RENTON — As Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll hoisted the Lombardi Trophy last February — the culmination of a remarkable four-year rebuilding job since Carroll and general manager John Schneider took over — it was difficult to imagine that more than a decade earlier, not one but two NFL teams determined Carroll wasn’t fit to run a franchise.
I mean, clearly New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft must regret his decision after the 1999 season to run Carroll out of town for some New York Jets assistant named …
Oh, Bill Belichick? Never mind. Good call, Mr. Kraft.
When the Seahawks and Patriots face off in Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday, it will be a meeting not just of two of the best coaches in football, but also the only two head coaches Kraft has ever hired. And, in what could be an awkward situation had it not happened so long ago, it will be a meeting between Carroll and the man hired to replace him.
“It’s not awkward,” Carroll said, “It could be, but it isn’t. Bill and I have talked a lot over the years on various things and I’ve seen him at the league meetings and things like that, so it’s not a problem at all. It probably is pretty unique to this business but it’s no factor at all.”
In fact Belichick recently referred to Carroll not only as a “great football coach,” but also as a “good friend.” And Carroll still keeps in touch with Kraft, the last person to fire him, most recently to congratulate the owner on his team’s sixth AFC championship under Belichick.
While Carroll isn’t one to focus on legacies — at least not while he’s still coaching — he is very much in position to cement himself, along with Belichick, as one of the great coaches of his era. While Belichick is shooting for his fourth title in six Super Bowl appearances, Carroll can pull off the unique feat of winning multiple NCAA and NFL championships. He’s already one of just three coaches to win a title at both levels, along with Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer.
Carroll, 63, and Belichick, 62, represent the oldest pairing of Super Bowl coaches in history, but at first glance, that’s where the similarities seem to end. Belichick is often gruff, the genius in a hoodie with cutoff sleeves who runs a no-nonsense machine that has been on top of the NFL for more than a decade. Carroll, meanwhile, is seen as Mr. California Cool, a player’s coach — and that was a very derogatory term during his three-year tenure in New England — a coach who has somehow built a program in which winning and fun need not be mutually exclusive.
But beyond the surface-level difference lies the truth that these two men are more alike than their personalities indicate. Both coaches come from defensive backgrounds, both harp on fundamentals — as Carroll notes, the Seahawks and Patriots are both plus-51 in turnover margin since 2012, the best in the NFL by a wide margin — and both, despite Carroll’s sunny demeanor, are incredibly demanding.
“They might seem different, but they’re very similar,” said Lawyer Milloy, who played safety for Belichick in New England, then finished his NFL career playing for Carroll in Seattle. “They’re going to compete to get that locker room atmosphere right. Individuals are not bigger than the process. If you do anything to sway the direction of the team in the wrong way, you’re out of there. Everybody thinks Pete is a happy-go-lucky player’s coach or whatever, but look at his first year when we had (284 player) transactions. Everybody says he’s a player’s coach, but all the players were coming in every day looking to see if their name was still on the roster.
“The biggest difference is one’s got a smile on his face, the other one doesn’t, but the ultimate goal is to win championships, and both love, love winning. To be a good head coach, you’ve got to be a tremendous facilitator to build the right atmosphere; both those guys do that.”
Carroll could be bitter about the way things went down in New England. Fired after just one season as the New York Jets’ head coach following the 1994 season, Carroll got a second chance in New England and led the Patriots to the postseason in his first two seasons. They fell just short after a bad finish in 1999. Carroll was viewed by many as having won with Bill Parcells’ players, and when New England missed the playoffs in 1999, Kraft was quick to move on in favor of Belichick.
Carroll now has “a very good relationship” with the man who replaced him, as well as the owner who fired him, in part because Carroll’s success since has removed any doubt about his abilities, and because — while he wouldn’t have wanted to admit it at the time — he might have needed that firing.
Rather than find a job as an assistant after getting canned in January 2000, Carroll took a year off, and in that time he came to a surprising realization.
“I didn’t know who the heck I was as a football coach,” Carroll said on the day the Seahawks hired him in 2010.
Carroll used that year off to put his philosophy down in writing, to fully understand the lessons he had learned from coaching greats such as Bud Grant, Bill Walsh and John Wooden. He also realized that if he were ever going to be an NFL head coach again, he would need more control than he had in New York and New England, something that was instrumental in his decision to finally leave USC for Seattle after nine seasons as a college head coach.
“Everybody has a philosophy, you just may not know how to describe what it is,” Carroll said in 2010. “What transformed for me … I had an epiphany of what was most important for me as a football coach. I’m almost embarrassed to tell you I was coaching an NFL club and didn’t have my act together.”
Maybe if Kraft had given Carroll a couple more years, he would have learned those things about himself on the job, but he acknowledges that it might not have happened had he not been forced into a career crossroads after his second firing in five years.
“It was a crucial year for me,” Carroll said. “… It gave me an opportunity to really collect my thoughts about moving forward and to get pointed in the direction that, really, we have maintained since. I had a tremendous opportunity to reflect on the time that I had had. It’s such a whirlwind when you’re coaching and you’re flying so fast that sometimes … we don’t figure out that we need to step back and revisit all of the stuff that’s important to us. That’s what happened, and out of that came every word of our approach and every philosophy that we stand by now.”
Looking back, Carroll said he’s actually grateful for what happened in New England.
“I didn’t regret anything that happened at New England,” he said. “It needed to happen for me to get to the point where I had to dig in and figure out what was right, so I’m proud of the way that process went because it really worked out.”
Herald columnist John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org