Carroll found inspiration, and it led to his glory days

Times Staff Writer

A pivotal scene in “The Pete Carroll Story,” should such a cinematic endeavor ever come to light, would involve a coming-of-age moment in which the protagonist experiences an epiphany and realizes that to succeed on his own terms he must listen to his heart. He must make his own way in the world.

The soundtrack would swell with the sound of Bruce Springsteen’s inspirational “Growin’ Up,” a sort-of nonconformists’ call to action from the iconic rocker’s 1973 debut, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.”

I strolled all alone through a fallout zone

and came out with my soul untouched

I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd

but when they said “Sit down,” I stood up

Hollywood hokum?

Not at all, Carroll insists.

USC’s 56-year-old football coach says that such a moment really did occur, he was profoundly moved and that the Springsteen anthem figured prominently.

“It was a very personal thing,” he says. “It was very cool.”

To see him now, smiling and pumping his fists as he energetically prowls the USC sideline, it’s hard to imagine him needing a boost. But in the summer of 1999, two years before he was hired to spearhead the Trojans’ resurgence, Carroll was encamped with the New England Patriots. As he prepared for his third season as their coach, the Sword of Damocles hung ominously overhead.

The previous season had not ended well for the coach. After clinching a playoff berth a week earlier, the Patriots were swamped by the New York Jets, 31-10, in their season finale. It was a meaningless game, but linebacker Chris Slade stirred the pot when he told reporters that the Patriots had been outplayed and “outcoached.” More tellingly, owner Robert Kraft kept silent amid reports Carroll’s job was in jeopardy.


Carroll, fired by the Jets four years earlier, was retained despite a wild-card playoff loss but believed he was hanging by a thread.

Enter Springsteen.

“For some strange reason,” Carroll says, recalling his training-camp revelation the following summer, “I woke up in the middle of the night, got out of bed and had to listen to that song. And I had never singled out that song before. I don’t even remember hearing it before, but I woke up and thought, ‘I’ve got to put this on.’ And I was listening to the words -- it’s the strangest thing, because I don’t know why I was doing this -- and in the words of that song, he tells the story, like the title says, of growing up. And it was really meaningful to me at that time because I was aware of the situation that I was in at New England and that because of what happened at the end of the second year that I was in deep trouble.

“That was kind of the moment I stepped to a different kind of a mentality about the opportunity of being there. It was like a growing-up type of moment.”

He says he listened to the song about 10 times that night.

He memorized the lyrics.

“The words just seemed to be tailored right to something that I needed to hear at that time,” he says. “It was about lifting up above and growing up above all of the concern and the malaise of a challenging situation. . . .

“I was stronger because of it. It was an acknowledgment that it was time to transition and elevate, so that’s what happened. That’s what I did.”

The Patriots started 6-2 that season before skidding to an 8-8 finish and missing the playoffs. Carroll was fired, his four-year NFL record standing at 33-31.

But, thanks to Springsteen, a light had been turned on.

He had grown up.

“In the song he says, ‘They all told me to sit down and I stood up,’ ” Carroll says, singing the words. “That’s the key point of it. It’s about doing what you think is best for you even if it goes against the grain. That moment is still meaningful to me, that thought of not allowing people on the outside to control your world.”

At USC, Carroll’s unsinkable enthusiasm and innovative approach have netted spectacular results, including two national championships in six seasons. Not once, it seems, has he followed the path of least resistance, his go-for-broke style inspiring a crude but heartfelt nickname and chant from the student body.

The coach, whose team is 6-1 after Saturday’s 38-0 victory at Notre Dame, still listens to “Growin’ Up” for inspiration and has learned to play it on the piano. He’d love to share his fondness for it with Springsteen, who will be in town for shows at the Sports Arena on Oct. 29 and 30, but realizes it’s not likely he’ll get a chance.

Though the song’s message is still relevant to him, Carroll says, it’s not as vital to his psyche as it was in 1999, when his career was at a crossroads.

“I was still growing right then,” the coach says, “and I really felt like I was on my own in a lot of what I was undergoing at the time and I was going to have to really be a stud to make it through and stay strong. I had to get right and get ready, and that’s what the song said to me.

“Everything about it was saying, ‘You just do what you have to do.’ It was about standing up to the scrutiny and saying to yourself, ‘It’s OK, you can do it.’ It was uplifting and made me feel strong, for whatever silly reason.”