HE'S PRO USC

Times Staff Writer

Should he stay or should he go?

It's entirely up to Pete Carroll.

That's the opinion of many NFL general managers and team presidents, who think the USC football coach will have more than his share of opportunities this off-season if he wants to return to the pros.

If Carroll were to leave, that could leave the Trojans without the architects of their defense and their offense. USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow will meet with University of Arizona officials about their head coaching vacancy and is also believed to be a candidate for the head coaching job at Duke.

But although Chow has indicated interest in other jobs, Carroll consistently has said he's very happy coaching the Trojans, who are ranked second, and has no intention of leaving to coach in the pros any time soon.

"There isn't any aspect of coaching at USC that I don't like," he said. "I think being at the University of Southern California, with the makeup of this job, couldn't be better at any level at any place."

But that won't keep the NFL from knocking.

"I personally feel the ball would be in his court," said a general manager, one of several NFL team executives who discussed the topic on the condition of anonymity.

"I could see someone bringing him in for an interview and falling in love with him, no doubt about that," said another.

"He'd probably get $4 million a year if he wins a national championship or two," said a third, suggesting Carroll's salary would be roughly doubled as a pro coach. "Not a lot of people would pay that much, but there will be a couple of owners that might."

Gary Uberstine, Carroll's agent, said he anticipates hearing from some potential NFL suitors during the off-season but declined to elaborate.

"I don't want to comment any more than that," he said. "Right now, his focus is entirely on winning every game that's left on the schedule and then going on and hopefully winning a national championship. Any thought or discussion about anything else is really inappropriate."

There could be a bumper crop of NFL job openings after this season, some far more desirable than others. Among the teams potentially looking for a new coach are Buffalo, Miami, Oakland, San Diego, Washington, Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans, Arizona and the New York Giants.

"There's a feeding-frenzy mentality with these things," said Bill Walsh, former coach of the San Francisco 49ers who was team president when Carroll was the team's defensive coordinator in 1995-96. "Pete has distinguished himself as a head coach and an assistant. Now at USC, he's brought that school back to the greatness of its origin. He's one of the hottest coaches in the country, and deservedly so."

Not everyone is in agreement that Carroll tops the list when it comes to NFL coaching candidates. He was 33-31 in his four seasons as coach of the New York Jets (1994) and New England Patriots (1997 to '99).

"I don't see Pete jumping to the top of the list, because I see owners saying it won't sell as good," a fourth GM said. "Yeah, he was a pro coach, but he didn't succeed. That's going to turn some owners off."

The president of an AFC team said Oklahoma's Bob Stoops is by far the most enticing candidate to emerge from the college ranks, and placed Carroll in a second-tier trio that includes Louisiana State's Nick Saban and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.

"I don't know that Pete wants to get back into this arena," the team president said. "He's exceedingly comfortable and healthy. He relates better to the college athlete than the pro. My impression is he's ecstatically happy where he is."

There's no way Carroll could have been ecstatically happy about his four seasons as an NFL coach. His Jets finished 6-10, and he was criticized for being too soft on his players. On the day they fired Carroll, the Jets hired fired Eagle coach Rich Kotite, who got his Philadelphia freedom by losing his last seven games. The two coaches were on the front page of the next day's New York Post under the headline, "Dumb and Dumber."

Kotite made one very conspicuous change in his first season. He had the temporary basketball court removed from the parking lot at the team's training facility. Carroll used to play pickup games there with his assistant coaches during down time. Before the court was carted away, someone left a very pointed message on it, taping a sign that read simply "6-10" -- Carroll's record -- to one of the glass backboards. It should be noted that Kotite went 3-13 and 1-15 before getting the boot.

The youthful and charismatic Carroll was labeled a "players' coach" (read: pushover), a reputation that only grew in New England when he replaced Bill Parcells, whose team was coming off a Super Bowl appearance. In three seasons under Carroll, the Patriots finished 10-6, 9-7 and 8-8, making the playoffs twice.

The buzz around the league was Carroll was better suited for college football, and that he would be an exceptional recruiter. People say the same thing about Detroit Coach Steve Mariucci. One expert involved in the hiring of coaches said the sputtering Steve Spurrier experiment in Washington might give teams second thoughts about hiring another "can't-miss" college coach.

Several GMs discounted that theory, though, and said Carroll's fun-loving personality can be a strength at any level.

"Being rah-rah isn't the kiss of death," said the top executive of an NFC team. "No two people are the same. The question is, do their methods work? Vince Lombardi's method wasn't the same as Tom Landry's, and Landry's certainly wasn't the same as [Mike] Ditka's."

Two years ago, during Carroll's first season at USC, his team suffered a bitter three-point loss at Washington. After the game, Carroll jogged to midfield and shook hands with then-Husky Coach Rick Neuheisel. Skipping the normal pleasantries, the Trojan coach gritted his teeth and spit out three words: "We'll be back."

But whether he'll be back in the NFL remains to be seen.

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Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Sunday-Best Chances

NFL teams that might offer Pete Carroll a head coaching position:

*--* Team Probability of coaching change Would Carroll be a fit? Arizona Likely No, Cardinal brass is looking for a disciplinarian. Atlanta Likely Maybe, especially if Rich McKay took the GM job. Buffalo Very likely No, Bills couldn't pay him enough to lure him away. Chicago Very likely Maybe, Bears are eyeing top college coaches. Miami Likely Probably not, Dolphins want an offensive specialist. New Orleans Possibly No, unless the Saints moved to the L.A. Coliseum. N.Y. Giants Likely No, the Giants will never draw from the Jets' discard pile. Oakland Very likely No, nobody's lining up to work for this owner. San Diego Possibly No, this job chewed up Mike Riley, who is Carroll-esque. Washington Possibly No, see Raiders.

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-- Sam Farmer

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