RENTON, Wash. — The sense was that Pete Carroll never quite fit as Patriots coach. He was West Coast, laid-back, and upbeat. He had the kind of personality profile that didn’t quite line up with New England.
He was described as “too obtuse” or “too passive” or the general NFL death sentence — too much of a “nice guy.” He was more of a friend to his players, which made it impossible to be a disciplinarian.
But more than that, when his three-year run in New England was up, he didn’t have the wins.
When he took the Patriots job in 1997, he led the team to a 10-6 record and won the AFC East. A year later, a nine-win season dropped the team to fourth in the division and a wild-card round loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars only rubbed salt in the wound.
In his final year, the Patriots were a .500 team at the bottom of the AFC East heap and on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
After parting ways, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was frank.
“Some of you might ask why I made the change with Pete, and I must say up front that he’s someone I have great respect for,” Kraft said back in 2000. “I think he’s a great coach. I think he came into a difficult situation, but this is a business of accountability, and two years ago we won the division, last year we barely made the playoffs, and this year we’re 8-8 with a fifth-place schedule.
“We need a momentum change. That isn’t what I want, that isn’t what the fans want, and we believe and have expectations that better things will happen.
“Is it solely Pete Carroll’s fault? No. I think we have to reassess the whole organization. We have to look at whatever we can do to put ourselves in the best possible position to get into the playoffs and compete for a championship and I commit to do that.”
The Patriots did just that.
A month after letting go of Carroll, the Patriots did some wrangling with the New York Jets to hire Bill Belichick as their coach.
So began Kraft’s process of restoring the order he desired to his franchise.
But, at the same time, Carroll went through his own self-evaluation. “It was a crucial year for me,” Carroll said.
Even though he was only 48 at the time, he considered what retirement might look like after nearly 30 years of coaching, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
The restlessness would’ve bothered him entirely too much.
“I realized I couldn’t retire and I don’t understand retirement,” he said.
Carroll spent a year away from football figuring out what was next.
“It gave me an opportunity to really collect my thoughts about moving forward and to get pointed in the direction that, really, we have maintained since,” he said. “I had a tremendous opportunity to reflect on the time that I had had. It’s such a whirlwind when you’re coaching and you’re flying so fast that sometimes . . . we don’t figure out that we need to step back and revisit all of the stuff that’s important to us.”
Eventually, he rediscovered what was at the core of his ideals as a coach.
He took the head job at the University of Southern California in December 2000 and while Belichick was building a dynasty in New England, which would win three Super Bowls in a four-year span, Carroll recreated himself as the cool coach in SoCal who turned the Trojans into one of the more successful and glamorous college football programs in the country.
“Out of that came every word of our approach and every philosophy that we stand by now that applies to all the different stuff — really came out of a reflection of that time,” Carroll said. “Of course we have grown since that as well, but that was a big, big time and it happened when I realized that the next football season was coming up and I didn’t have a job and I needed to get ready and compete, so I started competing and in that, things took a much different course and different shape.
“I was on course to figure this out but I hadn’t taken the opportunity to really dig in. I’m really grateful for it and that’s why when I look back — I don’t regret anything that happened up until that time at all and I didn’t regret anything that happened at New England — it needed to happen for me to get to the point where I had to dig in and figure out what was right, so I’m proud of the way that process went because it really worked out.”
Although his personality contributed to his downfall with the Patriots, Carroll’s cool has been at the heart of his success since returning to the NFL five years ago as head coach of the Seattle Seahawks.
In his five seasons, the Seahawks have won three NFC West titles and a Super Bowl, and the locker room culture oozes Carroll’s influence.
He still thinks about the opportunities that slipped through his fingers in New England.
“I should have still been there — if I had won a few more games, we would have shown you that,” he said. “Since that didn’t happen, it didn’t happen.”
At the same time, there’s no doubting what the Patriots have done since he left with Belichick at the helm.
Carroll considers Belichick a friend. The awkwardness that could come with their dynamic — especially as they’re in line to cross paths at Super Bowl XLIX — doesn’t exist, Carroll said.
“It’s not awkward,” he said. “It could be, but it isn’t. Bill and I have talked a lot over the years on various things and I’ve seen him at the league meetings and things like that so it’s not a problem at all. It probably is pretty unique to this business but it’s no factor at all.
“We’ve gotten along great. Just out of respect for the things that he’s done and accomplished, I’ve held him in the highest of regard throughout. We’ve had an opportunity to bump into each other a number of times and we’ve talked on different issues.
“He came and visited us at USC and we had some really good exchanges. We’ve talked about teams that we’re playing and seasons coming up — all kinds of things really over the years so it’s been a very good relationship and really, it’s based on respect.”
Carroll could have racked his brain with the what-ifs. What would’ve happened if he’d had another season. If he’d gotten to work with Tom Brady. If things finally clicked with the team he’d put together. Instead, he moved ahead.
He now has the most successful of the league’s crop of young quarterbacks in Russell Wilson, the league’s most ferocious running back in Marshawn Lynch, the league’s most brash defense, and a team that’s defending the championship it won a year ago.
Hindsight happens, but he doesn’t dwell on it.
“It might not have mattered if we had drafted Tom,” Carroll joked. “I don’t know. If we had figured that out with our group — it might not have mattered but I don’t know that. I’ll never know that and I’m going to take it for the way it happened was necessary.
“The pain and the struggle and the hardship and then the challenges of bouncing back were all part of the rebirth of that — of the philosophy and a mentality.”