Twenty years ago next month, USC hired a twice-fired NFL coach named Pete Carroll.
For many Trojans fans and college football observers, it was not a popular choice.
“I’ve been an unpopular choice in the past,” Carroll said during his introductory news conference on Dec. 15, 2000. “What it is, it’s a challenge.”
Two decades later, Carroll is regarded as one of the most successful coaches in college and pro football history. He won two national titles at USC and has won a Super Bowl championship with the Seattle Seahawks.
Carroll returns to Los Angeles on Sunday when the Seahawks (6-2) play the Rams (5-3) at SoFi Stadium.
Staff writer Gary Klein spoke this week with Carroll about the last 20 years and what comes next. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
As Larry Scott approaches the end of his contract, some see the Pac-12 commissioner as a leader who has struggled to build meaningful relationships.
Do you remember that day you were introduced at USC, and can you believe it’s been 20 years since?
I do remember that day. I remember kind of the tone and all of that. I remember my mentality: How I’m not going to be, you know, sacked (laughing) by what everybody else thought of what was going on. I remember I was trying to help [USC athletic director] Mike [Garrett]. He wanted to do it and he was just, he said ‘I don’t think they’re going to like this.’ (laughing).
You left USC 10 years ago [in January 2010]. You had overtures from multiple NFL teams before that. What made you decide it was the right move? Why the Seahawks?
[Former Seahawks Chief Executive] Tod Leiweke had a lot to do with it. And [owner] Paul Allen had a lot to do with it. Tod was a wonderful person and a guy that really wanted to make it right so it would be what it needed to be. He entered into the whole discussion about it differently than other guys. He wanted it to be exactly the way I needed it to be rather than, ‘This is the way we do it. Do you want the job?’ kind of thing. And that made a world of difference. Nobody else talked like that. And I trusted what he said. ... I had so much control of the SC situation. You know when you’re there, you’re the GM and you’re the head coach and you’re everything to the job and the [athletic director’s] got 20 other sports. This felt like that. And it was not like I was so power hungry. ... I had to have what was best for me to come across and all. And if I didn’t have that freedom, I wasn’t even interested. That’s why those other jobs were never hard to pass up.
There are people who still say you got out of town before the NCAA came down on USC. You said a few years ago that if you had known, you would have stayed.
Yeah, we didn’t know that that was going to happen. Remember, it was years in the making from when it started and we didn’t know if anything was ever going to happen. We weren’t hanging there like it was going to happen the next day or the next week or the next month. We didn’t think like that. Maybe we should have, but we didn’t. That wasn’t the issue at all.
Five years ago, Lane Kiffin was the offensive coordinator at Alabama, Steve Sarkisian had just been removed at USC, Ed Orgeron was the defensive line coach at LSU and Reggie Bush was kind of persona non grata at USC because of the sanctions. Five years later, Orgeron’s won a national title as LSU’s head coach, Kiffin is back in the SEC [as Mississippi’s head coach], Sarkisian is [offensive coordinator] at Alabama and Bush is co-hosting a national television show and can be welcomed back to USC. Any thoughts on that?
Well, really just thrilled for Eddie’s success. Particularly that he did it in Louisiana. Going home and all that. I was really glad that Reggie got to be received like the young man that he was when he was playing and having fun playing football and going to college and all that kind of stuff. I have not talked to him specifically about that so I don’t know what he feels, but I’m really happy for him and all that. Glad Sark got back in the saddle and got rolling again and is doing good and all that. And it’s always been a thrill to see what Lane is doing next (laughing).
When you coached at USC, you used to say that the NFL was the No Fun League. Has that view changed for you?
Yeah, I didn’t know how to do it before (laughing). Coming back to it now, in these 10 years I’ve had a blast. This is really fun. I’ve loved the relationship with the players, which I always really cherished in the NFL because the guys were always so serious and they love playing. People think that they’re big hotshots and that they’re hard to deal with. They’re not like that. They love what they’re doing and they care so much and they compete so earnestly. Lots of times you feel like you’re pasting things on the college kids: You put sticky notes on them and stuff so they remember things. The relationship [with pros] is in a different stage of their lives. So I’ve always loved the league for that, and I’ve loved the league for how competitive it was. You’re going against the best in the world and you can’t ask for more than that if you really want to compete. So that’s always been fun and then this has been a marvelous place to work and to live and to represent. The fans are awesome and the support of the Allen family has been great and working with [general manager] John Schneider’s been great. It’s just been a really good on good on good deal. And I just want to win a few more though (laughing). But that’s always the case. I remember telling [former quarterbacks coach] Carl Smith, ‘You want to come in? We got maybe two or three years and they’ll give us a shot at this thing. They’ll probably kick us out and think we’re nuts.’ And so 10 years later who knew? I didn’t know how we’d be received. I thought we’d be successful, but I didn’t know how the way and the style and the approach and all that would be received. And as always, it’s always been under attack and scrutiny and people wondering how could you have fun: ‘You’re a professional coach, don’t you know you can’t have fun doing that?’ It’s just always been like I wanted it to be. It’s been good for the coaches and the families and I think it’s been good for the players too. They’ve had a good time doing it. They’ve always been able to see too that we’re still playing football. We’re still playing and that’s been probably my favorite thing about it.
