Thursday, January 30, 2014

Why I want Pete Carroll to win the Super Bowl

It was 15 years ago as I was interviewing Pete Carroll in his office at old Foxboro Stadium when I realized that his roots in Marin County run deeper than Ross Valley. 

His ties to Marin pre-date not only the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but Vince Lombardi’s hey days in Green Bay.

Then head coach of the New England Patriots, Carroll motioned me beside his desk and pointed at a large black-and-white portrait on the wall. It was a panoramic view of a big lot and open space with tons of trees and a mountain off in the distance, but I couldn’t place it as easy as I could a Justin Bieber police mug shot.

Carroll told me it was aerial photo of Greenbrae taken from the east looking west before the Bon Air Center was built in 1952. It was a photo of his hometown before a shopping center, high-rise condos and too many traffic lights appeared in the name of progress.  It was a constant reminder of home -- where their annual Turkey Bowl pick-up touch football game on Thanksgiving was born and how much fun life was as a kid – just a few feet away over his left shoulder as he sat at age  47 in his chair.

At that time, in December 1998, Carroll was on top of the world. His team had won the AFC East in his first year as the Patriots’ head coach and they were on the verge of making the playoffs again in a brutal division. A few days later, the Patriots rallied from a halftime deficit and shutout Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers’ offense in the second half for a 24-21 victory, their fourth in their last five games.

However, something was missing from Carroll’s resume. Something he longed for more than home.


As close as Carroll was to a photo of his hometown, he was not comfortable with the Patriots.  For starters, he was owner Robert Kraft’s second choice because Kraft wasn’t then ready to hire Bill Belichick. 

Carroll was stereotyped as California cool, too hip for narrow-minded New England, a fun-loving, sandal-wearing, pop music-listening surfer dude who was too cute and too soft for the hard knocks of the NFL and Boston media and much too rah-rah for the win-or-be-chewed-up pro game. They couldn’t understand or appreciate that there was a method to his gladness.

Carroll was criticized for being too energetic, too positive, too nice. His enthusiastic way of coaching the pros was unconventional and thus, critics assessed, forever doomed for failure in the NFL.
The Patriots’ coach was the anti-Bill Parcells, merely a substitute teacher employed after Parcells called in sick looking for more player personnel control after leading the Pats to the Super Bowl in 1996.

Carroll fit into Massachusetts like a Yankees fan.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, Carroll wasn’t given personnel control or enough input in attempting to draft and build the post-Parcells’ Patriots. He had an owner who wasn’t as supportive or decisive as needed to be and Carroll lost the best player on his team, Curtis Martin, to free agency.

And so Carroll was fired by the Patriots at the end of the 1999 season. Before the age of 50, he was a twice-fired NFL head coach even though he had only one losing season – his first with the New York Jets when his team was dubbed “The Good Ship Lollipop” by the New York press.

Then came the 11-year itch. The one thing at the core of Carroll’s spirit  -- and it has and should never be overlooked or underrated-- is his fierce competitiveness. He loves to compete, whether it’s for the Super Bowl or the Turkey Bowl, against the New York Giants or with the Redwood Pop Warner Junior Giants. He once elbowed a Jets assistant coach so hard during a pick-up basketball game at team headquarters that it opened a gash that required stitches to close.

For 11 years, Carroll privately harbored an obsession to be a head coach again in the NFL. He craved another chance to compete against the best football players and head coaches in the world.  He wanted another shot to prove he could do it, yet the circumstances needed to be that he could do it his way. It had to be his personality and his philosophy moving forward.

He needed to scratch that itch. He sought respect.

That was hard to come by. Remember Carroll was the fourth choice to coach the USC Trojans and yet, as he led them to two national championships, he eyed another opportunity for the right fit to take him back to the NFL. He passed at other offers before the Seattle Seahawks gave it to him and, unlike the Jets and Patriots, they stuck with him. Back-to-back 7-9 seasons in Seattle were rewarded because he showed his way – his woo-wwo laugh-in-the-face-of-adversity coaching style -- could indeed work.  He could win and have fun at the same time.

Now, ironically, Carroll’s quest for the Super Bowl takes him back to the very spot where he was first fired as a head coach. He is taking his Super Bowl team from the northwest and returning to the northeast – where most of his harsh critics from the past still reside – a team he controlled and built and coached on his terms. He believed in the process – his way – all along and now he gets to showcase it on the biggest stage in all of sport. He could make history, becoming the first head coach to win a Super Bowl after twice being fired as a head coach in the league.

The only shame of it is his proud parents aren’t alive.  Rita, who died in 2000, and Jim, who died a year later, lived together in Greenbrae for 45 years long before Bon Air Center surrendered to development. When Pete became the Patriots coach, he bought them a satellite dish so they wouldn’t have to go to the Flatiron in San Rafael to watch his team’s games anymore.  He arranged for his dad to sit in the press box at Candlestick Park to watch him bring the Patriots to play the 49ers in an exhibition game.

 The kindness and generosity of Carroll extends beyond his family to lifelong friends, including his high school coach, the late Bob Troppmann whom Carroll phoned moments before his first BCS national title game with USC in the Orange Bowl to ask what call to make for the coin toss. On the eve of the NFC championship game last week, Carroll called a friend in Marin when he heard his mother was ill. And after the NFC title game, he began calling friends to give them tickets to the Super Bowl.

They know Pete Carroll. They get Pete Carroll.  He’s about taking care of people, including his players, and he brings out the best in all of them. That’s his deal. He’s same guy who used to draw plays in the sand at Stinson Beach in the summer time who has remained the same guy today seeking the same thing, the one thing that has eluded him in the NFL, as clear as that black-and-white photo of Greenbrae.



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