Pete Carroll, once ahead of his time, now vindicated by success
Watch Pete Carroll during warm-ups on Sunday. When not engaged in various games of catch, a form of fun he takes quite seriously; or bopping around Seattle's half of the field like a supercharcharged particle, he'll line up behind the defense, lower into a backpedal that looks pretty damn fluid for a 62-year-old, then break on the ball. Before the Patriots and Jets let him go; before he coordinated a ferocious defense in San Francisco or learned the principles of the 4-3 "under" defense (with one-gap principles) from Monte Kiffin at Arkansas in 1977, Pete Carroll was a pretty good safety -- undersized but heady -- at the University of Pacific in Stockton, Calif.
"On and off the field, he sparkled," Chester Caddas recalled to me in 2006. He was Carroll's head coach at Pacific. "He covered lots of ground, was very instinctive and intercepted a bunch of passes, I think nine," his junior season. And Carroll would bring the wood. "You think he's happy-go-lucky?" ex-teammate Walt Harris told the authors of the book, Conquest. "Well, he would knock you out. He would hurt you and love it."
Bubbly, happy Pete, Mr. Sunshine, a headhunter? Maybe we've been misreading the man.
"He's known as this free-wheeling, fun-loving guy," said Yogi Roth, the former USC quarterbacks coach who co-authored Carroll's 2011 book, Win Forever. "But he's as intense a human as I've been around. He does everything with an extreme sense of purpose."
There's a method to his madness, then. Take the basketball. Carroll has hoops all over the Seahawks practice facility. He drains three-pointers during walk-throughs, during practice. At a rookie minicamp last May, he gathered the kickers around a basketball hoop and informed them that there would be a shootout. Winners stay, losers get cut, he told them. He was joking.
"The next thing we know we're shooting basketballs, he's got a couple of YouTube videos and we go out to practice and music is blaring the whole time and he's dancing around," tight end Luke Willson told the Seattle Times. "I was like, dude ... this guy is kind of crazy."
The shirts-and-skins hoops, the practical jokes -- these light moments serve a hidden purpose.
"He's teaching players, whether or not they know it, about the ability to refocus," said Roth, who recalls how at the end of training camp at 'SC the Trojans would bus to the Manhattan Beach Open, a giant beach volleyball tournament featuring scores of tanned, toned women competing in bikinis.
"No player ever got in trouble, no one ever did anything inappropriate," Roth recalls. "We always came back and had our best scrimmage that night. And Pete would tell the guys, 'In this season, there are going to be a lot of distractions. We're going to make sure that we have the most fun, and you're going to make sure you can trust yourself to lock back in.'"
He was peddling many of these same principles 20 years ago, but fewer people were buying. After replacing Bruce Coslet as head coach of the Jets in 1994, Carroll quickly raised eyebrows with his methods. The wunderkind from Northern California had a basketball court painted onto a parking lot at the team's Long Island training facility. He played pickup games after practice. He brought in Major League Soccer star Tony Meola to do some kicking, and had lumbering, 300-pound linemen take penalty shots on him. He was like no coach any of them had ever been around.
While coaching at Pacific, Carroll had moonlighted as a grad student. One of his professors was Glen Albaugh, a sports psychologist interested in the Human Potential Movement. In an '06 interview with me, he recalled Carroll as "very inquisitive, bright, willing to take risks and willing to go into territory coaches don't normally go into. And so, away we went."
He remembers being impressed not just that Carroll could discuss Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by the Buddhist meditation master Chogyam Trungpa, but also that he'd read it with the tome flat on his dashboard, driving south on I-5 from Stockton to southern California to visit Glena Goranson, his future wife.
Carroll's pep and positive reinforcement and outside-the-box thinking did not fly in the Big Apple. The NFL wasn't ready for him. Reporters referred to his outfit as The Good Ship Lollipop (which, while narrow-minded and mean-spirited, is also pretty damn funny, one has to admit). Team owner Leon Hess, a doddering, octogenarian oil magnate, fired Carroll after a single season, replacing him with Rich Kotite, who'd just gotten axed by the Eagles. Still, Hess liked the cut of his jib, describing the Brooklyn-born Kotite as "a leader, a builder, a 'dese' and 'dose' guy."
