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Carroll perfect fit in Southern Calif.

Ex-Patriots coach, USC on title track

LOS ANGELES -- Pete Carroll says the people who have pigeonholed him as the prototype college coach, as the guy with the fire in his eye that comes through to the players, have it wrong. Well, at least not completely right. Yes, he's the man who plays spirited pickup basketball games at noon each day at the age of 52, drawing the attention of his players, along with their admiration. He's the man who has what appears to be a permanent smile on his face. He's the man who will take his Southern Cal team into the Rose Bowl tomorrow for an old-fashioned matchup against Michigan, with nothing less than a national championship at stake. And yes, he's a happy man who hears his name mentioned again when job openings in the National Football League appear.

 

But it's not because he is on a college campus, where cheering is permitted and in some cases looked upon with pride. It's because he's here, on the West Coast, doing what he loves to do, which is win football games, and doing it so well that he might find himself with a trophy case full of national college coach of the year awards.

"I think it's clear to me, and I don't mind saying it anymore," said Carroll. "I think it's better-suited to the setting. I'm in California. Being in California, being in the West, has something to do with it as well. It's a very good fit, and we're seeing how far we can take it."

This is not the same Pete Carroll who coached the Patriots from 1997-99, the one who was gently ushered out the door after the Super Bowl team built by Bill Parcells and coached in part by Bill Belichick dropped from 10-6 to 9-7 to 8-8.

It was not so much the losing, it was losing with the enthusiasm of, well, a college coach -- in the chilly, cynical atmosphere of New England -- that didn't cut it.

Flash forward three seasons to USC, where the trend under Carroll has gone the other way: 6-6, to 11-2, and now to 11-1. The Trojans are No. 1 in both the coaches' and writers' polls, even if the Bowl Championship Series has them No. 3 and not in the "championship" game against Oklahoma or LSU.

It is the first time since the middle of the 1981 season that the Trojans have been ranked No. 1 -- and the first time since 1971 that they have gone into a bowl game as No. 1.

Carroll acknowledges that he doesn't understand the BCS system or necessarily agree with it, but he accepts it and embraces his opportunity in the Rose Bowl.

"We really do get to do everything [i.e. play in the Rose Bowl, stay at home, and have a chance to win the national championship]," he said. "This was an incredible opportunity for us."

Fitting right in Carroll came to USC after 16 years in the NFL as an assistant and head coach. It has been 30 years since he began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Pacific, where he was a two-time all-conference safety. He grew up in California, went to school in California, and now is back coaching in California. And he is doing it as well as anybody on the sidelines today in either the NFL or college football.

The switch back to his roots has been as smooth as he could have hoped for.

"We've been accepted since the day we walked in here," Carroll says.

When you're 22-3 over your last 25 games, which includes a win in the Orange Bowl over Iowa last season, it is easier to get accepted. But it is more than that. It is the way people view themselves at USC, which had fallen on hard times, well out of the limelight of even the Pac-10, not to mention the national scene.

"He creates an environment that allows young people to be successful," said USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow, whom Carroll brought in to run an offense that has become prolific, with a Pac-10 record 506 points, including 40 or more in seven straight games. "He presents himself in such a way that the atmosphere is conducive to success."

Wide receiver Mike Williams, who had 87 catches for 1,226 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, gets more basic in his assessment of Carroll.

"He's fun to be around," said Williams. "We enjoy it. It's nice to be around [the football office]. I don't know how many 52-year-old coaches are playing noon basketball."

Rewarding experience Carroll will sit back and smile and say the right things about how he is happy to be at USC and plans to be there for a long time. But there is still the issue of the NFL. Maybe it is unfinished business. He was not a failure in the NFL, but he was not an overwhelming success, either.

Which is why he might roll his eyes a bit when asked about "slotting" -- about how he is better suited for college than the NFL.

"I'm asked that question all the time," he said. "I don't think so from my perspective."

He says he understands when people suggest that he might go back to the NFL, given the opportunity. "That is likely to happen," he said. "You just look at the logic of it. I had success in the NFL and I'm having success now. It's hard to find that combination in the NFL."

That seemingly leaves open the door for him to head back to the NFL. Then Carroll comes back to reality, with the way the world is now for him.

"I clearly understand where I am right now," he said, "and what I'm doing. This is the best place I could be. I couldn't be having more fun. We're having as much success as you can have. We have a great future. This is not a short-run attempt. We have the opportunity to be good over a long period of time. That's really important to me.

"I'm not looking for the money. I'm not looking for the hype. And I'm not looking for the one shot: `How far can you take it?' I'm looking to see that we can create a strong, successful program over a long period of time. That's what would bring me the greatest joy. And so there is no way I can find that anywhere else."

Then Carroll turned philosophical, breaking down the difference between USC and the NFL into more than coaching.

"It's just different," he said. "You take people at different stages of their life. I think this is more fun. It's more rewarding. There are major league adult problems going on in the NFL. There are just different ones here.

"This is more like being a parent. It's rewarding on different levels. I think it's more fun because of the freshness, and the naivete of the kids. And just the way they respond. I can frankly deliver a much more encompassing message about the rigors, the challenges, and the ups and downs and growth experiences."

And then Carroll returns to the purest level of his profession, one unencumbered by expectations of wins, by money, by anything other than doing what he has wanted to do for his entire adult life.

After all these years, Pete Carroll said it simply: "I think this is more fun, it's more rewarding."

He says it with a smile, a nod, and an assurance that he absolutely believes the words he has just uttered.

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