13 days that changed the Seahawk franchise

PHOENIX — Before the blue and green confetti could fall on the Seattle Seahawks last February at MetLife Field, and before the Seahawks could pull off a miracle comeback to become the first team in a decade to play in back-to-back Super Bowls, the Seahawks had to hit the reset button.

With Seattle set to face New England in Super Bowl XLIX Sunday, it’s easy to forget how far the franchise has come in a very short period of time. Five years and one month ago, Pete Carroll was still at USC. John Schneider was an up-and-coming executive in Green Bay. Jim Mora was the coach of a Seattle team coming off a 5-11 season, and the Seahawks didn’t have a general manager.

Then, in less than two weeks, the Seahawks fired Mora, hired Carroll as head coach, added Schneider as general manager, and began the process of turning Seattle into one of the NFL’s model franchises.

So before the Seahawks and Patriots battle for the Lombardi Trophy, let’s back up five years and look at some key moments — through the eyes and words of the parties involved — from the 13 days that changed the course of a franchise.

Friday, Jan. 8, 2010

Just two days earlier, Mora stood on a stage at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center for his year-end press conference. He talked about a disappointing first season as Seattle’s head coach, and looked ahead to what he presumed would be his second. But by Friday morning, Mora was out, and a plan was in motion for the Seahawks to hire Carroll.

“The status quo simply was not an option.” — Tod Leiweke, then the Seahawks’ CEO and the current CEO of the Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL.

While hiring Carroll and Schneider turned out to be a home run for Seattle, one can’t help but feel for Mora. Because the team was prepared to keep him if Carroll said “no,” Mora was allowed to hold that year-end presser while behind the scenes, work was being done to replace him.

“This team, more importantly this community, means so much to me that it hurts not being able to see this through. I am disappointed I did not get the chance to complete my contract. This is a tough business that sometimes demands immediate gratification.” — Mora, in a statement released by the team.

Fair or not, Mora was done after one season, in part because of on-field results, but also because Seahawks owner Paul Allen and Leiweke wanted a coach and general manager who were on the same page, something Seattle hadn’t had in a while.

“I think, to be quite honest, there was not a harmonious relationship between (former GM) Tim (Ruskell) and (former coach) Mike Holmgren and it’s probably neither guy’s fault, but we learned a lot there. Can collaboration work? It does all the time in all sorts of environments and, in fact, it’s how I lead and this is the model that makes sense for us. … We didn’t build this grand (practice) facility to win nine games in two years, and we didn’t fill the stadium and our fans didn’t scream their lungs out to win nine games in two years. We had to do something.” — Leiweke.

Firing Mora meant Allen had to pay two head coaches millions over the next three years.

“The path of least resistance was to try another year with Jim. These were hard decisions, and by the way, not inexpensive decisions.” — Leiweke.

Sunday, Jan. 10

During his time in Los Angeles, Carroll went from twice-fired NFL coach to college-coaching legend by leading USC to unprecedented heights. Following his success with the Trojans, there had been flirtations with the NFL, but none of the jobs offered Carroll the control he wanted.

Two days after Mora’s firing, Carroll, Leiweke and Allen ironed out the final details of a deal that changed the landscape of the NFL.

“Sunday was the big day for us. We got together, sat down, really got serious about what it would come together like, and it was very clear that this was something I couldn’t pass up. … This is exactly the format and makeup of the job as I’ve envisioned it.” — Carroll, from his introductory press conference.

Those closest to Carroll thought USC just might be his final coaching stop. He’d built a juggernaut and had become deeply involved in the L.A. community.

“It was a tough move for him. He spent so much time in Los Angeles, he had great ties in Los Angeles, he had his ‘A Better LA ‘ (program) down there, which is so important to a lot of people in the community.” — Nate Carroll, Pete’s son and Seattle’s assistant wide receiver coach. Nate was a senior at USC in 2010.

Nate Carroll also knew that with USC the subject of an NCAA investigation at the time, the timing of a departure would raise eyebrows.