While Kotite was losing 28 of his 32 games, Carroll rehabilitated his rep with a stint as the 49ers defensive coordinator. Robert Kraft hired him to replace Bill Parcells in New England '97. That marriage, likewise, was doomed. Reporters accustomed to the Lombardian gruffness of Bill Parcells were wrongfooted by this blithe son of Marin County, Calif., who rode a cruiser bike from the dorm to the practice field in fall camp. Who did he think he was, Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait? "Daddy Pete," as they called him -- it wasn't a compliment -- inherited a roster of players selected for "a Parcells system, Parcells vision," recalled Willie McGinest, a defensive end on that team. "And Pete had his vision. And they were left and right."
Was Carroll a little too rah-rah for the Patriots? McGinest doesn't answer directly. "I loved it, I didn't have an issue with it. [But] it's not for everybody, and I don't think a lot of guys on our team bought in."
Kraft canned him after three seasons. Carroll's subsequent epiphany has been well-chronicled. Reading a book by John Wooden during his unsolicited sabbatical, he was struck by the fact that the legendary UCLA hoops coach had failed to win an NCAA title in his first 16 seasons, after which he won 10 in his last 12. "When he nailed it, he really nailed it!" Carroll said. Pete spent months honing his "Always Compete" philosophy, then put it to work at USC, where he turned a floundering program into the most dynastic college team of the decade.
The day the Seahawks hired Carroll, in January 2010, Roth asked him: "What do you change now?"
"I'm not gonna change a thing," Carroll replied.
Things on the surface changed. Competition Tuesday -- during which second teamers and understudies were encouraged to take the jobs of the starters, who, in turn, ramped up their intensity -- became Competition Wednesday. Turnover Wednesday became Turnover Thursday. The undergirding philosophy remained in place.
That's not to say Carroll, or his staff, tolerate inertia. Carroll's zeal to glean every possible competitive edge, coupled with his genuine disregard over what anyone outside the building thinks of it, has led him in fascinating directions. A few years ago he teamed up with Dr. Michael Gervais, a leader in the field of "high performance psychology" who maintains that our quest be our personal best "starts with awareness."
To achieve that awareness, the Seahawks practice yoga and meditation (with widely varying degrees of commitment and success). That helps them hone the mental skills, "allowing them to have confidence in any circumstance, a sense of poise in any environment."
Make that almost any environment, as Erin Andrews might attest.
Technology is embraced. Tracking devices allow player movement to be monitored on the practice field, to better measure their workloads. At the beginning of the season, plans were in place, according to an August story on ESPN.com, "to have players and coaches wear wristbands to track sleep habits and, when necessary, adjust practice schedules to maximize rest."
"That's why I call this place the Google of football," said Michael Bennett, the defensive end. "The way they approach everything -- it's a special atmosphere. I think you have to be here to understand how they take care of you."
Carroll's willingness to take risks -- indeed, his insistence on taking them -- carries over to personnel decisions (see: Wilson, Russell) and X's and O's. One of the hot topics during this frigid week has been Seattle's intriguing new twist on Cover Three, aka "Three deep zone coverage." The skillsets of big, physical cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell allow them to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, then run down the field with them, even when the rest of the defense is aligned in what is ostensibly a zone defense. That wrinkle, ex-Ravens head coach Brian Billick said on Tuesday, "is revolutionizing the game a little bit, along the lines of the West Coast offense and Tampa Two [defense]. It's got the attention of the league."
Peyton Manning may yet fillet the Legion of Boom. If the Seahawks fall short, it's not likely to be on account of a loss of composure. Not if Carroll and Dr. Mike have done their jobs -- which is, according to Gervais, "creating ways of thinking" for the players "that are grounded in old-school values." Those habits, in turn, ensure that "the moment doesn't define our ability to execute the habit." Quite the opposite, the athlete is in control "of finding his optimal state."
The Seahawks won't choke, in other words.
Regardless of the outcome, Carroll is already vindicated. Daddy Pete was right all along. He was just ahead of his time.