TrojanWire’s Devon Pollard poses with Seattle head coach Pete Carroll following ESPN’s Lunch with a Legend radio broadcast at Morton’s the Steakhouse in Santa Ana.
Reggie Bush aside, Pete Carroll stands as one of the most polarizing figures among the USC population. To many, he’s like the dad that ran out on the family just when things got rough, yet he swears he still loves you and your mom. To others, he’s a sort of transient messiah, flying from broken team to broken team ala Mary Poppins sans the wise cracking parrot umbrella. So which is it? Is he the coach that raised USC from the ashes, or the one who drove the greatest program since the dawn of the new millennium into the ground?
Please keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times. You’re about to enter the Trojan DePo.
Pete Carroll recently braved his way back to Southern California to promote his new book Win Forever: Live, Work and Play like a Champion. TrojanWire attended Friday’s ESPN Lunch with a Legend Series at Morton’s the Steakhouse in Santa Ana, California, to witness Carroll’s return to the Southland.
Now, I know what you might be thinking. It’s not exactly the best time for Pete Carroll to be promoting anything. They say any press is good press. Load of crap. I would guess about a month ago everyone at Portfolio Books, Carroll’s publisher, was tuned into Sports Center and shitting bricks. Each one of them. It’s hard to sell a book on winning, when your crowning glory has come crashing down before your eyes, and everyone else’s in the country, for that matter. For the past month USC football has been a media train wreck, and for many Pete Carroll was the conductor who was too busy texting at the helm to notice he was barreling down on a collision course with the NCAA infractions committee.
So how does the man that so many blame for USC’s failings come back to Los Angeles to promote his philosophy on success? I’ll tell you how: with charm, charisma and class. What did you expect, it’s Pete fricking Carroll.
First President George Washington was famously quoted as saying a true leader “must be of the people, yet above the people.” Pete Carroll has that sense about him. Ordinary. At first glance there’s nothing remarkable to him. Friday, he wore a tan suit, blue shirt, neatly combed gray hair, Carroll only stands about 5’-9”, and that’s a generous 5′-9”. At times he seemed almost uncomfortable with applause. He could be your father, your dentist, your pharmacist and you wouldn’t even give him a second glance.
So how did this appearingly ordinary man win an unprecedented seven straight Pac-10 titles, appear in seven straight BCS games, win two national championships, foster three Heisman winners in four years, 34 All American First teamers, 53 NFL draft picks, and set an AP record for 33 consecutive weeks atop the college football poll?
Carroll will be the first to tell you, winning forever didn’t come easy and it didn’t come quick. When Carroll was handed his first head coaching job for the ’94 Jets, the win forever concept hadn’t even crossed his mind. Carroll told ESPN’s Andrew Siciliano and Mychal Thompson, it was an unlikely win that planted the seeds for this book some 16 years earlier. Carroll’s Jets opened the season against Marv Levy’s Buffalo Bills at the Ralph Wilson Stadium, a team that had just come off of four straight AFC championships and an unprecedented four straight super bowl appearances. But the Jets came out swinging, surprising even themselves, beating the Bills 23-3 on the Bills’ own field. Carroll said he had a high after the game, the exhilaration of winning his first NFL battle. He was standing on the field looking back up at the fans clearing from the bleachers. And all around the stadium, these big banners hung, each marked with a year. They were all the years the Bills had been division champs. It included the past four seasons: 1990, and again in ‘91, ’92 and ’93. It was at that moment Carroll’s perception changed. He kept looking at those numbers and thought, winning once was nice, but that up there, that is what it means to win forever.
Ironically, the same year the “win forever” philosophy started coming together, was the year Carroll’s brief professional career was unraveling. The Jets dropped their last 5 games, going 6-10 on the season. And that was just the beginning. Despite moderate success as the Patriots head coach, overall, Carroll managed a mediocre 33-31 record in four years in the league. In fact, the defining moment in Carroll’s Win Forever Philosophy didn’t come until after he was let go in 1999, following his 3 year stint coaching the Patriots. After getting fired, a friend sent over a copy of John Wooden’s Blue Book. Carroll didn’t have much to do with his time, so he picked it up. It is that book, and that man, that Carroll traces his entire philosophy back to.
“I’m reading the book and I get to the part where it says in his 16th year at UCLA [Wooden] won his first national championship. And I was just shocked. I slammed the book closed. And it hit me. Everything hit me at once. It was like an epiphany…I knew what the rest of the story was. Once he won his first one, he won 10 of 12, he won 80 something games in a row, nobody could touch him, and he eventually retired. And what hit me was: whatever it took to get Coach to that point, to figure it all out, to know exactly what he stood for, what his principles were what his coaching was all about, his philosophy and all that, once he nailed it, nobody could beat him… ‘Till that moment, I never really realized how powerful it could be to have your own philosophy and to act on that.”
