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Pete Carroll has his Seattle team at 4-2 coming into Thursday's 49ers game, and this year's Seahawks are one big reminder of what we should have known all along: Pete Carroll's much smarter than he looks.
There's one note about Pete Carroll that captures him best:
It’s late. He’s pacing outside his office, glancing at a game on TV, tossing a football to himself, talking to me and several assistant coaches all at once. Suddenly and unaccountably he leans against a leather chair and starts doing push-ups. Slumped in a chair, eyelids heavy, I can’t help wondering if he might secretly be using crystal meth.
He's one of those people who just seems a little too upbeat and too energetic -- not really a cult hero, but more like a cult member. Or maybe just a secret crystal meth user. The note above comes from J.R. Moehringer's 2007 profile of Carroll where the coach is alternately a God, rock star, movie star, self-help guru, music geek, and one-man savior for USC football and South Central, L.A.
The fawning profiles stopped shortly thereafter -- at any level of football, there's something suspicious about someone that sunny. Gotta be full of shit, we think. So when Carroll fled to the NFL USC just before the NCAA hammered USC with sanctions, it confirmed everyone's suspicions. Carroll's became football's answer to John Calipari, the ongoing caricature that nobody can totally take seriously.
But then this Seahawks team--and especially this Seahawks defense--might be what forces the football world to give Carroll his due. Look at the Seattle roster right now. The defense features a free agent from the CFL (Brandon Browner), two fifth round picks (Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman), a fourth round pick (K.J. Wright), a second round pick (Bobby Wagner), and two first round picks (Bruce Irvin, Earl Thomas). Then throw in someone like Red Bryant, a bust at defensive tackle who's turned into a monster at defensive end. All have been transformed under Carroll, and together they've become a blur of hitting, speed, and all-around ass kicking that has Seattle sitting at 4-2 and thanks in large part to a top 5 defense.
It shouldn't be that surprising. Carroll failed with the Patriots the same way Bill Belichick failed with the Browns--he didn't have quite enough time to succeed. Two years after he left, the rebuilding job was finished when Bill Belichick won the Super Bowl in 2001. By then, Carroll had already moved on to Los Angeles, where he was kicking off a decade-long dynasty at USC that looks a lot like what Alabama's doing now. (Critics say he broke NCAA rules to do it. Does anyone think Coaching Genius Nick Saban hasn't broken rules?)
Sports Illustrated writes cover stories fawning over Nick Saban and the "Sabanization" of college football, David Halberstam wrote a sepia-toned paean to Bill Belichick, and somehow, as everyone worships these cartoon dictators, everyone forgets the guy who's ten times as enjoyable and every bit as successful. For instance, Bill Walsh wrote a column for the L.A. Times after USC won its '05 title (via):
Pete Carroll is the most dynamic coach in all of football right now. He’s able to motivate men and bring them together, assemble a top coaching staff, and he has so much enthusiasm and energy. He also has incredible knowledge of the game. He’s been one of the top defensive coordinators in the NFL, and he’s got a great football mind.
Pete is the ultimate in a new wave of American football coaches who are actively involved with their players and heavily contribute to the strategies and tactics of the game. You can see that in his defense. The tackling of the USC defensive players collectively was a clinic for everyone in football, including the NFL. They did an incredible job. You don’t see that in the NFL. It’s just because they’re so intense, they believe and they’re willing to sacrifice. . . .
Even with that kind of testimony, fans have never talked about Carroll with the half-fear, half-awe that follows some of his peers. Next to the Coaching Gods, Pete Carroll seems like a lost volleyball coach who's had too much coffee.
Since the year 2000, we've seen the rise of Nick Saban at LSU and then Alabama, Belichick's Patriots, and now in the last year or two, the Harbaugh brothers. They all personify the myth of hardass Football Coach, with various hardass anecdotes enhancing the legend along the way. This is how Bill Belichick can go seven years without winning a Super Bowl and still start every new season as the Best Coach in Football. He seems like a genius. It's how everyone forgets that Nick Saban flopped in the NFL, and ditched the Dolphins exactly the same way Carroll left USC. And more than anything else, it's why rooting for Pete Carroll is so much fun.
He's every bit as talented as the best coaches in football, only he doesn't have to turn football into Serious Business that suffocates anything that makes it fun. He doesn't have to shame every reporter or player who dares cross him, or grumble that he won't tolerate failure, or live by any other stupid coach cliches. He's too busy tweeting like a seventh-grade girl to cultivate his own legend.
This is how everyone overlooks what he did at USC and what he's doing now. Example: Bill Belichick's had the best quarterback in football for the past decade, and somehow Belichick and The Patriot Way is why his teams keep winning. Then when the Seahawks take down the Patriots? That Russell Wilson sure is something!
Okay, Russell Wilson IS pretty great, and championing Pete Carroll as mastermind is definitely something I may regret one day. But maybe everyone's missing the point with the Seahawks this year.
What if America has this fetish for football as a black-and-white war movie where everything's a test of will and character and commitment? Wouldn't we also worship the icons who promote exactly that vision? Why else would we create words like Sabanization and gush over the The Patriot Way? Why else would someone write a 500-page biography of Vince Lombardi called When Pride Still Mattered? And then ...
What if all that italicized bullshit distracted us from a once-in-a-generation football genius that doesn't really seem like a football genius mostly because he's not a miserable asshole?
If all that were the case, it'd be a lot of fun to root for the Seahawks this year.