Commentary

Quite a year for Pete Carroll

Updated: January 11, 2011, 6:24 PM ET
By Shelley Smith | ESPNLosAngeles.com

RENTON, Wash. -- With John Mayer crooning softly on the iPod, Pete Carroll slumped onto the couch in his office at the Seattle Seahawks' training facility. It is the corner office, the prime spot in the building, with huge floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Lake Washington and the nearby outdoor practice field. And it has its own bathroom.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesPete Carroll had a lot to celebrate when his Seahawks faced the New Orleans Saints on Jan. 8.

"Pretty sweet, huh?" Carroll said.

Commandeering the office was one of the first things Carroll did a year ago, when he left the USC Trojans to become head coach and executive vice president in Seattle. He knew where he wanted to be, even if he wasn't at all certain at the time that he was making the right career decision.

"A lot went into it," Carroll said of the move a year later. "It affected a lot of people."

He paused and shook his head, remembering the uncertainty that went through his mind about whether to leave USC and remembering all that has happened since.

"It's been a whole spectrum of emotions," he said. "From just trying to figure out if it was the right thing to do, to go, leave SC after loving it and loving the people so much. Then what happened after, the sanctions, and putting everything together, coming here. Forging new relationships. It's really been a wide spectrum and the start of a whole variety of waves we'll ride from now on."

It was a move, he insisted, that just fell into place. He hadn't courted other opportunities throughout the years, but had always listened. And when Paul Allen called and basically handed him the keys to the Seahawks' organization, it was something that felt right, even if it meant walking away from something grand he had created and loved.

His years at USC not only restored a once-storied program to prominence but created a giant buzz in a city that invented buzz. He and his staff and the players were rock stars, A-listers even among the usual A-listers. The environment was contagious and hypercharged.

Nobody expected the huge fall that would come in the wake of the long-running NCAA investigation into allegations that Reggie Bush and his family accepted improper benefits while he was at USC, or from the decision that knocked harsh reality into a program the NCAA clearly believed needed knocking.

There are those who believe Carroll knew all along what was coming. There are those who believe friction with former athletic director Mike Garrett helped push Carroll out the door. But Carroll supporters say he was never aware of Bush's off-field dealings and was truly blindsided by the penalties, and Carroll adamantly says Garrett had no role in his departure.

The fact now is, USC is no longer as relevant or as fun as it was when Carroll was running the show. And that clearly causes him consternation, even as he tries to say the right things.

"They are working through it, moving ahead," Carroll said, looking pained. "It sounds like everyone is following [USC athletic director] Pat Haden and Max [Nikias, USC's president], and they're building new facilities and that's a statement, I hope, for the future." He has kept his California homes in Palos Verdes and at the beach, while moving into a spacious residence near the Seahawks' facility in Renton. His family was together there for Christmas Eve, sans son Brennan, who moved with his wife and son to take a position on the new football staff at the University of Miami. It was a great move for Brennan, Carroll said, but it's a long commute to see his grandson. "Glena's mad at me, at Brennan," he said about his wife and the distance. "But everybody's always mad at me for something." Mark Sanchez had been mad at Carroll after Carroll publicly chastised Sanchez for his decision to forgo his final year at USC for the NFL. Sanchez, however, got the last laugh when Carroll made his decision to go to the Seahawks, jokingly saying he didn't think Carroll was ready for the jump.

USC safety Taylor Mays was irked at Carroll after the Seahawks passed on him in the 2010 NFL draft, publicly calling Carroll out for not preparing him correctly, clearly wounded his old coach wouldn't give him a chance to play in Seattle, his hometown. (The draft brought the Seahawks several new prospects who panned out -- Earl Thomas, Russell Okung and Golden Tate were among them -- and Carroll created a Twitter uproar by sending out fake clues before the draft as to whom the team wanted.)

There are those who believe Carroll knew all along what was coming. There are those who believe friction with former athletic director Mike Garrett helped push Carroll out the door. But Carroll supporters say he was never aware of Bush's off-field dealings and was truly blindsided by the penalties, and Carroll adamantly says Garrett had no role in his departure. The fact now is, USC is no longer as relevant or as fun as it was when Carroll was running the show. And that clearly causes him consternation, even as he tries to say the right things.

Carroll made other waves with former Trojans: He traded for running back LenDale White in April, only to cut him loose in late May for what many said was a lackluster attitude coming into camp, and he traded former USC player Lawrence Jackson to Detroit.