At that moment Carroll says he grabbed a pen and paper and started to jot down his own philosophy. A set of simple guidelines that would define the characteristics he wanted to embody, and the type of man he wanted to become.
What are the tenets of the Win Forever Philosophy?
Always protect the team;
No whining, no complaining, no excuses;
Give everything great effort, great enthusiasm;
It all boils down to: Always Compete.
Do things better than they have ever been done before.
There are those who believe Carroll’s book is another form of his shameless self-promotion. Another way to protect his legacy. Damage control for his tarnished record. But the philosophy in this book isn’t something Carroll created in the last month to divert blame for USC’s troubles away from himself. These are the same values and belief-systems Carroll has reiterated his whole tenure with the Trojans. The philosophy is the man, and the man is the philosophy. Not to mention Carroll will not receive a dime for any sale of this book, ever.
That’s right. 100% of the book’s proceeds go to A Better L.A. Foundation, Pete Carroll’s brainchild, dedicated to stopping violent crime and gang violence in the inner city. As Carroll puts it, when somebody buys the book, they are contributing to saving lives in Los Angeles. The money goes directly to intervention workers; the guys from the streets. It goes to those guys that have lived the life and turned their hearts around. They’re the ones that go steer kids from going in the wrong direction. One by one, they get them going on the right path.
During the ESPN interview, Andrew Siciliano asked Coach Carroll if there was one overriding message these inner city kids should take from his book. Pete paused for a moment to collect his thoughts, before speaking.
You know, when you ask these kids: What’s up? What’s going on? What’s your life about? They say, ‘Hey look. I’m either going to die or go to jail.’ And it’s across the board. You have no idea how consistent that message is. And when I first started hearing that I felt bad. And then I realized that’s the vision these kids hold for themselves. And knowing the power of vision, I started to say from that point on…you know you’re right. You don’t have any other chance of having anything happen to you but die or go to jail. And until we effectively can change that vision you hold for yourself, there’s no way. So if I can do anything to instill back in these kids, it’s the power that they own to control their destiny by working with their vision.
And if you think that’s phoned in, that Carroll’s lack of profit means lack of interest, think again. As for his organization, Carroll has said “I’m not leaving L.A. in terms of the work we’re doing there…” And he’s stayed more than true to his word. Pete Carroll is scheduled to appear at 47 interviews/book signings all across the country in efforts to promote this book. He’s investing his time, his sweat and his money to fight for this cause. That’s Pete Carroll for you. When he believes in something, anything, he commits himself to it fully. He’s all in, always.
There’s no doubt Carroll is a man of the people, either. During most live radio interviews, during commercial breaks the guest speakers sip some water and chat quietly with the talk show hosts. Not Carroll. Mychal and Andrew broke for the first commercial break. I went to town on my ridiculously tender Filet Mignon compliments of Morton’s.
All of the sudden a voice buzzed from the speakers: “I know you guys are hungry, I don’t want you to stop eating. I don’t want your food to get cold.” It was Carroll, he had grabbed the microphone from one of the hosts, and was standing, walking hand in pocket to the front of the stage. “But do you guys want to talk? Come on. Anybody got questions?”
Guests started raising their hands. An impromptu town hall, Pete Carroll style. He was asked about Seattle, Sanctions, the appeals process, Matt Leinart’s prospects…anything and everything under the sun. After answering a few questions Carroll asked, “How much time do we have?” An ESPN producer responded, “45 seconds.” And Carroll kept on answering the folks questions, up to the very last second he was back on the air.
This happened not once, but during every commercial break for duration of the broadcast.
It was during one of those commercial breaks that Carroll was taking guesses from the audience about what they thought his favorite moment at USC was. A 50-something man, wearing one of those orange ‘SC colored Hawaiian shirts threw his hand into the air, and waved it around violently. He shifted impatiently in his seat until Carroll finally pointed to him.
The Hawaiian shirt started, “When you were playing against Texas…”
Carroll stopped him: “We’re not talking about that. You’re changing the subject.” Carroll entertained a few more guesses as to his favorite Trojan moment, before relenting, returning his attention back to the man in the Hawaiian shirt. “Okay, what do you want to know?” Pete asked.
The man’s answer came out in a round about, bumbling sort of way, the gist of it was this: “In the National Championship game against Texas. It’s 4th and 2 and you decide to run it. We lose it on downs. How did your win forever philosophy fail, and if you had stuck to it, how would you have coached that game differently?”
