EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — He was supposed to be too nice, too laid-back, too much of a rah-rah guy for the NFL.
That was always the knock on Pete Carroll. When people called him a “player’s coach,” what they really meant was that sooner or later, his own players were going to pull the rug out from under him.
You heard it when Carroll got to Seattle four seasons ago — fresh off building a USC program that captured two national titles, but at times resembled a fraternity — and went 7-9 in each of the first two years. The same way you did when Carroll was run out of New York exactly 20 years earlier, like some wide-eyed tourist who’d just had his pocket picked.
He proved he could dominate the college game, and his hair turned gray in the interim. Yet you heard it again during the buildup to this Super Bowl, when Carroll refused to crack down on star defender Richard Sherman for talking too much, or running back Marshawn Lynch for talking too little, or essentially passing off the rash of drug busts — seven Seattle players have been suspended by the league for substance-abuse or performance-enhancers since 2011 — as youthful mistakes.
“What,” Carroll said late Sunday night through a widening smile, “are you supposed to say to that?”
Exactly what the Seahawks said with their play just moments earlier, making a statement in the Super Bowl by destroying the Denver Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning 43-8.
“I think he does a great job of just making every day seem like it’s a championship game,” said cornerback Byron Maxwell.
“I don’t want to say it feels like a regular game,” he added, “but it feels like a regular game in a sense. He does a great job of that.”
There were dozens of stats that spoke volumes about how enthusiastically Carroll’s players warmed to the tasks. But few leapt off the page as vividly as the large Gatorade stain covering the back of Carroll’s shirt.
“If it were fake,” receiver Doug Baldwin said about Carroll’s approach, ” it wouldn’t work. … “You’ll run through a wall for that guy.”
It takes only a minute or two around Carroll to see why he inspires that kind of fierce loyalty. He rambles sometimes, but he always listens. On the podium after the win, he didn’t gloat and more than once, he leaned away from the microphone and off to one side to make sure he heard the questions being thrown at him from every side.
“It played out the way we wanted it to play,” he said. “All phases contributed. It was not really a question in their minds that we wouldn’t perform like this.”
Carroll rarely tears into his guys, and while that nice-guy persona worked wonders in college, it nearly got him laughed out of the pros.
Coaches are hired to be fired, or so the saying goes. But the Jets team he inherited in 1994 — after working as an assistant from coast to coast — practically guaranteed it by flat-out quitting on him in his only season there.
They took his constant calls for shared responsibility as an invitation to take the rest of the season off. One moment the Jets were 6-5 and the next time Carroll looked up, they were 6-10. Even so, he never saw it coming.
When the Jets’ late owner, Leon Hess, finally got around to firing Carroll, this is what he reported back, “Pete was shocked. He’s a great, high-principled man. He didn’t expect it.”
Carroll was so principled, in fact, that he didn’t change his approach; not when he got another NFL go-round with the Patriots, nor when he wound up back in the college ranks and on the West Coast, at laid-back Southern California. He still gave his assistants a wide berth, still played his hunches when it came to both trick plays and untested players — the kind of experiments that got him mocked in the hidebound NFL — and still insisted on spreading around the responsibilities, and especially the credit.
Carroll gambled a career that he could get it right in the NFL, provided he had the right people. It involved gathering up an armful of kids and another armful of undrafted free agents. Ultimately, it brought out the best in just about everybody that crossed his path.
“We didn’t ask them to do things that we don’t always do,” Carroll said finally, “and they trusted in that.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.