out there in his thinking and his thought process. It’s so connected to his spirit.”
Carroll left USC for the Seahawks in 2010. (Shortly afterward the NCAA slapped the Trojans with a two-year bowl ban, the loss of 30 scholarships and the forfeiture of 13 victories from ’04 and ’05 for various infractions under his watch.) Early on he told Roth that in the NFL he would not waver on his holistic approach. He’d seen in New England—where players started showing up late to meetings, or not showing up at all—how selfish acts could unravel seasons full of promise.
“Everyone said he couldn’t coach in the NFL,” says Mike Garrett, Carroll’s athletic director at USC. “They said he was a college coach. But I always felt like he wanted to go back. Like he had something to prove.”
Carroll did not adapt his approach for pro players, guys who are supposed to roll their eyes at Tell The Truth Monday or Competition Wednesday, those motivational gimmicks that purportedly work best in college. He hired a competitive surfer-turned-sports-psychologist. He studied sleep patterns. He brought in Bill Russell and Will Ferrell and Jon Gruden as guest speakers. He held a shooting competition between former SuperSonics Detlef Schrempf and Shawn Kemp, complete with a fog machine, a laser-light show and introductions from CenturyLink Field’s P.A. announcer. He sought advice from musicians like Macklemore and a former president, Bill Clinton.
“It always came back to competitiveness,” he says of the motivational ploys, the nontraditional hirings, the myriad guests. “I didn’t have a word for it, but it’s striving for something, not against something. Then I found a name for it.”
Steve Kerr flew to the Seahawks’ headquarters last August. He had spent his life in basketball but had never coached a game before the Warriors called him that May. “I felt bad at first,” Carroll says of the challenge that lay ahead for Kerr. “I said, ‘Goddang, we’ve got some work to do.’ ”
Kerr came to study Carroll. He admired the way the Seahawks played, the balance they exhibited between complete freedom and total discipline, their style at once loose and meticulously planned. He spoke to the players and lost a shooting contest to receiver Bryan Walters and shadowed the coach who never stops walking or talking or turning up the music or chewing gum like he’s furious at Wrigley.
What stood out most to Kerr was the number of strong personalities on Seattle’s roster and how Carroll encouraged rather than restricted what made them different from their teammates. Where so many football coaches seek conformity, Carroll demands the opposite. “Pete can do that because it’s genuine,” Kerr says. “You have to have the right personality to sell it. That style suits him. I don’t think Bill Belichick could pull it off.”
Kerr went back to Golden State and, with a team of what seemed like random parts (oh, and the best shooter in the league), won the NBA championship in June. As Carroll watched the finals and sent Kerr text messages of congratulations and support, this is what he saw: The Warriors looked like the Seahawks.
Carroll calls what Kerr witnessed a “celebration of uniqueness,” and that, too, can sound like psycho-babble, or one of those clichés that coaches cling to. It helps that Carroll is not exactly typical for his profession. He celebrates his own uniqueness daily.
Kris Richard, the Seahawks’ new defensive coordinator (Dan Quinn left to coach the Falcons this off-season), played cornerback for Carroll at USC. He still remembers his first Trojans team meeting, the energy that “just oozed off” the man who seemed to have Red Bull running through his veins. “At that time [the program was] kind of beaten down, and he was trying to breathe life into us,” Richard says. “He’d have us out in the Coliseum late at night, playing tug-of-war.”
The Seahawks under Carroll can sometimes resemble an island of misfit toys, but that is by design. He applauds Marshawn Lynch for never speaking to the media just as he applauds cornerback Richard Sherman for always speaking his mind. Safety Earl Thomas can opine about having warrior blood, Wilson can reveal that he’s not having sex with his girlfriend, pop star Ciara—these don’t strike Carroll as distractions. As long as no one disrupts the team’s chemistry—see ya, Percy Harvin—it’s all good.
Carroll explains this in a way that only he can. “We’re developing the human properties by reaching into people and bringing out whatever the best is they have to offer,” he says, sounding like the CEO of a Silicon Valley startup.
For years Seattle’s billionaire owner, Paul Allen, never came to practice. Then one day in 2010 he showed up. Carroll’s best friend, Dave Perron, happened to be there, and he remembers wondering aloud about Allen’s presence. Because, Carroll shrugged. He had asked Allen to stop by.
“Pete is one of the most vibrant, positive people I have met in my life,” says Carroll’s friend Ben Haggerty, better known to music fans as Macklemore. “He never turns it off. There’s a definite rhythm to how he moves about his day.”
Which isn’t to say that Carroll is automatic; his approach is always personalized. Consider his handling of defensive end Lawrence Jackson, who had 10 sacks his sophomore season at USC, in 2005, but fell into a slump the next year, beset by pressure and the death of a close cousin. Carroll gave Jackson one of his favorite books, The Inner Game of Tennis. Reading it, Jackson stumbled upon an analogy about how a cat didn’t think about how to capture a bird, didn’t consider how high to jump or how fast. The cat simply reacted. The next game, Jackson bagged three sacks. Bird caught.
Later Jackson played for the Lions, but in Detroit he was conscious of whom he ate with in the dining room and whom he spoke with on the practice field, and eventually his career petered out. “If you don’t feel your individuality is respected, a piece of you doesn’t show up to work,” Jackson says. “You can’t be who you are. Pete understands you can’t reach everybody the same way.”
Those who know Carroll laugh at the perception that he’s too nice, too New Age, the Kumbaya Coach. They point to his first year with the Seahawks, when he and general manager John Schneider led the NFL with 284 transactions. Carroll’s as competitive as Belichick, and he can be as ruthless too. “I’m not saying that when the smoke clears and you look close, he’s an ass----,” says Lawyer Milloy, who played safety for Carroll in New England and Seattle. “He’s everything that everybody sees. But do not mistake it: He’s as competitive as anybody in the history of football.”
