High energy is surely part of the package with the cyclone that is Pete Carroll, but there was no bounce, little roll and nary an all-out sprint across the field from the new coach of the Seattle Seahawks as he orchestrated a recent practice.
It’s his left knee. Carroll had surgery a few weeks ago. The leg, secured by a brace concealed by his tan khaki trousers, hasn’t responded as expected. He’s unable to run and walks stiffly, his gait not quite matching the hyper, enthusiastic tone in his voice.
“It’s frustrating,” Carroll, 58, said as he strolled to mingle with a few dozen fans who lingered after practice. “I’ve never been in a situation like this, where I just can’t take off and go. I’ll be OK. But I’m not at my ‘A’ game yet.”
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That’s fitting enough. Carroll — who built a dynasty at Southern California, yet bolted five months before the NCAA hammered the program with severe sanctions stemming from improper benefits received by Reggie Bush— is challenged to revive a franchise that won just nine games the past two seasons.
Lured in January with a five-year contract worth at least $6 million per year and with wide-ranging power, Carroll is the Seahawks’ third coach in as many years, ending Jim Mora’s one-year tenure. The timing of his move raises the question of whether he looked to bail on USC as the NCAA’s four-year investigation came to a close, but he has repeatedly contended that the deal was clinched by the willingness of Seahawks owner Paul Allen to offer control over personnel that other NFL teams over the years refused to give him.
“We were involved in that thing for years,” he says of the NCAA’s investigation. “I had a chance to leave … whenever. It had nothing to do with it. This opportunity was unique, with the structure of the job. That was always the issue.”
With that, he begins a third attempt to win big at football’s highest level. Before Southern California, where he won two national championships, seven consecutive Pac-10 titles and had a 97-19 record, Carroll was fired from NFL head coaching jobs with the New York Jets (1994) and New England Patriots (1997-99). He earned two playoff berths in the NFL, but left with an unspectacular 33-31overall regular-season record.
He believes he is better prepared this time.
“This does not seem like a new experience, that I’m trying to figure it out for the first time,” he says. “Matter of fact, It feels like I’ve been here before.”
As he sat in his corner office at the Seahawks’ waterfront headquarters in suburban Seattle, with a wall of glass offering a view of Lake Washington, Carroll considered the two notable events of recent months and sounded like anything but a soothsayer.
He says that he never thought an NFL team would give him the type of power that he possesses, with new general manager John Schneider as his hand-picked hire and each move comprised amid a massive roster overhaul stopping at his desk.
Likewise, he contends that he never imagined Southern California would get penalized as harshly as it did by the NCAA for what occurred under his watch. The Trojans, on four years probation, are banned from bowl games for two years, lost 30 scholarships and are at risk of losing their 2004 BCS national title. The school has appealed some of the sanctions.
“I hope they at least adjust what they’ve done,” Carroll says of the NCAA, “because the statement they’ve thrown on the program isn’t anywhere near how it’s been gauged in other programs around the country. They just went way overboard.”
Carroll consistently has maintained that he had no knowledge of Bush’s dealings with agents, and that the program should not absorb such severe penalties due to violations relating to one player. Asked if he has discussed the sanctions with Bush, Carroll said he has only exchanged text messages with the New Orleans Saints running back.
“It’s like he’s my own child, like any of the other kids in the program,” Carroll says. “I do not not love him because this happened.”
As questions during a half-hour interview shifted back to his current mission, Carroll looked relieved. “Yeah, let’s move on,” he said. “I’m an NFL coach now.”
The stirring beats from pop music blare throughout practice, coming from speakers near fans watching from a grassy hillside. From a VIP tent just off the field, the scent from a barbecue grill fills the air. Roaring above are the Blue Angels, preparing for an air show as part of the annual Seafair festival.
Distractions? Indeed, approved by the head man.
The scene is classic Carroll, who believes that such buzz during practice will better condition players to concentrate in loud stadiums on game day. He even encouraged the flyovers from the daredevil pilots. Such is the new way of life for the Seahawks.
“If you were used to doing things a certain way, that got thrown out the door in March,” says quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, referring to the start of the offseason conditioning program. “Everything’s different. But it’s a good different. It’s cool.”
Some of Carroll’s messages are delivered like virtual neon lights. There are T-shirts worn by players and staffers with his central coaching theme, “Always Compete,” printed across the front. Placards containing the team’s logo and the words, “I’m In!” are in hallways that lead to the practice field, weight room and meeting rooms.
Beyond such surface statements, nuts-and-bolts elements of Carroll’s program are hitting home with players. It began with an offseason program that emphasized weight training, with less work on the field. In camp, the practices are fast and intense, but Carroll’s routine is player-friendly. In addition to a home run derby contest last week and the presence of a basketball hoop on the side of the building, there are built-in breaks.
He gave players a day off the first week of camp, and throughout the summer the team won’t have two-a-days on consecutive days. Carroll also is preserving older players by holding them out of selected practices. And there are nights the team won’t have meetings.
Yet the philosophy, Carroll says, starts with competition. Just as he was prone to play freshmen at Southern California, Carroll now insists that younger players can crack the lineup and that every player should be pushed to keep his job.
“This might be the first camp I’ve been in where everybody gets reps, even down to the third-stringers,” says wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a 10th-year veteran. “And not just run-off reps or decoy reps. I mean reps where everybody gets the ball. So from that aspect, you’ve got to believe there’s competition. You either keep up, or get left behind.”
Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, one of eight former Southern Cal players on the roster who previously played for Carroll, wondered how his teammates would respond to their new coach. And he was curious to see whether his former college coach would alter his style on the NFL level. He’s impressed on both counts.
“They’ve rallied around him,” Tatupu says. “They love his enthusiasm. I was glad to see that all that energy he had at SC wasn’t just for show. That’s Pete.”
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