“I was like, ‘You realize — I know there’s nothing going on with those allegations — but if something goes down, they’re going to blame it on you.’ … You never know with the NCAA. Be aware of this stuff. The driving force was Seattle and Paul Allen. It was a great organization, great stadium, great fan base. He was going to be given all the responsibilities he was looking for. Paul was going to give that to him. He said ‘This is everything I was hoping for. I want it to be my team like it is in college.’” — Nate Carroll

Carroll denies knowing about the transgressions that led the NCAA to punish USC with sanctions six months after he left. Just as Nate predicted, Carroll was criticized as a captain who abandoned a sinking ship. The decision wasn’t about fleeing trouble, Carroll said, but accepting an opportunity too good to pass up.

“Where I’ve found my best success is when … there was one single voice about what the football was going to be like, and there was one place to go, one door to knock on for the players, they knew exactly who’s calling the shots. And that is what’s going to give me the best chance to be the best I can be. I was not going to go anywhere where I couldn’t put myself in that situation.” — Carroll at his introductory press conference.

The sudden firing of Mora and subsequent reports of Carroll’s hiring caught many of the players off guard.

“(I was surprised by) the haste with which it happened. I walked in Friday, and Jim’s gone. When I came back, they announced Pete got the job.” — linebacker Lofa Tatupu from Jan. 12, 2010.

“It was a big transition. There was a lot going on, and it was like ‘Whoa, what’s going to happen?’ Everything worked out fine, but at the time you had questions. Is he going to change the defense, what kind of plays will he call, who’s going to be our D-line coach? There’s a lot of thoughts going through your head.”— defensive tackle Brandon Mebane.

Tuesday, Jan. 12

“Today there’s new hope for the Seahawks, and an opportunity again to dream about championships.” — Leiweke, introducing Carroll as Seattle’s head coach.

On the day he arrived in Seattle, Carroll said he was a different coach than the one who was fired by New England a decade earlier, and by the New York Jets before that. His philosophy based on competition had been solidified at USC.

“I know so much more clearly where I’m coming from than I did then. I was not at my best in New York, I can’t tell you how far away I was then from where I am right now. I was not at my best in New England. I think the Seahawks have benefited from what I’ve been through and what I’ve gone through. … I’m not the same, hopefully I’m better.” — Pete Carroll.

Yet Carroll’s energy-filled press conference wasn’t the most important thing that happened that day. Not long after meeting with the media, Carroll and Leiweke went upstairs to interview the Green Bay Packers’ 38-year-old wisecracking director of football operations.

Carroll got to help pick his GM off a list the Seahawks assembled, and it didn’t take long for him to realize John Schneider was his guy.

“When we met for the first time in the interview setting, it was really obvious for me that he was different than the other guys that we had talked too. He showed a mental agility, quickness, and wit about him that I immediately took to. We were having fun right off the bat. … It just seemed to mesh. It didn’t mesh fast enough for him to not go back on the plane and go home, though. We didn’t quite get that done. But by the time he had landed, we knew that we wanted to bring him back.” — Pete Carroll.

Leiweke saw it, too. When he came home late on his 50th birthday, his wife pointed out he had been at work for 15 hours. He responded: “Actually I got a pretty good gift. These guys hugged at the end of the night, and I thought, ‘Wow, we’re on to something here.’”

In the days that followed, Carroll completed filling out a coaching staff that included two important holdovers: defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, now the head coach in Jacksonville, and defensive-line coach Dan Quinn, Seattle’s current defensive coordinator. Quinn felt fortunate Carroll didn’t simply choose to clean house.

“It was one of those times you can look back now and say, man, what an awesome opportunity, because that could have easily been a situation where I might not have gotten a chance to connect with Pete that day.” — Quinn.

Wednesday, Jan. 20

After signing his contact, Schneider was introduced as Seattle’s general manager. It was an unusual setup, the coach helping hire the general manager. Usually it’s the other way around. Fortunately for the Seahawks, that didn’t keep Schneider from taking the job.

“When this thing went down with coach Carroll, I did have a moment where I was like, ‘OK, all right, that’s different just the way it went down.’ But that’s the way they needed to do it in order to acquire somebody of his caliber. So I took a step back for like two minutes, and was like, ‘This could be great.’” — Schneider, from his introductory press conference.

For five years it has been even better than either man could have imagined, and thanks to those fateful two weeks in 2010, the Seahawks are one victory away from consecutive Super Bowl titles.

Herald Columnist John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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