You’re lucky to get a second chance. You’re usually dreaming to expect a third.
Seattle Seahawks new head coach Pete Carroll is a special case. Although he wasn’t a particularly successful head coach for the New York Jets or New England Patriots, he did enough at the helm of the University of Southern California (two national championships and seven Pac-10 crowns in nine seasons) to earn a return engagement with the NFL.
It could have come earlier than last January, when the Seattle Seahawks lured him back to the league with a five-year contract worth a reported $33 million. It almost definitely would have come later. All of those lofty accomplishments at one of the country’s premier college programs made Carroll a permanent fixture on just about everyone’s list of top head-coaching candidates.
Yet collegiate success only explains part of what could very well allow Carroll to do for the Seahawks what he did for the Trojans … and what he failed to do for the Jets or Patriots.
Carroll, who turns 59 in September, picked up some valuable lessons from the one season he spent with the Jets (1994, when they finished 6-10) and those three years he was with the Patriots (1997-99, when they had a combined record of 27-21).
“It’s an unusual opportunity — one where you know where you’re going and you’ve been there before and you have the kinds of experiences that when you come back the next time around, it’s kind of like, ‘I wish I would have known this when I was here before,'” Carroll said. “And it feels differently in that regard.”
The one season he spent away from coaching, 2000, “couldn’t have been more helpful” from the standpoint of allowing him to get “organized.” During his year off, he served as a consultant to NFL and college football teams, writing a column about pro football for CNNSI.com and doing charitable work for the league. Those close to Carroll cited a general lack of organization as the main reason for his undoing with the Jets and Patriots.
Simply put, he didn’t know what he didn’t know. As is the case with most first-time head coaches in the NFL, Carroll was merely happy to get the gig. He stayed in the moment rather than looking at his long-term future or the larger, more philosophical picture.
Carroll gave little, if any, thought to organizational structure. Did the person in charge of acquiring players share his vision of how the roster should be assembled? Did he have the full support of ownership? How much authority and power did he actually have over all things football?
Carroll wasn’t with the Jets long enough to truly figure out what he needed to do to have anything approaching the heights he reached at USC. In New England, he discovered a whole lot of what he needed to avoid the next time he became a head coach — if there was a next time.
Carroll was never able to gain the full trust of Pats owner Robert Kraft, who was still reeling over Bill Parcells’ decision to leave the club in the lurch after a 35-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI. Instead, Kraft and his son, Jonathan, gave the bulk of their trust and power to personnel chief Bobby Grier.
“It was a much different time there,” Carroll recalled. “They had just come off the Super Bowl. They had just been, I think, rocked through the loss of Bill Parcells. And in that, they were still trying to figure out what they wanted to do. They weren’t as clear as they are now and the structure is much more defined than it was at the time.”
Now, the Patriots have one football leader: Bill Belichick. Players, assistant coaches and scouts don’t have the least bit of doubt or confusion over who is in charge. They do things the “Belichick Way” or they do them elsewhere.
From ’97 to ’99, Patriot players who were unhappy with Carroll or the rest of the coaching staff took their complaints to Grier and the Krafts.
“It was just different,” Carroll said. “There were a lot of heads in that program at the time. And they didn’t realize that, they didn’t know it at the time. They kind of thought that they had a way to do it, and they should have felt like that. They just won the AFC. They felt they were close to winning the world championship.”
Carroll failed to recognize the Krafts had no intention of giving him any appreciable amount of power because he was “too eager and too excited and too fired up about the whole thing to really get it clear.” He acknowledged it was his responsibility, not the Krafts’, to get all of the information necessary to determine whether the job truly would be a good fit for him.
In December of 2000, USC gave Carroll a five-year deal and autonomy that he didn’t have with the Jets or Patriots. “And with that I think I found the rhythms and the style and the approach that was really necessary for me to be at my best,” he said.
His time at USC did much more than allow Carroll to establish himself among the best coaches in college football. It also gave him a clear understanding of what he would require, besides more money, to return to the NFL. That included being involved in the hiring of a general manager so that they would be of one mind rather than pulling in opposite directions.
When the Seahawks approached him as their choice to replace Jim Mora, Carroll heard what he needed to hear, which included involvement in the selection of a new GM, who turned out to be John Schneider.
Together, they’re going about the task of building a team that has a “very aggressive, tough attitude.” Carroll’s coaching background is rooted in defense, and that was the way the Trojans’ defense and the units he guided for North Carolina State (1980-82), the Jets (1990-93) and the San Francisco 49ers (1995-96) played. His hiring of Alex Gibbs to be his assistant head coach/offense and Jeremy Bates to be his offensive coordinator was intended to build an offense that would complement the defense’s aggressiveness and toughness. Gibbs knows how to put together an offensive line that, through zone-blocking techniques, can effectively open holes for the run. Bates knows how to make the most of a rushing attack while also incorporating a big-play passing game.
“(Seahawks chief executive officer) Tod Leiweke made it really clear, (club owner) Paul Allen made it really clear that they wanted me to do it the way that I’d been doing it, the way that I knew how to do it, and not ask me to adapt to what they’re doing but to bring me in to change the culture of their program,” Carroll said. “I’ve had the opportunity to talk to teams over the years, and when my conversations got to any depth at all, I just sensed that it wasn’t the right format.
“(The Seahawks are) asking me to generate the source in the entire process to put the culture together from what I understand, the way I want to do it, and the way I know it best.”
That figures to go a long way toward enhancing the chances of Carroll’s third time being the charm.