There won’t be any scolding here of Pete Carroll

As a befuddled city staggers around today with Pete Carroll’s footprints on its back, we need to get something straight.

Why would arguably the greatest football coach in USC history leave the team at its most desperate point in a decade?

Or is he leaving precisely because of that?

Is Pete Carroll running to something, or from something?

In trying to figure out Carroll’s apparently imminent departure to the Seattle Seahawks -- a coaching move that could rip out the current Trojan mystique down to its ugly Hacketts -- only one thing is beyond debate.

Pete Carroll owes USC nothing. He owes this city nothing. He owes you nothing.

In nine years, he has more than earned his millions.

Two national titles, seven Pac-10 championships, seven BCS bowls, three Heisman Trophy winners, 97 wins in 116 games.

He’s not leaving in the middle of a season. He’s not leaving after lying about staying.

He’s no traitor. He’s no quitter. He deserves no boos. He was paid to do a job, he did it well for a long period, his performance gave him a chance at what he considers a better job, and so he’s taking that chance.

That’s not sleazy. That’s America.

If you see Pete Carroll today, you do not scold him, you thank him.

But could you also, you know, ask him the question that is following him out of town like a scrap of tissue on the heel of his shoe?

It is not “Why?”

It is “Why now?”

You knew he would eventually leave here for the NFL. I’ve been writing it for five years, many of you have repeatedly mocked me for it, but, c’mon, you knew.

He coaches games as if he’s in the NFL. He runs his program as if he’s in the NFL. His last remaining football challenge -- proving that he’s better than a 33-31 career record -- is in the NFL.

You knew that one day he would leave.

But why, exactly, now? After turning down at least four other NFL offers in recent years, after turning down a chance to leave on the shoulders of a national championship team, after his most disappointing season, why now?

Is Pete Carroll running to something, or from something?

The answer appears to be both.

He is running to an organization that can give him the superstar money he desires and the complete control he requires.

He is running from an organization where his star is dimming and his influence is waning.

He is running to his dream.

He is running from his nightmare.

Stained with four bad losses, this USC season not only aged Pete Carroll in the face, but also the shtick.

His loose attitude suddenly played lackadaisical. His fun approach suddenly felt undisciplined.

Where once he was lauded for his concern for individual players, now it seemed he was playing favorites -- just ask quarterback Aaron Corp, if you can track him down in Richmond.

Carroll seemed weary of the team, and the team seemed weary of him. His revolving door of assistant coaches acted as if they didn’t know him, his players acted increasingly as if they didn’t trust him, and Carroll just acted plain distracted.

The reason for this distraction is unknown. Was it personal? Was it something else professionally?

Whatever, his distance from the culture he created was never more clear when, with fans chanting his name and cheering him from the stands as he came off the field at the Emerald Bowl, he ignored them all to put his arms around me so I wouldn’t ask questions of nearby Joe McKnight.

After that game, for the first time in Carroll’s tenure here, he openly questioned the USC administration, criticizing them for essentially suspending McKnight because of the Land Rover controversy.

“I know those quotes are going to make some people mad,” Carroll said afterward.

He was talking about Athletic Director Mike Garrett, and he didn’t care. It is the worst secret in town that he and Garrett have quietly feuded for years, Carroll bristling when the athletic director would stick his nose -- and his ego -- into a program that was clearly built and owned by the coach.

It is easy to say that Carroll is leaving now because of impending NCAA sanctions surrounding the Reggie Bush house and McKnight car issues. But in conversations with me, he never truly believed the Trojans would get whacked.

He wasn’t afraid of NCAA jail, but he was tired of NCAA laws.

He hated worrying about amateur compliance when he was trying to fashion a pro defense. He hated dealing with a player’s college transcript when he was trying to prepare him for the NFL combine.

And he hated that suddenly, athletic department officials were smartly growing wary that he could handle it all. If they took McKnight off his team before a bowl game -- a good move, by the way -- Carroll wondered what was next.

It was as if Carroll felt he was too big for a department that suddenly realized this giant could eventually squash them all.

There is no compliance department in Seattle. There is no Mike Garrett in Seattle. There will be no increasingly dubious boosters,

Pete Carroll can start fresh in a league that is his football home.

And USC will do . . . well, who knows? Truth is, Carroll was not only the leader of the program, he was the program, resurrecting it from embarrassment and seemingly single-handedly pushing it to glory.

Don’t forget, USC endured some lean times before Carroll arrived. He coached the Trojans to their first national title in 25 years. With the current competitiveness in the college football landscape, the wrong coach could bring the beginning of another drought.

But can they bring in a top coach with the NCAA looming? More important, can they bring in a dynamic leader with Garrett looming?

Because Garrett’s received all the plaudits for Carroll’s hiring, will he now be held accountable for Carroll’s leaving? Will USC be able to truly move forward if he is not?

For now, perhaps, it is enough to lament the loss of one of the greatest sports leaders to ever grace our city.

And, as with seemingly every other great Hollywood partnership, to wonder why it couldn’t last.