At 69, you’re the oldest coach in the league. What’s it like competing in an NFC West against Sean McVay (age 34), Kyle Shanahan (40) and Kliff Kingsbury (41), all these young coaches?
Yeah, they’re frickin’ good, man (laughing). They’re all really good. They’re remarkable coaches. And why I’m so impressed with them is how well they’ve done so early in their careers. They’ve come so far so fast. I would have thought that it takes years and years to get your act together because it took me that long (laughing). Those guys have done so well so early that it’s really impressive. Shoot, they’re taxing me right now.
You made some changes in your diet and lifestyle a few years ago and you seem to be as energetic as ever on the sideline. Are you a vegetarian?
No, I wouldn’t call it that, but it’s a plant-based diet for sure. I’ve found that I had lot of aches and pains over the years, having a knee replacement and a bunch of surgeries, bones and noses and everything that’s been busted. And I used to ache a lot. And I don’t have that anymore. I used to have arthritis. I attribute it to diet, so I think that’s been a wonderful gift. I had no idea. I didn’t do it for that reason and I realized it after the fact that things changed. It’s a marvelous way to go for people who are really hurting because that’s an uncomfortable lifestyle.
You famously used to chew several packs of bubble gum during practices. Have you eliminated sugar completely?
I haven’t nailed that completely. I chew gum only on game days, but it really doesn’t work with masks (laughing). You know the whole mask thing, jumping up and down, so that’s really cut back on my Bubble Yum.
You seem to continue to remain diverse with off-the-field projects like the podcast you’ve done with Steve Kerr and other community things.
I had a wonderful run with “A Better LA.” That was really one of my favorite things I was ever involved with. That was really an important challenge at the time. Always have tried to stay connected to that mentality, you know, that helping and working and learning and growing and understanding people that are different than you, and seeing where you can help and all that kind of stuff. It’s been a real avocation. I love that work. Right now we have a new group that we’re working with. It’s called Amplify Voices, and we’re helping people that need to be heard because of the marvelous work and things that they do and all that. Really excited about it. The work kind of continues and it’s somehow always related.
You recently addressed that you received a contract extension. So how long do you want to keep doing this?
I’m kind of on the five-year plan. I’m going for it and I have no angst about what’s next or the decision-making. I’m just going for it until it seems obvious to do something different. And I’m really having the time of my life. … Things sometimes change when you least expect it for unexpected reasons. I don’t want to go anywhere else. I don’t care about doing anything else. I’d like to just keep winning. The winning is really fun and I love coaching the guys. We’re playing with a quarterback [Russell Wilson] that’s a career quarterback. I love Russ and everything about what he stands for, [linebacker] Bobby Wagner and the guys that lead this team and so it’s just been a really special opportunity and we’re having fun. But it’s frickin’ hard to win.
Finally, coming back to LA, is it like any other game or does it resonate as different?
Of course. I love that we had so much fun and we were able to create memories and all that kind of good stuff with so many people and we had so much fun at SC … It was just a blast. And for the longest time I never thought how could I ever want to do anything different. I couldn’t even imagine that. That was really clear in my brain that that was the truth until I got challenged again, you know, and the challenge of it, the competitiveness of it, and it was stronger than anticipated. ... I used to say that all the time, that this is as good as it gets and I meant it. But if you truly are a competitor and that’s what your life is based on then that overrides everything and you’ve got to go for it. And that’s exactly what happened. And even knowing that and this is the hardest, most challenging level to be on, still, I wasn’t going to go because the situations weren’t going to be the right one. So fortunately it turned out and we made something of it. It’s fit together and it worked. ... So anyway, coming back to L.A., I’m looking forward to seeing the place. We’ve flown over the stadium a couple times during the process when it was being built. It’s just got to be an extraordinary place. Coming back I’m really grateful that I have the feeling I have and the relationships that we were able to establish over all the years. … It was a blast so I’m grateful to be connected to it all.
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