Carroll gives it old college try in Seattle

Pete Carroll went 33-31 in four seasons as an NFL head coach.
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

RENTON, Wash. – He is selling again, of course, pushing sunshine on a gloomy summer day. Listen to me, Pete Carroll says, don’t judge me on the past. This time is different.

He tells the story he told his new Seattle Seahawks players when he first met them as their coach last winter. He says “I didn’t know who I was” when he first coached in the NFL – a failed four-year experiment with the New York Jets and New England Patriots. That wouldn’t come until after he was fired in 1999 and discovered a book by legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.

Inside were the secrets that helped him to understand everything, to approach coaching, how to prepare, how to win.

“It was as if I kicked myself in the butt,” he says. “I have to think about what gave myself the best chance to be successful. I knew I had thoughts that were different than other peoples’, but I finally had to be able to say ‘I’m going to do it my way.’ ”

He was in charge at USC, he goes on, something he couldn’t be in New York and New England where he answered to general managers. He got to pick his players, implement his own system, then won 97 games (14 victories were later vacated). And even though the embers of the NCAA’s sanctions after a Yahoo! Sports investigation into his USC program still smolder with 30 scholarships and the postseason gone for the next two years, he speaks only of winning in Seattle.

They have given him everything here, titles as head coach and executive vice president, almost as much power as owner Paul Allen handed Mike Holmgren – a far more established and respected NFL man – in 1999. Power that proved too much for Holmgren to handle. Why should it be different for Carroll with little NFL success?

“I feel I didn’t do a good job of preparing myself back then,” he says.

Now, he insists, he is ready. He doesn’t just want the control over players. He needs it.

Sitting with Carroll can be a peculiar experience. He is at once a strange mix of gracious, engaged and distracted, which is hard to imagine until you actually see it. There are moments when he makes you feel as if the conversation is the most important of his life. When this happens, his eyes lock on yours and he tells a story he may very well have told 100 times before. But somehow, at that moment, it’s as if he is telling it for the first time.

Then, without warning, and without the topic changing, his feet start to shuffle. He shifts in his chair. His legs twitch. He spots someone outside the window. He waves. And the conversation slows.

But another question comes and again he springs forward in his seat, fixing his attention on his guest as if he had never drifted away.

“We work hard, don’t get that misconstrued” says safety Lawyer Milloy(notes), a former University of Washington star who played for Carroll in New England for three seasons. “I’ll tell you what, this preseason camp is one of the most competitive camps I’ve been to in the last 15 years.”

He says this because there is a perception of Carroll as some kind of transcendental, new-age coach who would rather slap his players on the back, post tweets and play music at practice than concentrate on football. And certainly Carroll has given reason to think this, with his decade-long embrace of anything Hollywood while coaching USC.

But Carroll also believes in ferocious practices in which players and coaches alike sprint from station to station, hitting harder and plunging into physical drills more than most NFL teams. At one recent practice, linebackers and defensive linemen battled to outdo each other, knocking aside tackling dummies to plunge into a pile of pads. It was a particularly demanding exercise in a league where coaches often don’t exert their players the way they would in college given the constraints of a professional roster and the length of the season. Yet it is the kind of thing the Seahawks do all the time under Carroll.

“We practice hard,” Carroll says. “We practice as hard and fast and we have done that for years. We developed a great ethic for that at SC more than they had in years. If you don’t practice like that, you don’t stand a chance to play at your best, in my mind.”

He smiles, understanding the perceptions well.

“It’s probably not what you thought you would hear,” he said.

Carroll talks endlessly about competition, burying the team’s headquarters in it from the day he arrived. Everyone must compete. Players, coaches, secretaries, groundskeepers. Compete with each other. Push to get better.

The Seahawks went 1-3 in the preseason under Pete Carroll.
(Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images)
Big job

Pete Carroll has work to do in turning the Seahawks around. Here is AccuScore’s NFC prediction, which makes the Niners the overwhelming favorite in the West.

NFC Win Loss Playoff Win div.
Saints 11.5 4.5 92.6% 79.4%
Vikings 10.6 5.4 82.2% 57.3%
49ers 9.0 7.0 72.8% 70.3%
Packers 10.0 6.0 70.3% 38.6%
Cowboys 9.8 6.2 67.7% 52.7%
Giants 8.6 7.4 44.4% 25.7%
Falcons 8.7 7.3 42.4% 11.8%
Panthers 8.0 8.0 29.5% 8.1%
Eagles 7.4 8.6 22.8% 11.2%
Redskins 7.4 8.6 22.1% 10.5%
Cardinals 6.8 9.2 22.1% 19.0%
Bears 6.8 9.2 12.1% 3.6%
Seahawks 5.9 10.1 11.5% 9.3%
Bucs 5.8 10.2 4.3% 0.7%
Rams 4.2 11.9 1.7% 1.5%
Lions 5.0 11.0 1.5% 0.4%

“It’s just everywhere,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes) says.

