Pete Carroll has fun return to NFL

SEATTLE -- Pete Carroll was running around Qwest Field nearly three hours before the Seattle Seahawks' season opener against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday like a child during recess.

With a football tucked under his right arm, he stopped and signaled to a nearby ball boy to go right, then left before unleashing a perfect 30-yard dart near the sideline. He raised his arms in the air after the completion and smiled as if he had just thrown a game-winning touchdown.

This is the Carroll who was labeled too "rah-rah" to make it in the NFL. Too much of a players' coach to survive in the cutthroat business of professional football. And ultimately too darn nice to get the best out of veteran players more focused on paydays than playoffs.

Those perceptions, which hovered over Carroll even during his successful nine-year run at USC, were partly why he returned to the NFL earlier this year and called plays on a Sunday rather than a Saturday for the first time in more than a decade.

While some still believe Carroll bolted USC for the NFL to avoid the harsh penalties which were levied against the Trojans five months after he left, there is little doubt Carroll also wanted to prove something to others and to himself. Carroll had been dealing with the NCAA investigation for five years when he left USC and no one imagined the penalties were going to be as harsh as they were. He probably never thought it would result in anything more than a slap on the wrist and certainly nothing worth fleeing a program he had spent the past nine years molding in his image.

No, Carroll seemingly returned to the NFL because no matter how many games or championships he won in college, he was probably always going to be labeled a failure as an NFL head coach and nothing he did at USC was ever going to change that. Even as he led USC to an unprecedented seven straight BCS bowl games, many of those around Carroll always said he would eventually return to the NFL. The blemish of his NFL failings may have seemed insignificant to the rest of us, but it was something Carroll never seemed to forget.

By his nature, Carroll couldn't stand being thought of as a disappointment in anything even while he was being lauded as one of the greatest college coaches ever. He seemed to know there was always going to be a "but" attached to the end of that accolade with his 33-31 record as an NFL head coach.

So Carroll traveled more than 1,100 miles north of Los Angeles, up Interstate 5, to Seattle in an attempt to prove his energetic style could work in the NFL. It didn't take him long to make his presence felt during the Seahawks' 31-6 win Sunday.

He had to physically be pushed back to the sideline by an official as he jumped up and down on the field while celebrating Jordan Babineaux's interception of an Alex Smith pass in the second quarter. He high-fived and hugged just about every defensive player as they came off the field after stopping San Francisco on a fourth-down pass earlier in the quarter. He turned around and waved his arms up and down at the crowd, urging the fans to make more noise during a 49ers drive late in the third quarter. And he ran onto the field to break up a near fight between Seahawks running back Justin Forsett and 49ers safety Dashon Goldson in the fourth quarter.

"I got to say maybe his energy was even a little bit above mine," said Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu, a former USC player under Carroll. "And I was pretty excited. Pete wants to get out there and hit."

The beginning of Carroll's first NFL season opener in 11 years was far from what he had scripted. Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck threw an interception to the 49ers' Nate Clements on the first play of the game and the Seahawks found themselves down 6-0 with less than three minutes left in the second quarter.

Seattle, however, scored 31 unanswered points and ran away with a game most had predicted San Francisco -- the trendy pick to win the NFC West this season -- to win fairly easily. The only thing more unlikely than the blowout was that Seattle's leading receiver was former USC standout Mike Williams, who was playing in his first NFL game since 2007. Williams, who had flamed out of the league after being a top-10 pick in 2005 and bouncing around to three teams in three years, had four catches for 65 yards, including a 35-yard reception on which he was tackled just short of the goal line.

"It's a big deal, but it wasn't as big a deal as I thought it would be because I prepared for this," Williams said. "This offense is built to get guys the ball and they got me the ball and this is just the beginning."

Those who were with Carroll at USC and followed him to Seattle will tell you he hasn't changed his coaching style or philosophy much from his days at USC.

Players still tap a sign that reads "I'm In!" before walking onto the field. There are still signs that read "Win Forever" around the practice facility. Practice days are still themed with such titles as "Tell the Truth Monday," "Competition Wednesday," "Turnover Thursday," "No Repeat Friday" and "Review Saturday."

It's almost as if Carroll has gone out his way to prove that the blueprint he used to win in college can work in the NFL despite what his critics may think.

Carroll, however, doesn't seem to be the same man who left USC nine months ago. His family and friends contend he is happier and more relaxed than he has been in years. He's more like the fun-loving coach he was in 2003 when USC was just beginning to become a power and the weight of the world (not to mention NCAA investigators) was not yet on his shoulders. The man who walked off the field at the Emerald Bowl last December was a shell of the coach who had won a BCS national championship five years earlier. A strained relationship with athletic director Mike Garrett, a seemingly never-ending NCAA investigation and annual expectations to win a national championship had essentially sucked the fun out of the job for Carroll.

He has seemingly hit the reset button on his career by returning to the NFL and to a team that has gone 9-23 the past two seasons. No one expects him to do much his first year, so when he can beat the preseason favorite to win the division as an underdog, it's not simply another win, it's an opportunity to be on the other end of an upset for the first time in years.

"It was interesting," Hasselbeck said. "Probably the only thing that surprised me was late in the game, Charlie [Whitehurst] and I were sitting there talking and [Carroll] was trying to get the crowd into it more, then he came over to us and asked us to help get the crowd into it more. It was great."

After the game, Hasselbeck presented Carroll with the game ball in the locker room. "Hopefully it's the first of many for him," he said. "It's got that cool NFL Kickoff Weekend logo on it. Maybe he'll save it."

Knowing Carroll he'll not only save it, but he'll probably be throwing it around in the backyard as soon as he gets home.

Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.