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Pete Carroll, NFL's eternal optimist, is ready to turn heartbreak into triumph

Pete Carroll is ready to come back stronger than ever after the Seahawks' heartbreaking Super Bowl XLIX loss to the Patriots. 

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?'”

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

Grit.

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