But their irritations were nothing compared with the palpable anger in Los Angeles this past spring when the sanctions were announced, even as Carroll delivered a dramatic YouTube response to the NCAA.

USC quarterback Matt Barkley helped keep things in perspective and announced he would go on a church mission during the time he would have been preparing to play in a bowl game. Teammates followed suit; wide receiver Ronald Johnson said he would use the time to prepare for the combine.

Soon, the situation became less about Carroll and Bush and more about USC's future and winning the games the Trojans did have. Still, it left a bad feeling that Carroll said he still deals with, knowing how the people he said he loved were suffering.

But there have been positive moments, more than a few. Carroll's Los Angeles charity foundation, "A Better LA," is thriving, and he has come back to L.A. on many occasions for camps and charity events.

And former USC wide receiver Mike Williams, whom Carroll coached as a freshman, was out of the league for close to two years before deciding to get himself back into shape. Carroll gave him a tryout, then a 30-day contract, then a one-year contract, and, on Jan. 1, the Seahawks gave him a three-year extension.

"Mike has really made it back," Carroll said. "He has proven to us why we should want him around. He's done an extraordinary job, and he's just starting. There's no limit to what he can do."

Said Williams: "I'm grateful for the opportunity. And you know? All those people who weren't calling me the last two years? They're calling me now."

And Carroll has maintained and nurtured the relationships that helped define his era. Steve Sarkisian's office is just across the lake at the University of Washington, and Sarkisian is a frequent guest at practices and games. The Huskies even scrimmaged at the Seahawks' facility in August.

Carroll also has stayed close with Lane Kiffin, the former USC offensive coordinator who came back to USC via the Raiders and Tennessee. Before the USC-Notre Dame game in November, Kiffin was sitting in a golf cart outside the locker room at the Coliseum talking on his cell phone. Or, rather, listening.

"Pete's giving me play-by-play of Sark's game," Kiffin said of Washington's 16-13 win at California.

Several weeks before then, as Washington was playing USC at the Coliseum, Carroll bolted from a staff meeting in St. Louis the night before facing the Rams so he could catch the second half. He was conflicted about whom to cheer for, but still wildly interested in the game.

"These are lifelong relationships," Carroll said of his former staff. "We've put in our time together. It's a big deal. We've invested in a lot together; that's the makings of really strong lifelong relationships."

In Seattle, he gave jobs to several members of the weight-training staff from USC, and he took assistant coaches Rocky Seto, John Morton and Ken Norton Jr. with him. He even hired former USC director of online media, Ben Malcolmson, who has channeled Carroll's love for and use of social media as a way of interacting with fans in the NFL.

And along the way, he has built a following that has come to appreciate his rah-rah, go-get-'em style.

Fans were on their feet the entire game Jan. 2, when the Seahawks faced the Rams with a division title on the line. These were many of the same fans who had made it known they'd rather have the Seahawks lose the game and miss the playoffs for the chance at a higher draft pick.

But suddenly the Seahawks had a lead they wouldn't relinquish, and fans had a change of heart. As Carroll stood on the sideline, arms in the air begging for noise, they responded with a fervor that hadn't been heard in quite some time. With the win, everything he had been trying to establish with his team seemed to be validated. Perhaps he could breathe a sigh of relief, if only he knew how.

Instead, he amped things up with a fiery locker-room speech and declared war on the hierarchy that usually is the NFL playoffs. And, to just about everyone's surprise, the Seahawks knocked off the defending Super Bowl champions on Jan. 8. Carroll danced in the middle of the field with his players, high-fiving, hugging, saluting the fans. It is no small wonder why Carroll has fit into this setting. It didn't work in New England or New York. But it is playing big in Seattle.

"It's been a tremendous challenge to come into a whole new place -- didn't know anything about this -- and area and new history, new people," he said, sitting on the couch looking over the lake as the sun rose high. "Then to start a new history has been more engaging than I ever thought it could be. The intensity here is really extraordinary, more the better for me, so to be in the middle of all that, I feel we've been very fortunate."

Then he paused abruptly.

"Look, see the eagle?" he asked, pointing through the window to where the giant bird was soaring above the lake. The image seemed perfect.

"It's pretty close to that," he said.

Shelley Smith is a reporter for ESPN.

Shelley Smith

SportsCenter correspondent
Shelley Smith joined ESPN in January 1997 after working part-time as a reporter for the network since 1993. She has covered Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, the BCS championship game, the Stanley Cup playoffs, golf and tennis championships and more.

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