The 49ers cleared the way to make their push Wednesday by firing Coach Dennis Erickson and General Manager Terry Donahue.
Carroll, college football's hottest property after leading the Trojans to consecutive national titles, is a Bay Area native who was the defensive coordinator of 49er division championship teams in 1995-96.
An NFL source very familiar with the 49er situation said owner John York was determined to do something "exciting and dramatic" to bolster his listing franchise. The 49ers, who at 2-14 this season matched the worst record in their history, are losing season-ticket holders at such a pace that next season they may encounter television blackouts for the first time since the 1970s.
"You're dealing with a desperate man," the source said. "I think he's willing to go to the wall for anything that will stop the bleeding."
That would include offering a salary approaching NFL-record proportions, as well as control of all player personnel moves and the direction of the franchise. The source said York wants to "take a page from Daniel Snyder," referring to the Washington Redskin owner who paid Steve Spurrier $5 million a season, then matched that for Joe Gibbs.
After a news conference Wednesday morning in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., during which he was presented with several national-championship trophies, Carroll was asked about his interest in returning to the NFL.
"If somebody's going to call you, they're going to call you," said Carroll, 53. "If they want to come after you, they'll come after you. If people are calling about jobs, you have to feel good about the fact they're considering you. That's always nice. But I'm not interested.
"I can't imagine a formula where somebody could get me interested.... At SC, I have so much control and call every shot, and that's such a difference to me. I've seen the other side of it. There aren't very many opportunities that have ever existed in the NFL where you can do all of that the way you want to do everything. That's why I'm not interested.
"I don't see any reason to even think to be interested. I'm having a great time and love being here."
Carroll's comments came hours before the 49ers announced they would be replacing their coach and general manager. Messages left Wednesday evening for Carroll and his agent went unreturned.
York said he plans to hire a coach with NFL experience and a winning record. Asked specifically about Carroll during a news conference at team headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., York did not deny an interest in the Trojan coach.
"I think we all watched the game last night," York said. "That was a tremendous game, and they were very dominant. He's a great coach."
Some league sources suggested Wednesday that a better fit for the charismatic Carroll would be with a Los Angeles NFL franchise, especially if the league decides to renovate the Coliseum, USC's home stadium.
Moreover, people close to Carroll said he's extremely happy where he is and isn't currently pursuing a return to the NFL, where he had a 33-31 record in four seasons as coach of the New England Patriots and New York Jets.
Legendary 49er coach Bill Walsh, a close friend of Carroll, said he can envision Carroll returning to the NFL some time, but not now.
"I think that's logical to think that at some point that would occur," Walsh said. "But I just can't believe he'd leave USC. It's about being happy where you are, and he seems very happy there."
Before the Trojans hired Carroll in 2000, the school first offered the job to Erickson.
A nightmare scenario for USC now would be if the 49ers were to hire not only Carroll but also offensive coordinator Norm Chow, then use their No. 1 pick in this spring's draft to select Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart, a junior who has yet to announce whether he will turn pro a year early.
But any suitors for Carroll can expect USC to pull out all the stops to keep him.
When Carroll was hired by USC in December 2000, he signed a five-year contract that paid him approximately $1 million annually. He is thought to have received a significant raise after leading the Trojans to an 11-2 record in 2002, a season that culminated with a victory over Iowa in the Orange Bowl.
In 2003, USC won a share of the national title by defeating Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
Asked Wednesday whether his contract was up for renewal or being rolled over annually, Carroll said, "The university has taken great care of me. Everything is in great shape contract-wise."
Carroll said that he had "a long-term deal," and that he was "covered for quite a while and it's of no concern of mine at all."
Oklahoma's Bob Stoops is thought to be one of the highest-paid coaches in college football and will reportedly earn a base salary of $2.4 million this year.
Nick Saban, who recently left Louisiana State to become coach of the Miami Dolphins, reportedly made $2.3 million in 2004 after winning last year's bowl championship series title with a victory over Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Texas recently gave Mack Brown a 10-year contract worth $25 million and Auburn awarded Tommy Tuberville a seven-year, $15-million deal.
"I'm fine. I'm not worried about what other guys are doing," Carroll said.
The 49ers fired Erickson with three years left on a deal that paid him $2.5 million per season. Donahue, who received a contract extension in September, has four years remaining on a deal that pays him about $1.3 million annually.
Whoever takes over the 49ers has their work cut out. In a salary cap overhaul last season, the team purged its highest-paid players -- among them quarterback Jeff Garcia and receiver Terrell Owens. There were no 49ers selected to the Pro Bowl this season, a first since 1980.
York is widely reviled by fans who believe he has tarnished a longtime crown-jewel NFL franchise. The team was 9-23 in two seasons under Erickson, and an NFL source Wednesday portrayed the job as "an uphill climb from day one."
Another potential candidate to fill the 49er vacancy is Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren, a former San Francisco assistant coach who was raised in the Bay Area. He has two years remaining on his eight-year, $32-million contract with the Seahawks. Although Seattle won the NFC West this season and will play host to St. Louis in a wild-card game Saturday, the Seahawks have never won a postseason game under Holmgren.
Erickson had his phone off while he watched the USC-Oklahoma game Tuesday night; he received a message to meet with York at team headquarters Wednesday morning.
"He decided he wanted to make a change and felt the organization needed a change," Erickson said in an informal news conference with reporters who regularly cover the team. "He wanted to start over.... I thanked him for the opportunity, and they wanted to go their direction and I have to go my direction. It's a divorce. It's final now."
Donahue, the longtime UCLA coach hired in 2001 as the successor to Walsh, had been criticized for making poor draft choices; for signing underachieving running back Kevan Barlow and cornerback Ahmed Plummer to long-term deals; and for relying too much on statistics in player evaluation.
Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.
(Begin Text of Infobox)
Pete Carroll's coaching record since he went to the NFL in 1984 (* In playoffs; **Division champions; *** National championship):
*--* 1984 BUFFALO 2-14 Defensive backs 1985 MINNESOTA 7-9 Defensive backs 1986 MINNESOTA 9-7 Defensive backs 1987* MINNESOTA 8-7 (2-1) Defensive backs 1988* MINNESOTA 11-5 (1-1) Defensive backs 1989** MINNESOTA 10-6 (0-1) Defensive backs 1990 N.Y. JETS 6-10 Def. coordinator 1991* N.Y. JETS 8-8 (0-1) Def. coordinator 1992 N.Y. JETS 4-12 Def. coordinator 1993 N.Y. JETS 8-8 Def. coordinator
*--* 1994 N.Y. JETS 6-10 Head coach 1995** SAN FRANCISCO 11-5 (0-1) Def. coordinator 1996** SAN FRANCISCO 12-4 (1-1) Def. coordinator 1997** NEW ENGLAND 10-6 (1-1) Head coach 1998* NEW ENGLAND 9-7 (0-1) Head coach 1999 NEW ENGLAND 8-8 Head coach 2001 USC 6-6 (Las Vegas) Head coach 2002 USC 11-2 (Orange) Head coach 2003*** USC 12-1 (Rose) Head coach 2004*** USC 13-0 (Orange) Head coach