It’s hard to remember this now, after Pete Carroll spent nine years coaching the most successful program in college football and is now a game away from the Super Bowl in his return to the NFL, but there was once a time when Carroll was considered something of a joke.
After the 1999 season, in which his Patriots went 8-8, Carroll got fired for the second time as an NFL head coach. Back then, most people thought Carroll was just a defensive coordinator who was in over his head as a head coach. In fact, when Carroll was hired as USC’s head coach in December of 2000, he admitted at his introductory press conference that he was “an unpopular choice,” and USC’s athletic director confessed that he had received a lot of angry phone calls from Trojans fans and boosters who didn’t think Carroll had what it took to lead their program.
So what changed? Chris B. Brown wrote an enlightening piece at Grantland that details Carroll’s coaching philosophy, and particularly Carroll’s new spin on an old brand of defense, which is actually a lot like the much-derided defense that Monte Kiffin runs in Dallas. (Carroll’s second job in coaching was as a graduate assistant at Arkansas in 1977, when Kiffin was the Razorbacks’ defensive coordinator.)
Carroll and Kiffin don’t run exactly the same defensive schemes, and Carroll deserves credit for changing with the times and finding the right way to put the talent on his team in the right places to succeed. Of course, it’s also important to recognize that the talent Carroll has to work with is substantial: Seahawks General Manager John Schneider, who came on board a week after Carroll was hired in Seattle in 2010, deserves an enormous amount of credit for drafting the Seahawks’ starting secondary (Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in 2010, Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell in 2011), drafting the Seahawks’ starting linebackers (KJ Wright in 2011, Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvin in 2012) and being smart about free agent signings like defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, both of whom were bargains. Carroll’s defensive schemes wouldn’t look so impressive without Schneider finding the right pieces.
But by any measure, Carroll has done an excellent job in his four years in Seattle. After being a disappointment as a head coach of the Jets and Patriots in the 1990s, Carroll has far exceeded expectations as a head coach, first at USC and now with the Seahawks. That might serve as a cautionary tale for those who think they know what to expect of the new coaches in Detroit, Tennessee, Minnesota, Washington, Tampa Bay and Houston. Sometimes all a coach needs is a change in scenery and the passage of time to go from failure to genius.