Carroll looked right back at the man in the Hawaiian shirt, sort of shook his head and said: “No. that’s not right. It didn’t fail. That’s an instance of when stuck to our philosophy. We were 18 of 18 running that play with LenDale on the entire season. That’s who we were. You see? We knew what it took to win. We knew what worked, and we went for it. It just didn’t work that time. Winning forever isn’t about winning every time. You know, we got back into the locker room and the guys were just crushed. And I looked at my guys and I said to them: ‘These last 19 seconds aren’t going to define who we are. We’re champions.‘ That right there, that’s the philosophy at its best.”
Carroll continued, “You want an example of where it failed? Where I lost it? The first Stanford game where they beat us at home. It was 4th and 16 on our own 34. We should have punted it and held them. But I just didn’t want to admit we had to play conservative to beat Stanford. So I called for Booty to throw. It was intercepted. Arrogance. Right there, that’s where the philosophy failed.”
Following the conclusion of the live ESPN radio broadcast, Trojanwire was fortunate enough to get Pete Carroll alone for a couple of questions. Intrigued by Carroll’s work for A Better L.A., I began:
DePo: You have these kids, from the inner city, and after they participate in one of your programs, a lot of them, they go back to the same families that might not be supporting them, or same friends that are dragging them down. How can you help break that cycle, to ensure their success continues where A Better L.A. ends?
PC: You know, that’s why I talk about coaches being so important. They need coaches in their lives. If you don’t have it in your life, then seek it out. If it’s not out there, then it has to come from within. That’s what I hope the book will do. Get them to realize you can coach yourself. It’s about finding what it is that makes you the best you can be. It’s that discipline. And you know, it’s not just them who need coaches. It’s everybody. I’ve got coaches to. And when I lose it, it’s those guys that grab me and pull me back in.
DePo: Coach, you’ve become known in the past months as a giver of second chances up in Seattle. What’s your impetus behind that? Where does that come from?
PC: Really, it comes from my dad. My Dad instilled that in me. He would always say, if they don’t get it the first time, give them a second chance. And, you know, if they don’t get it the second time, give them a third. Don’t give up on them. I wish I could take all these guys. I really do. But I can only get them so far. Then they have to prove they should be there. I think Mike [Williams] gets it. He’s really shown up so far.
DePo: So is there any chance he’ll start?
PC Well, T.J.’s [Houshmandzadeh], we’re just getting him back, so we’re real excited about that. We’ll have to see how that goes. But Mike’s put himself in a good place.
With that, it was time for Carroll to make a quick round through the autograph line, grab his doggy bagged broiled Salmon, and hurry off to his next book signing.
Speaking with Carroll took me back to my Studies of Ancient Asia class, a freshman general elective at USC. There, we read stories of Kongzi, that’s Confucius to you or me. Kongzi believed a person could only become truly great by practicing rituals, or li, in every aspect of one’s life. He believed one must invest these rules inward, in all things big and small. Only when these rituals became so intertwined with the very fabric of a person’s being, could he manifest de, a charismatic virtue or power. And only then could he lead others to find tao, the way to live one’s life.
In a way, that’s what Carroll has done with his life. He’s taken his experiences, both successes and his failures, and from them carved out a set of rules to live by: his personal code. And by interjecting this code into every aspect of his life, this always compete mentality, he has set himself apart as a leader. But not just a leader on the field. That’s where guys like Carroll and Wooden separate themselves from the rest of the high blood pressure, heart attack waiting-to-happen coaches that populate the majority of college and professional sports. Carroll takes his code, and invests it not just into the game of football, but back in every aspect of his personal and professional life: in his family, friends, community, in the very attitude with which he carries himself through this world.
And it’s infectious. Great leaders have the ability to share their philosophy with those around them. It challenges others to develop their own rules to live by. To pursue greatness. If you have ever heard anyone talk about meeting Coach Wooden, the response is invariable: he inspires. Carroll is of the same mold. Carroll, likewise, inspires. And it’s not because you know he will win it every time, but rather because you know, time and again, he will never settle for anything less than his absolute best.
And if you’re still curious about Carroll’s happiest moment at USC, I will give you a hint. It wasn’t destroying Oklahoma in the 2004 National Championship, or breaking Charlie Weis’ heart with the unlikely 82 Sluggo Win. It wasn’t singing Lean on Me with Bill Withers, and it definitely wasn’t Will Ferrell reaching into his stuffed Speedo and handing Carroll a wadded up tube sock. It might surprise you to hear, Carroll’s favorite moment during his entire tenure at USC was, in fact, an on field penalty.
To hear the entire audio podcast of ESPN’s Lunch with a Legend series with Pete Carroll, please follow this link.