Fun is the Pete Carroll way to win

NEW YORK — Pete Carroll sat in a hallway at Seahawks headquarters in the days leading up to his first regular-season game as Seattle’s new head coach, and on that September afternoon three and a half years ago, discussed the one misconception about him and his methods that he wanted to correct in his return to the NFL.

“Only that you can’t have fun coaching football at this level and still compete like crazy and win,” Carroll said in a 2010 interview. “If there’s anything that people don’t understand, it’s how you can enjoy it in the way that we do and still work really hard and be really disciplined.”

In other words, Carroll was out to prove that, even in the tough world of the NFL, winning and fun did not have to be mutually exclusive.

“I’m anxious to see it translate to the league,” Carroll said in 2010. “I like to have a good time, I like to have fun with stuff, and sometime I don’t think people think that translates to the NFL. I want to show that it can.”

Four seasons into his tenure in Seattle, it’s safe to say Carroll has accomplished that goal. With his team facing the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, and with three playoff appearances in four years, Carroll has shown, without a doubt, that his somewhat unconventional approach translates just fine to the NFL.

Carroll was often mocked by the media as being too much of a rah-rah guy in his two previous head coaching stops with the New York Jets and New England Patriots; people said he was too much of a player’s coach. And even when he found tremendous success at USC, many wanted to write him off as a great recruiter who was winning largely because of superior talent.

Lost in the fact that Carroll did recruit some incredible talent at USC, and that he enjoyed celebrity status rarely achieved by college coaches outside of the Southeastern Conference, was the fact that at his core, Carroll remained the same hyper-competitive guru of defense who earlier in his career climbed the ranks in the NFL to earn two head coaching jobs.

Athletes love playing for Carroll because he lets them have fun, he lets them be themselves — actually, Carroll says he doesn’t let players be themselves so much as celebrate it. That, however, doesn’t mean his teams don’t require discipline and hard work. If you cross Carroll, if you don’t buy in to the “always compete” philosophy, you’ll be gone faster that you can say, “I don’t care that you played for me at USC, LenDale White.”

But the players who buy in, it turns out they get to have fun and win a lot of football games in the process.

“It’s a trust factor,” middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “You’ve got to earn that trust, you’ve got to build that trust. Once you build that trust and earn it, he allows you to be yourself and do certain things because he trusts you. So it’s kind of that trust factor. He trusts us and we trust him.”

Carroll has often said he only left USC because the Seahawks gave him the power he didn’t have in New York and New England. In his mind, his way only worked if he could have his players, and Seahawks owner Paul Allen was offering that when he came calling after a messy 2009 season.

A question frequently asked of Carroll this week as he coaches his first Super Bowl in the same city where he had his first head coaching job is how he has changed since he was with the Jets, or since he left the NFL and revived his career at USC.

Sitting next to Broncos coach John Fox on Friday with the Lombardi Trophy in between them, Carroll reiterated that he’s not as different as the results might indicate. In his year out of coaching before taking the USC job, Carroll didn’t suddenly reinvent his beliefs about how winning football should be played, but instead he found a way to clearly express his philosophies. That’s when “Win Forever,” “Always Compete,” “Do everything better than it has ever been done before” and all those other mantras were born. They all seemed pretty corny right up until the Seahawks became the toughest team in the NFL and followed an 11-5 2012 season with a 13-3 one that now has them in the Super Bowl.

“I personally don’t feel like I’ve changed that much,” Carroll said Friday. “I’ve just grown and learned how to better send the message out clearly, because the philosophy in my mind is more clear than it’s ever been. It really took me getting fired a couple times and getting kicked in the butt and all that to really get it to the point where it is now, unfortunately. I hate learning the hard way… but sometimes you have to, and it’s taken some shots to get here.

If the Seahawks win Sunday, Carroll will join Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer as the only coaches to win a Super Bowl and a college national title. Carroll doesn’t view Seattle’s run to the Super Bowl as a redemption story, even if it’s playing out in the stadium of a team that fired him two decades ago. Carroll doesn’t believe he needs redeeming, because he always believed his way would work in the NFL in the right situation. He never doubted that, even at the game’s highest level, fun and winning could coexist.

Carroll knew it, and said it, even before his first game with the Seahawks. By getting the Seahawks to the pinnacle of his sport, he’s shown the rest of the football world — yes, including the teams that fired him — that the crazy coach who plays pranks on his players, pumps music into practice and challenges players to one-on-one hoops battles just might have known what he was doing all along.

“His approach to how we do things, it’s allowed us to get to this moment right here,” defensive end Red Bryant said. “So you’d definitely have to say it’s working.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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