If Pete Carroll had gotten the call, if he’d found out then what he knows now, he could have been wearing a Stanford headset and colors for the Trojans’ visit to Palo Alto today.
He lost out to Dennis Green for the Cardinal head coaching job 14 years ago, and he didn’t come close or even give much thought to another college coaching job in the years afterward.
How could Pete Carroll not see it? Wasn’t it obvious, with his youthful enthusiasm and rah-rah attitude, that this guy was meant to be a college coach?
His friends in the coaching profession, even the one they called a genius, kept telling him: “You ought to coach in college.”
Carroll would allow it for a quick moment -- “That’d be fun,” he’d say -- then drop it.
“I was doing the NFL thing,” he said.
“People around me had a better sense than I did about how it would fit.”
So he did the NFL thing in Buffalo and Minnesota, where he coached the defensive backs. He did it with the New York Jets, where he spent four years running around the sidelines as a defensive coordinator before he got a head-coaching shot that lasted all of one season.
He served more time as a defensive coordinator in San Francisco, got one more chance as a head coach in New England. When that candle burned out after three seasons, it didn’t look as if he’d get another shot. NFL coaches who’ve never won a playoff game don’t get multiple opportunities.
He was doing NFL consulting work when the Trojans’ coaching search stumbled its way toward him after Paul Hackett was dumped after the 2000 season. Sure, he’d take it. Might be a good way to make some headway back into the NFL.
The pit stop, though, might become a long residency. Carroll’s style is working. And he’s loving it.
“This is the place where I can feel the most freedom,” he said. “I have no aspirations of going anywhere else.
“I like creating all the stuff we create. We love recruiting and finding my football team. There’s no aspects of it that I’m finding to taint all of it.”
Not even the hard-to-please alumni and boosters, the ones who can’t get John McKay and Student Body Right out of their heads?
“It’s not a big deal to me,” Carroll said. “I’ve already been through the scrutiny and stuff. With every job makeup, there’s problems that make it more difficult, whether it’s the [salary] cap in the NFL or academics [in college].
“You have your stuff that you have to deal with. To me it’s just part of the makeup of the job. I’m not going to let that aspect of it take me out of it.”
That’s the way he talks. All positive, lots of “stuff” and a surfer-style use of “way,” as in “way better.”
Somehow it all works. After bouncing back from a 1-4 start to finish 6-6 last season, the Trojans are 6-2, in the hunt for the Rose Bowl and ranked 10th in the country. Six of his eight losses in two years were by five points or fewer.
The players see him out there in practice, running around in the thick of things, and they buy into his program. At least the star quarterback does.
“He’s unbelievable,” Carson Palmer said. “He’s gonna turn this whole thing around. I wish I could be a part of it the next couple years. He’s going to get a national championship, he’s going to get Rose Bowls, he’s going to get all of that.
“He’s going have great recruiting classes. Whether we win this next four or lose this next four, people are going to want to play for him.
“I’m jealous of these freshmen coming in, because they have a chance to be a part of something amazing.
“What you realize is that he cares about everybody, whether you’re John the walk-on or a superstar. He’s so proud to be here that he makes you want to play for him, he makes you want to win for him.”
Of course, Carroll wishes Palmer, Sultan McCullough, Kareem Kelly and Troy Polamalu could stick around and be a part of it. Carroll has recruited well -- particularly on defense -- and expanded the Trojans’ recruiting base, but his biggest challenge will be landing replacements at the skill positions on offense.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of any college program. It’s something that suits Carroll well, and something that fits in with desire to run the show.
“The reason that this suits me better than any other situation is that I’m in total control of what I’m doing,” he said. “I’ve been coaching a long time, I’ve been through a lot of experiences, I have a lot of stuff that I want to express in my program. I don’t want anybody looking over my shoulder.
“No owners, no GMs, no cap guys. I don’t have to deal with any of that stuff. I make all the decisions myself. I feel confident that I’m going to make good ones.”
Right now, the decision to keep living the college life looks easy. He enjoys all the aspects of it and being a part of the Trojan athletic community. He can check out a couple of innings of the baseball game, or watch the track team.
His daughter is a junior at USC who played on the women’s volleyball team, and they sometimes meet for lunch on campus.
“The downside of that is, I cramp her style some,” he joked.
Carroll’s style still fits at USC. Bill Walsh, one of the guys who advised him to coach college, was right. Of course, Walsh was a guy who returned to his college coaching roots at Stanford before a couple of losing seasons made him think that perhaps the NFL wasn’t so bad after all.
Carroll says he won’t be following Walsh back to the pros.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s out of my system,” he said. “I was there a long time and had a blast, tons of friends, great memories and all that. But I don’t care for doing that. I’ve already done that. This is way different, and it’s different in a good way, because I’m really excited about it and having fun with it.
“I’m really pleased to be doing it. I don’t see [the NFL] as the ultimate.... I think this is way better. So, I’m in the right place.”
J.A. Adande can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.