Which is why Carroll sees Seattle’s Super Bowl failure as another example of uniqueness—just not one that he will be celebrating.
When Carroll met with Lieut. Gen. Robert Brown, in March 2013, the two men talked for hours about leadership. Brown explained how every year the Army accepted a new batch of grunts, and how roughly one third of them underachieved. That didn’t happen at USC to Carroll (who says 95% of his guys bought into the program) and Brown wondered why.
He guessed it had something to do with Carroll’s understanding of “the human dimension.” Then he relayed another story. Every year the Army would send its best men to the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, hesaid, and about 30% lasted. Eventually, leadership decided to invest more in the process, to better prepare those select few for the rigorous Ranger training. The next year, 80% made it through. Hearing that “was a profound moment,” Carroll says. “I realized, We had mentored our guys. We didn’t let them fail. [At USC] that was justified with how our guys could get drafted really high and then didn’t do as well as expected [in the NFL]. We weren’t there with them, to help them do their best.
“Then it started to make sense, the role we were playing.”
Over the last two or three seasons Carroll’s approach has crystallized. “I can’t tell you I always knew,” he says. “I didn’t. I was just winging it.”
In Seattle, Carroll has filled his staff with familiar faces, like strength coach Chris Carlisle, who at the end of his first interview with Carroll, back at USC, disclosed that he had Hodgkin’s disease and would soon begin chemotherapy treatments.
“Is that going to make you a different coach?” Carroll asked.
“Can you be here Monday?”
Carlisle, cancer-free since 2005, has watched Carroll implement his USC system in Seattle—“just change the colors,” he says—but he’s also seen Carroll adapt his ways in recent years. The coach formed a cabinet of sorts, allowing a dozen players to address concerns from inside the locker room. He cut down on his own outside endeavors (other than his charity work) and just focused on coaching. He eschewed writing another book. It was all football and grandkids. “If anything,” says Dennis Slutak, who coached special teams for Carroll at USC, “the NFL allowed Pete to be Pete more than college did. It’s like his approach is better suited there.”
Slowly, Carroll began to understand why he operated the way he did, and why it worked in both college and in the NFL. The more people he spoke with, the more tweaks he made. There was never another Aha! moment like the epiphany of 2000. Coaching became more of a quest.
Winning the Super Bowl required changes; losing the Super Bowl will require more. But at its core the system remains the same. “I’m more mindful of what it takes to do this,” Carroll says. “I was lost for a long time. I didn’t know what I was doing. I have a clearer picture now.”
Carroll told friends before the Super Bowl last February that he’d never had more fun, that the culture he’d created had never been more supported or more firmly embraced.
Then he made The Call. And the Seahawks lost. And his friends—close ones, anyway—teased him that he needed a new title for his book: Win Once in a While.
On the day that billionaire Steve Ballmer found out he would be allowed to buy the Clippers, he was sitting in Carroll’s office. Here were a couple of neighbors: the former CEO of Microsoft, a man who invited Carroll to his house for Seder; and the coach he wanted to quiz about how to implement a different culture in pro sports. “He’s telling me about all these situations he’s been in,” Ballmer says of that meeting, “and how he learned to approach all of them the same way.” The firings, the sabbatical, the epiphany, the college dynasty, fourth-and-two, the sanctions, the Super Bowl win, the NFL powerhouse—everything Carroll has gone through prepared him to better deal with the evening of Feb. 1, 2015.
No one knows for certain how the Seahawks will react, or if they will continue to listen, or if losing a game the way they lost Super Bowl XLIX will leave a permanent scar, do irreparable damage, or crack the fragile chemistry of a locker room full of oddballs. “All the principles, everything we ever talked about, came to light in the last few years,” Carroll says. “We need all of it.”
Carroll called Perron the week after the Super Bowl, but otherwise the two friends have not discussed the game itself and how it ended. Carroll just wanted to go over what he planned to tell the team. He wanted to frame this epic defeat as a teachable moment, even though some of his players were sure to roll their eyes.
Then he dived into the off-season. The whole front office did. In recent weeks, Schneider read The Obstacle Is the Way, a book about stoicism and turning trials into triumph. That’s Carroll’s influence. But even Schneider acknowledges there is a danger, especially now, that players will not buy into Carroll’s program the way they once did. When Schneider worked for coach Marty Schottenheimer in Kansas City in the late ’90s, Schottenheimer instructed him never to stay anywhere more than 10 years because “players will stop listening to you.” But the modern NFL landscape, with the salary cap and constant player movement, Schneider argues, makes it easier to implement a philosophy when every season brings so many new faces. “Pete is not going to change who he is,” Schneider says.
Six months after the disaster, six months after giving the game away, the sell remains the same. It’s hope that Carroll peddles. “I want our whole organization to show off how to overcome stuff,” Carroll says. “I want us to demonstrate resilience, which is one of the foundations of grit. We’re going to demonstrate it, just like we demonstrated the resilience to win. That was freakin’ awesome, to get back [to the Super Bowl last year] when everybody said there was no chance. We’re going to face all that again; there’s some comfort in that. We know how we’re going to do this. Here we go.”
Carroll steals a glance at the clock on his office wall. He has a team meeting to attend, energy to crank up, minds to convince, a philosophy to cement. It’s time to move the Seahawks one step away from their last game and one step closer to their next one. “What a great freakin’ day,” says football’s eternal optimist. “It’s an opportunity as much as anything.
“How strong can we be?”