Carroll interview

Text from LA Times interview with USC coach Pete Carroll

story courtesy of the LA Times:
 
From the start, Pete Carroll had an unconventional approach to football. While his teammates at University of the Pacific spent the minutes before kickoff in usual fashion--some quietly grim, others butting helmets--Carroll slipped off to the sideline.

"Peter and I just threw the ball around," says Dave Perron, a former teammate. "We had fun."

Not that Carroll took the game lightly. Among the hardest workers on the team, he believed that staying loose helped him perform better and he proved it, to his way of thinking, by making all-conference at safety in consecutive seasons.

"You think he's a happy-go-lucky guy?" asks Walt Harris, a former Pacific assistant who now coaches Pittsburgh. "Well, he would knock you out. He would hurt you and love it."

Two decades later, when he became coach of the New York Jets and then the New England Patriots, Carroll saw himself as someone who preached the basics. But he also rode a bicycle to practice and took his team bowling, an extension of what had made him successful as a player.

Critics branded him a trespasser in the house of Lombardi. Too soft, they said, too laid-back.

"The people who say that . . ." Carroll lets frustration tinge his voice. "They don't get it."

Now, with a fresh start at USC, with the season opener a month away, the 49-year-old coach is initially reluctant to look back. It takes some doing to schedule a few minutes between meetings and paperwork.

On the appointed morning, his words come fast, somewhere between energetic and impatient. Key points are punctuated with the wave of a hand, the one with a finger that points sideways from an old injury.

"Driven," he says, "can take on different forms."

46% Solution

USC training camp begins Aug. 11 on a practice field a few hundred yards from his Heritage Hall office. The Trojans need to fill spots on the offensive line, at linebacker and kicker. That's what Carroll would rather talk about.

But a little reminiscing turns into an hour, then longer, as he comes out from behind his desk to sit closer to a visitor. It turns out there are some things to set straight, some ground to cover.

Start with a kid in Greenbrae, a suburb north of San Francisco. Sports came naturally until he stopped growing and bigger kids passed him by. His future teammate, Perron, went to a rival high school and recalls Carroll as "a little guy trying to be the engine that could."

About that time, a magazine ran an interview with Rick Barry and--as Carroll recalls--the former NBA player said: "I'm a 46% lifetime shooter, so if I miss my first 10 shots, watch out."

The comment struck home. Rather than get discouraged or carry a chip on his shoulder, Carroll remained confident he would get a chance to prove himself. Two seasons in junior college gave his body time to catch up and, at Pacific, he became a team leader.

"A great feel for the game," Harris says. "I always thought he'd be a natural [as a coach]."

To that point, Carroll's notions about football were instinctive. But in graduate school at Pacific--after a stint selling building materials and a failed tryout with the World Football League--he discovered a body of knowledge to go with his gut feeling.

The late 1970s were a time of exploration in sport. Michael Murphy and Tim Gallwey wrote about the "inner game" of golf and tennis. Carroll had a chance to study from them while taking psychology classes.

"He was extraordinarily interested in the whole area of consciousness," says Glen Albaugh, his professor then. "I gave him a reading list and he went through it really fast."

The books ranged from Eastern philosophy to Abraham Maslow, a leader in humanistic psychology. Maslow broke from traditions of psychoanalysis and behaviorism by insisting that each person held great potential waiting to unfold. His optimism suited Carroll, who recalls: "All of a sudden, things started to make sense."

Maslow wrote of peak experiences, what he called "a single glimpse of heaven," which Carroll equated with the way an athlete plays "in the zone," the way a cornerback breaks toward the sideline because he senses a pass coming.

As a 22-year-old graduate assistant, Carroll gathered his struggling defensive backs and asked them which coverages felt most comfortable, which techniques they needed to practice. He recalls the players left the meeting rejuvenated.

But when he recounted the discussion to a colleague, the older man interrupted: "Wait just a damn minute, boy. Don't you ever ask them what they want, you tell them what they need."

Carroll recalls: "I was totally deflated."

Seeking to Connect

The next decade took him from Arkansas to Ohio State, from the Buffalo Bills to the Minnesota Vikings. Encouraged by Bud Grant and others, Carroll continued to develop his style.

Rather than command the troops from on high, he dealt face-to-face. It was a matter of communication. Sometimes that meant cracking the whip, he says, sometimes it meant talking about girlfriends and movies. Working his way up the NFL ranks, he joined a new breed that stood apart from the old, authoritarian mode.

"That can be a great way to teach but it's not me," he says. "I get more out of you if I connect with you. Instead of knocking you down and challenging you to come back up, I'm going to build you."

A former Jet executive, Pat Kirwan, recalls an example from Carroll's tenure as defensive coordinator. In a 1991 game, New York needed a goal-line stand against the Patriots, who were on the one-yard line with one second remaining. During a timeout, the defense huddled on the sideline but got no shouting or fist-pounding from Carroll.

"He tells them, 'Do you understand how exciting this is? How great this is?' " Kirwan says. "I'm in the booth, listening and thinking, 'What the heck?' "

It was a blend of Carroll's experience as a player and Maslow's notion of peak experience. "You give yourself a chance to excel when you're in that mind-set," Carroll says.

