The question was the right one, even if the answer was no. When the Seattle Seahawks were looking to bring in Pete Carroll, then the hotshot head coach at Southern Cal, they asked, “Do you want to be the GM?”
“I said no,” Carroll recalled. “But I’d like to hire him.”
That was the crucial piece for Carroll in taking the NFL job he never thought he’d want. He had been burned already, had lived a life of limited decision-making and confused organizational structure. That was never going to happen again. Instead, he was content to remain at USC for the rest of his career, a place where he never had to fight for control.
But Seattle said the right things. Seattle knew what he needed.
“They wanted me to come here on my terms,” Carroll said. “And I trusted them. That was part of the deal. When I had talked to anybody in the past, [it was] whether I could really believe that it was the sales pitch to get you or that it was truly the structure that they believed in.
“That’s why I never even considered any of the other jobs.”
And that was all because of his three years in New England, because of a setup that didn’t work for Carroll or the Krafts or the Patriots.
Really, though, it all started with Bill Parcells — as so many things do in the recent history of the Patriots. It is something, too, that has informed the current Patriots power structure, as Robert Kraft has loosened the reins, finding the right touch with Bill Belichick.
“The experience with Parcells and Carroll really helped me in my decision with Belichick,” Kraft said. “Because I sort of had two extremes, and then I had a balance. I still kept the personnel separate when I originally hired Bill Belichick, but then over time, he earned his way in.
“I think in fairness to Pete, if I had given him more access, he would have done better. He was right in a lot of the things he said.”
Clash in Foxborough
That sentiment is gratifying to Carroll now, more than a decade after he coached his final game in New England. Though he has moved on, to USC and now to Seattle, finding great success at the former and increasing success at the latter, regrets remain.
Some of that came from not understanding himself and his philosophy. Some of that came from the working conditions, a structure that left him fighting to be heard.
“I’m not sure when he was here I gave him enough support in the personnel area,” Kraft said. “I had been so burned by my first experience, and so you learn. Sometimes in life and business or relationships, it’s where you catch someone.”
Carroll coached the Patriots from 1997-99, catching them at the end of the Parcells tenure, a time that brought respectability to the franchise but also left it saddled with onerous contracts. The Krafts had just paid the highest price ever for an NFL franchise, were anticipating a privately financed stadium, and were concerned about unwise spending.
So they gave the decision-making to Bobby Grier. Not to Carroll.
“It could have been all of the right decisions for another coach; it wasn’t for me,” Carroll said. “It didn’t work with the stuff that I needed to do. That’s where it became so clear, with how I needed to do it next time, if I would ever get a chance again.”
Kraft had initially gravitated toward Carroll for a couple of reasons. He was comfortable with the coach and his personality. He loved that Carroll, who was coming off a stint as the 49ers defensive coordinator, was a defensive guru. And he didn’t think Carroll had gotten “a fair shake” in his one year as head coach of the Jets (1994).
But it didn’t work, as Carroll managed just a 27-21 record in his three years in New England.
So even though the Carroll era has been ridiculed by many, perhaps some of the freedom that Belichick enjoys these days can be traced to the freedom Carroll didn’t have.
As Kraft said, “I hope we’ve learned from some of the mistakes I’ve made and tried to grow from it. You grow, you evolve, you develop, and I think Pete was helpful to me in understanding the right way to do things.”
The way the organization did things then wasn’t the right way. That’s clear when talking to anyone who was around the Patriots at the time. There was frustration for the players, the coach, ownership. The moves weren’t right, and the dysfunction reflected that.
Asked if he saw the organization learn from the Carroll era, former wide receiver Troy Brown said, “Without a doubt. I’m not sure who was calling all the shots when Pete was there for those years, who was bringing the players in, who was evaluating those guys, and sometimes it’s difficult to coach when you’re not able to bring in the people you want to have in.
“It was just probably a very unlucky time. I don’t think a lot of the evaluating was good on a lot of those guys. Some of the guys, they were maybe not the most talented football players. We had some bad ones, too, who would not adhere to the way Pete wanted to do things.”
They took advantage of Carroll, of his laid-back personality, of his lack of control.
So when the Patriots made their coaching change, Kraft had learned enough that he wasn’t going to let that happen again. Though Belichick still had to earn his way in, it didn’t take long before the decision-making was in the hands of the people who could best use it.
As Brown said, “Now [Kraft] doesn’t get involved except signing the checks and signing off on the deals. That’s about it. He stays out of the way and lets the football guys do their thing, and he does his thing upstairs.”
In a good place
The experience changed the Patriots. It changed the way they structure their front office, and the input that goes into football decisions. It also changed Carroll.
“I came out of there having a much clearer idea of what I believe it takes to do this job,” Carroll said. “I didn’t want to be a head coach if I had to share it with somebody else making the decisions. Because I’m a little bit different than other people, and I needed to do it my own way.”
He had fought — and lost — the battle to keep Curtis Martin, a decision that Carroll believes could have altered the history of the Patriots. He fought — and lost — battles on draft picks, guys that were chosen that didn’t seem to fit with his coaching style.
But he believes, too, that the changes he made to himself after that allowed him to get to this point.
“I thought I was really ready to go and carry a great philosophy,” he said, “but I couldn’t carry it out because we didn’t think that way throughout the organization. I thought I would be able to say stuff and we’d do it. But it didn’t work that way.”
So he sat down with his time off, he figured out what he wanted, he came up with the core philosophy of competition, something he carried through his time at USC and something that has come with him to Seattle. As he said, “I had the answers. I just didn’t know it.”
He is in a good place now, with his coaching style, with his control. And he understands what went wrong in New England. Kraft believed he was bringing in a coach who would do what the owner wanted, who would listen to Grier. It didn’t work.
Now, though, it does. It works with Kraft. It works with Belichick. With a bit of a helping hand from the tenure of the man who will be on the opposing sideline Sunday.
“I thought, going in, it was going to be different than it wound up,” Carroll said. “That was my shortcoming, my inability to see what was going on, and that’s what was so clear to me. I wasn’t making the choices, I wasn’t making the calls. I was just trying to coach their team.
“Robert didn’t know at the time, either. He got it really worked out with Bill when he showed up. Gave him a chance, and let him run his show. The rest is history.”