Sorry, Pete, We Were Wrong

We didn't want him. You didn't want him.

"I didn't want him," admitted a USC booster Monday, standing on the sideline of Howard Jones Field, watching with a smile as the Trojans sparred for their national-title bout with Michigan. "They announced the hire, and I thought, that's it?"

As the raucous Pete Carroll bandwagon careens noisily toward history this week -- backslaps for everyone! -- it's important to remember how it looked when it started.

The train was a rickshaw, and those 2 million people were two.

Daryl Gross was pulling, and Mike Garrett was hanging on for dear life.

Everyone wanted Mike Bellotti, or Mike Riley, or Dennis Erickson.

Few knew Pete Carroll, other than he had a daughter at USC, and he had been fired from two NFL head coaching jobs. In other words, just another rich Trojan parent with too much time on his hands.

Carroll's hiring was announced on Dec. 15, 2000.

In the next day's newspaper, letter writers were calling for his firing.

He may be the only coach in history who was on the hot seat before he even had a chance to sit down.

Wrote one: "My first reaction of the Pete Carroll hiring was like most USC alumni -- outrage."

Wrote another: "How long until we have to buy out Pete Carroll's contract?"

Then, of course, there were the wise musings of those paid to proffer them.

"I'm not mad at Pete Caroll," I wrote. "I'm mad at USC for hiring him."

In 13 steaming months, the words have evaporated into cheers. Crunched under 19 wins in 20 games, the criticism has been been steamrolled into compliments.

Today, he's the best coach in the country, the perfect man for a perfectly impossible job, and how could anybody say anything else?

Well, we did say something else.

And Thursday's Rose Bowl is Pete Carroll's chance to symbolically respond in a manner the cheery coach would never put into words.

It's his chance, once and for all, to tell everyone who never believed in him to stick it.

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Not that he would acknowledge this, of course.

"I don't have to put anything in anybody's face," he said Monday. "I know people didn't want me, but it wasn't their fault. They didn't know me any better."

In fact, when embraced by the same people who were pushing him away three years ago, Carroll has refused so much as a wagged finger or a clucked tongue.

"Why should I have to say anything?" he said. "What does that accomplish?"

Besides, Carroll said, it's more fun this way.

"I liked it as an opportunity," he said. "We could come in here and do things that most people didn't think could be done."

Those things have seemingly nagged him forever.

Great defensive mind, average grasp of the entire game.

Players love him too much, don't respect him enough.

Too nice, too fun, too Pete.

Each criticism has been buried during the last two years, even as he has occasionally struggled with their ghosts.

The triple-overtime loss to California this year?

Instead of maintaining the usual intensity during the bye week before the game, he used that time as an audition for backup quarterback John David Booty.

Instead of recognizing the inside ability of freshman LenDale White, he stuck with Hershel Dennis.

Instead of going for the win during regulation, he ignored Mike Williams and went for the tie.

"We weren't ready to play," Carroll acknowledged afterward, taking the blame.

The Rose Bowl can vindicate that.

The Rose Bowl can forever silence those who still wonder whether Carroll is tough enough or smart enough or Trojan enough.

Gross, a USC senior associate athletic director, never wondered.

It was his recommendation, from his experiences as a former New York Jet scout when Carroll coached there, that led to the hiring.

"He had a magic that was so obvious," Gross said. "I knew some people wouldn't understand it. But we do this 24 hours a day. What the public sees is something different than what we see."

With a Rose Bowl victory, everyone will look at the bouncing shock of gray hair and finally see the same thing.

"I'm not looking to hang anything on a wall," Carroll said. "This is not about that."

Oh, but hang it would, his first overall championship in 29 years of coaching.

The day after Carroll was hired, another letter writer opined, "I'm so glad USC fired Paul Hackett so it could hire ... Paul Hackett?"

What the finicky Trojan Nation didn't know then, it knows now.

The Rose Bowl is Pete Carroll's chance to make sure it never forgets.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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