"The guys were actually cheering," Kirwan recalls. "And we stopped them."

In 1994, when the Jets promoted him to coach, Carroll called upon motivational guru Lou Tice, who had advised everyone from corporate and military leaders to former Dodger Kirk Gibson. Carroll and his staff flew to Tice's ranch outside Seattle, where they discussed leadership in sessions that lasted from morning till midnight.

"It's the third night, about nine o'clock, and Pete started to giggle," Tice says. "God, I was exhausted and I was trying to get some serious points across but he couldn't stop giggling."

Tice asked what was so funny.

"It's three days and we're still getting information," Carroll replied. "I just love it."

A few months later, Tice and his wife, Diane, flew to New York for the Jets' preseason opener against the Giants.

"You can imagine, it's his first game as head coach," Tice says. "But his mind is different. The pressure doesn't get to him."

As the team bus headed to the stadium, Carroll calmly chatted with Diane.

"People look at that and say he's distracted," Lou Tice says. "But, no, he just knows how to think effectively. And they went out and kicked the heck out of the Giants."

The Jets started well that season, then hit a losing streak and finished 6-10. Carroll, mentioned as a coach-of-the-year candidate weeks earlier, was fired.

Wired Differently

Watch the way he tells a story, recalling a chance meeting at a sports banquet 10 years ago. Carroll springs from his chair to show how he approached Rick Barry to ask about that "46%" quote. His shoulders slump as he recalls that Barry denied saying it.

"I thought, 'Oh, God,' " Carroll says.

But a smile crosses his face. Here comes the punch line: Turning to leave, Barry sneered, "I was a 48% lifetime shooter." Carroll laughs and blurts: "Isn't that great?"

The anecdote tells much about Carroll. Friends say he is wired differently, always ticking, competitive, fascinated by aspects of performance. He wants to be the best storyteller he can be. In pick-up basketball games, he plays such persistent defense Harris used to tell him: "When you die, your hands will still be moving."

And when he asks a player about last weekend, it's not small talk. It is an effort to understand the kid, get inside his head, figure out which buttons to push.

"That was one of the reasons I wanted to play for Pete," says Ronnie Lott, who switched from the Los Angeles Raiders to the Jets in 1993. "I just liked the way he communicated. That energy level, that passion."

Which makes Carroll's travails in the NFL all the more ironic.

In New York, he built one of the league's toughest defenses. But when the team started losing, he got ripped for blaring rock 'n' roll music in his office and erecting a basketball hoop beside the practice field.

In New England, where friends warned him about succeeding the dictatorial Bill Parcells, the Patriots made the playoffs twice in three seasons but slipped from 10-6 to 8-8 and the media wrote off Carroll as "a transferred surfer from the West Coast who can't handle the pressure of coaching in the East."

A former player, running back Dave Meggett, said Carroll lost control of a team that was "not ready for that kind of laid-back environment."

After the Patriots fired him following the 1999 season, Carroll stayed away from football a while. There was time for wife Glena and their three children, one of whom, daughter Jaime, plays volleyball for USC. There was time for Carroll, who remains slim and square-jawed, looking young despite his gray hair, to take stock of his career.

It was one thing to be criticized for mishandling troubled receiver Terry Glenn or for holding practice without pads, something he borrowed from George Seifert in San Francisco. More frustrating, he believed critics overlooked the fundamentals he taught, focusing on the unusual.

"It started in New York and took on a life of its own," he says. "They don't understand how hard we work, how we use a different approach to get the same results."

Making Adjustments

A few miles up Figueroa Street, at Staples Center, Phil Jackson can be unconventional--the so-called Zen Master--because his teams win championships. That would be a longshot for a USC squad coming off two disappointing seasons.

In the meantime, Carroll will make adjustments.

The experience in New York taught him a lesson. He relinquished control of the defense when he became coach and, as Lott says, "we lost our identity. Pete, as a coach, looks back at that moment and thinks, 'God, I should have stayed more engaged.' "

At USC, Carroll will double as defensive coordinator this season, partly because that squad must replace key starters and partly because he wants his players to see him at his best: working one-on-one, teaching technique, motivating.

In the wake of his experience in New England, he will likely be tougher on the team, keeping a shorter leash. Whereas reporters were once barred from practice, he now wants them to see: "I want you to understand that I'm very traditional in the greater part of what I do."

When camp opens, Trojan players will sprint and lift weights, watch videotape and run plays ad nauseam, like any other team. It remains to be seen how often they will be in pads but, if spring ball is an indication, the sessions will be intense and organized.

And misdeeds will be promptly addressed, as tight end Kori Dickerson discovered when he arrived late to a spring scrimmage and spent the afternoon doing up-downs and push-ups.

"That let the team know he's strictly business," Dickerson says. "If you break a rule, you have to pay."

That does not mean, however, that Carroll has abandoned his beliefs. Far from it.

Almost to a man, USC players remark on how easily they can talk to their new coach. He meets weekly with a committee of team leaders. Late one night in January, he summoned everyone to the Coliseum for a surprise tug-of-war and motivational speech.

The "evolution of teaching and performance," he calls it.

"It's the best way I can coach. I won't try to be something I'm not."

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