Pete Carroll went from a question, to the answer
He was their fourth choice.
Of all the numbers attached to Pete Carroll during his nine seasons with the USC Trojans -- two national titles, seven straight Pac-10 titles and BCS bowl games, three Heisman Trophy winners and a 97-19 record -- perhaps the most unbelievable was his position on the school's list of coaching candidates before he was eventually hired and went on to become one of the greatest coaches in college football history.
It was an unlikely and initially unpopular partnership that would change the landscape of college football and sports in Los Angeles. But like so many high-profile marriages in this town, everyone knew it was destined to end.
Despite sitting behind Mike Riley, Dennis Erickson and Mike Bellotti on USC's wish list in 2000, Carroll rose beyond the initial doubts to place himself alongside Howard Jones, John McKay and John Robinson on the coaching Mount Rushmore of one of the most storied programs in college football.
Carroll didn't just breathe new life into a down-and-out team; he gave a once-storied program on life support an electrical jolt. When Carroll took the job at USC, Heritage Hall was more like a history museum than an up-to-date trophy room. The last national championship had been won in 1978. The last Heisman Trophy had been won in 1981. And the 1996 Rose Bowl seemed like an eternity ago after USC finished in last place in the conference for the first time ever.
None of that seemed to bother Carroll. In fact, nothing seemed to bother Carroll.
He would always play catch after practices, run sprints with his assistant coaches and play pickup basketball games with anyone who would put up with his stingy defense. He was the personification of California cool. A coach who seemed just as comfortable on the sidelines as he was playing the keyboard onstage at the famed Roxy, taking in a surfing contest with Kelly Slater or tweeting from a Lil Wayne concert.
After being deemed "too laid-back" as an NFL head coach in New York and New England, Carroll fit Los Angeles and college football as perfectly as an overpriced suit from Rodeo Drive. In a city without an NFL team, USC filled that void. Fifty-three of Carroll's players were drafted by the NFL in his first eight seasons, and the team was L.A.'s biggest fall attraction. Carroll's first game at the Coliseum against San Jose State drew about 45,000 fans and the school was forced to put tarps on thousands of empty seats. By the end of his second season the Trojans were playing in front of sold-out crowds of more than 90,000. Not only were the stands filled but the sidelines were packed with celebrities like Carroll's good friend Will Ferrell, who would also come to practices and pinch hit on the occasional practical joke. The exploits of USC's Heisman Trophy winners, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, weren't covered just by ESPN but by US Weekly and People magazine. And the team would celebrate its wins at the hottest clubs in Hollywood. This wasn't just a football team; it had become a hit reality show and Carroll was its undisputed star.
Carroll needed all of two seasons to take the Trojans from worst to first in the Pac-10 and restore USC to a national power. Boosters who contacted USC athletic director Mike Garrett and USC president Steven B. Sample and threatened to cancel tickets and cease contributions if Carroll were hired soon disappeared.
It was an amazing turnaround for a coach who received so much bad press after his hire and during his first 6-6 season that he seemed genuinely surprised when someone praised him. I'll never forget Carroll running up to me after I had written a positive feature on him for USC's student newspaper before his first game. "I wanted to thank you so much for writing that," he said, acting like a high school kid seeing his name in print for the first time. "I'm going to save that and use that in recruiting."
He wouldn't need clippings from the student newspaper to help him in recruiting for long. His ability to connect with the best players from California and across the country made USC one of the most attractive destinations in college football. What high school kid wouldn't want to play for a coach who proved he would highlight true freshmen if they showed they could play, gave them a weekly national audience and, best of all, won a ton of games.
Carroll wasn't just a college football coach. In a city driven by celebrities he was one of its biggest. His pictures are still plastered all over the USC bookstore, where televisions show his team speeches.
As much as Carroll's personality seemed tailor-made for college football, the truth is he was always going to head back to the NFL sooner or later. The 58-year-old coach was never destined to be the next Joe Paterno or Bobby Bowden. Considering he had never been on one team for more than five seasons during his coaching career (he had been with 10 teams in 25 years before arriving at USC), it's remarkable he was even able to stay at the school for nearly a decade.
In many ways, Carroll is leaving USC for the same reason why he came to USC -- to prove he can do something no one thinks he can. There's nothing that irks Carroll more than someone getting the better of him. Each one of his assistants has a story of basically being held hostage by Carroll on the basketball court or football field until he proves that he can throw farther or shoot better. No number of national championships or Heisman Trophies, however, was going to disprove the perception that Carroll couldn't succeed as a head coach in the NFL until he actually went back and proved his critics wrong.
The end of Carroll's tenure at USC, however, won't overshadow his vast accomplishments. One day the school will likely erect a building in his honor on campus as it recently did for George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. It would be an amazing finale to a Hollywood story that not even Lucas or Spielberg could have scripted.
Not bad for a guy who was the fourth choice.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.