And while he never could have imagined it at the time, getting fired by New England following the 1999 season was probably the best thing that could have happened to both Carroll and the Patriots.
Forced to reevaluate himself as a coach, Carroll found his winning formula while leading USC to one of the most successful decade-long runs in college football history. The Patriots, meanwhile, replaced Carroll with Bill Belichick, who has led New England to five AFC championships and three Super Bowl victories.
Today, Carroll faces the franchise that fired him 13 years ago, confident that, in the long run, both he and Patriots were better off for that decision.
"It was a great change unfortunately, under the circumstances," Carroll said.
It wasn't that Carroll was some bumbling idiot who didn't know a thing about football when he coached New England in the late '90s. Carroll, who counts among his coaching mentors such NFL heavyweights as Bud Grant and Bill Walsh, had a reputation as one of the best defensive minds in the game and had led New England to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons there.
But looking back, Carroll realized that he had yet to find himself has a head coach. In his year off after losing the New England job, Carroll studied legendary basketball coach John Wooden and found a coaching philosophy, one based on competition above all else. And he realized that he had better get things right in his next job if he wanted to continue working as a head coach.
"Getting spanked and getting knocked out of there, there was a great chance for me to regroup," Carroll said. "I really found the approach and the language, the specifics of it, because of the necessity and the competitive opportunity -- I needed to get my act together or I was never going to get another chance. All of that together gave me the real insight to create what is so important to me now as a coach."
For a long time, Carroll didn't think he'd even test his "win forever" philosophies in the NFL. He was happy coaching at the college level, and he enjoyed the autonomy that came with being a college coach. He decided on the personnel, he made all the big decisions, and if he wasn't going to be able to do that in NFL, then Carroll wasn't going to leave USC.
In 2010, however, Seahawks owner Paul Allen was offering just that. He hired Carroll before hiring a new general manager, then let Carroll help in the GM search that eventually led to the hiring of John Schneider.
And when Carroll returned for another go-around in the NFL, he did so as a changed coach, even if he still had his upbeat, optimistic personality. Lawyer Milloy, who played for Carroll in New England, then ended his career playing for Carroll in Seattle, said Carroll was "definitely" a different coach when he came to Seattle.
"Every coach, every organization is trying to find the recipe for winning, and sometimes you need something like that to happen to you," Milloy said. "Then you go to, like a USC, and you find that. He had an 'Aha' moment. I think he found that at USC. Without USC, I don't think -- even if he got another shot in the NFL -- I don't think he would be as successful as he is. Finding his recipe played a crucial role in what he's doing now."
Milloy also noticed that Carroll commanded a different level of respect when he returned to the NFL having accomplished so much at USC.
"He had our respect in New England, but from a national standpoint, people didn't know who he was then," Milloy said. "... Everybody knew him coming in this time. When the Patriots hired him after a big name like (Bill) Parcells left, it was like, 'OK, who's Pete (Carroll)?' Now they knew who he was, that's the difference. When he came to the Seahawks, guys already respected him. He commanded the room when he came in. It was a little different."
Of course in the end, Carroll knows none of this talk of finding himself as a coach will mean much of anything if he can't produce a consistent winner at the NFL level. Carroll certainly appears to have the Seahawks heading in the right direction, but he is a long ways from matching the NFL success enjoyed by the man who will be on the opposing sideline today, the man who also happens to have been hired more than a decade ago to replace Carroll in New England.
If Carroll can succeed in Seattle like he did at USC, if the Seahawks can spend the next decade winning like New England has under Belichick, then Carroll someday will look back on his 1999 firing as the best thing that happened to him.
"I'm hoping that when we look back here, that we'll see that the benefit of all that time can be seen in our program here," Carroll said. "The philosophy, the approach, the dedication to what we believe in, our mode, our language, and everything about this thing, was successful there, is was successful here, then I will have felt like that meant something."
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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