EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- After his Seattle Seahawks finished the Denver Broncos in every possible way with their 43-8 Super Bowl XLVIII victory, Pete Carroll looked like a man with several tons of baggage lifted from his shoulders. The specter of his failures with the New York Jets and New England Patriots in the 1990s had him wondering at one point whether he would ever get another chance in the NFL, and the decade of success at USC after could not erase a burning desire to see if he'd learned enough to give the pros another try.
Four years after he accepted Paul Allen's offer to be the head man in Seattle, Carroll, it's safe to say, has aced the NFL in ways few people can these days. In a passing league, Carroll's secondary clamped down on the most productive and prolific offense in the league's history. In an era when pressure rules the day and conventional wisdom says to build from the lines out, Carroll's league-best defense is built from the secondary in.
And in an era when coaches are supposed to be supreme disciplinarians to win, Carroll, 62, has not lost his excitable ways -- he's the same relentless competitor he's always been, but there's a gravitas and weight to his words that there wasn't before. When he came back to the NFL, Carroll had it all together, even if he was the only one who truly understood what that really meant. And two decades after he was run out the Jets organization (in favor of Rich Kotite, of all people), Carroll came back to the Meadowlands with an ass-kicking team on full blast in all ways and at all times.
For him now, there is no other way.
“Through the years, the biggest change really did happen after I was fired at New England," Carroll remembered this week. "That was really the biggest opportunity shift, because it was really the first time I had some time. I was semi-retired for 10 months, and I had a chance to sit back. I had to kick into a real competitive mode, because the job market was going to come up again as I sat out for one season. In that time I think that the competitiveness really elevated in me that I needed to get right. I needed to do everything I could to get as prepared as possible. The first thing that came up was the college coaching season, and as that came along I had schools that I called and they didn’t want to have anything to do with me. I didn’t get calls back, but USC finally did and it gave me an opportunity through that transition to go ahead and bring out the philosophy and approach and the language and the whole outlook that had just come through the years of experience but I had a chance to collect it.
"Really, I haven’t been the same since. It was a great change. And it was really about getting close to what was really important to me and hoping to get an opportunity that I could express that. I thought I was ready going into New England and I would have liked to have seen what would have happened at that ... for whatever reason, it really happened at USC. There was a time there when I knew after the New England job that it was going to be difficult to get back into the league. I had a couple coordinator opportunities and I didn’t want to do that at the time. I wanted to stay with what I had started, so the college route seemed like the right one.
"So to finish this long answer, I thought I would never leave USC. It was a perfect situation and I loved it. Everything was formatted so that I could really do things the way I wanted to do them and I had tremendous freedom and support, but I always knew that the NFL was the most competitive level that you could get involved with in the world of football. I always had that in the back of my mind that I wanted to see what would happen, particularly after the years at USC as we had success. I wanted to see what would happen if we translated this to the NFL and see what the result was.
"And simply again, the way we treated people at USC and the way we went about the expectations for the individuals as they fit into the team was something that I really wanted to carry into the NFL and see what would happen, and we’ve been rewarded well in the four years that we’ve been in Seattle. I’m really thankful for that.”
One of the most important things that happened to Carroll was that former team CEO Tod Lieweke introduced him to current Seahawks general manager John Schneider, a longtime personnel executive who had never been given a chance to run a team. And it didn't take Schneider long to realize that the Pete Carroll he was dealing with in 2010 had everything necessary to inspire, teach and motivate as many different kinds of people as you could put in front of him.
"He's able to put across his philosophy because it's real," Schneider told me after the Super Bowl win. "It's not fake. It's not just words. It's from his heart and his brain and all his experience. All those experiences everywhere -- coaching for Bud Grant, working for the Jets, working for the Patriots, working in different structures. Going to college football and recruiting under different structures and recruiting 18-year-old kids. With him, it's just... real. There's nothing fake about him at all."
One of the things Carroll has learned is that he must find his own ways in which his messages will resonate with his players. He believes in love. He believes in redemption. He believes in finding the best in the people around him and challenging them to find it at all times. It's packaged differently than the Vince Lombardi paradigm, but when you can nab a Lombardi Trophy with your philosophies, people are going to pay attention.
When things started to quiet down late Sunday night and even Carroll was almost out of words, I asked him to conjure up an explanation of the belief structure he inhabits and passes on to others.
"I think that what we're talking about is the truth," he said. "Helping people be the best they can be -- it doesn't matter what you're talking about. Football, or whether you 're talking about business, or talking about families -- the language and the intent and doing everything you can to help them. I can understand why that does resonate, and I'm very excited about that, because I know that the message goes beyond football."
Carroll has also had to believe in some of his players beyond the first mistake, while he's jettisoned others for lesser offenses. It's a tough balancing act for any coach, but as he put it to me, such dichotomies are at the root of his own belief systems and structures.
"Just because you make a mistake doesn't mean that you don't have all the good in you -- for your future. People make mistakes all the time. We learn and grow. If there's patience and love and you care for people, you can work them through it, and they can find their greatest heights. I love that this message is part of our program, because it really needs to be part of a lot of programs."