The mantra sometimes seems more high school than NFL. But this is also the core of Carroll’s approach: If everyone has to fight for his job, then the level of their play should rise. This was never more evident than when Carroll swapped picks and traded another selection to San Diego for quarterback Charlie Whitehurst(notes), signed him to a two-year, $8 million contract and announced that Whitehurst, despite being the Chargers’ No. 3 quarterback, would challenge Hasselbeck as the starter.

“You bring in Charlie Whitehurst, now let’s see how No. 8 [Hasselbeck] – he’s had the ball in his hands the last nine years – how he responds,” Milloy says.

By training camp there was no debate. It was clear Hasselbeck would hold on to his job.

But Carroll keeps pushing, slashing players from the roster and adding new ones almost every day. His thinking is if you can replace a mediocre player with a slightly better one and then replace that slightly better player with another one just a little more talented, you will eventually raise the level of the team. In theory the logic is sound. Yet the Seahawks have run through so many players (180 roster moves in eight months, according to the team’s website) they haven’t had a chance to build continuity.

To build cohesion and make his points clearer to the team, Carroll has maintained a tradition from his Patriots and USC days, giving each day of the week a different focus. Players roll their eyes as they recount the list: “Tell the Truth Monday.” “Competition Wednesday.” “Turnover Thursday.” “No Repeat Friday.”

He is asked if maybe professional football players won’t accept the same gimmicks as those in high school and college. He frowns.

“Come on,” he says, “they’re all the same guys. A guy here might have kids and a house and a mortgage but they’re still the same. They respond.”

Asked the same thing, Hasselbeck smiles.

“We have a young team,” he says.

Then he pauses.

“If the perception is that he’s Mr. Rah-Rah College Coach, he’s not rah rah,” Hasselbeck continues. “He’s a leader.”

Still nothing runs more counter to the way the NFL does things than Carroll’s belief that he should not spend hours game-planning for an opponent. Rather, he wants the Seahawks to work on the things they do, becoming so perfect it won’t matter what the other teams try.

This, of course, is exactly what men like Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick do not do. Belichick is renown for his intense preparation, scouring tape for days, looking for any imperfection that can be exploited. He then builds his meetings around it, having his video people present the information in new and interesting ways that will be simple for the players to grasp.

When questioned about his approach, Carroll looked surprised.

“Who told you that?” he asks.

After he was told it was his players he leaned back in his chair.

“I’m happy to share that with you,” he said.

“We game-plan,” he continued. “We want to know what the other team’s strengths and weaknesses are. But we want to get ourselves ready.”

The goal, he said, is consistency. If the Seahawks can be even in their approach every week then they should maintain a high level. “Then, if you play a team that’s struggling,” Carroll said, “you should be able to beat the hell out of them.”

What really is different about this Carroll than the one from New York and New England? Most of the things he does with the Seahawks – pushing competition, not obsessing over the opponent and naming each day of the week – were things he did in New England. On the surface he seems to be the same coach, save for another layer of confidence.

League sources say he lost his job with the Patriots in 1999 because he lacked the focus ownership was expecting. The team’s fear was that he became too caught up in external distractions, being seen at concerts during the season when the job demanded a grind that both Parcells before him and Belichick had. His approach – focusing on what the team did best, rather than scheming for opponents – came off as too much of a college style in a league where everyone has roughly the same talent and the best coaches outsmart the others.

Each year his teams started off strong, the result of a robust training camp and faded fast in the second half, the first two squeezing into the playoffs and 1999’s, dropping from 6-2 to 8-8.

Two seasons after Carroll left, Belichick led the Patriots to their first Super Bowl title. To the Patriots, this justifies their decision.

Carroll did not ride into Seattle on a swell of enthusiasm. People here have long been skeptical of outsiders from California, especially ones wearing smiles, ready to sell.

So who is Carroll in Seattle? A savior? Another Californian with sunshine to peddle that folks in the pure, cloudy Pacific Northwest will never trust? A pro coach who understands 10 years later how to succeed in the NFL? Or just a college guy running from the NCAA?

No one can say, in part because Carroll can seem to be all of these things at once. And changing the Seahawks might be a bigger sell than even he can make.

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Sep 10, 2010