boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

Level best

Belichick, Carroll ruling their respective domains

FOXBOROUGH -- The last two coaches Patriots owner Bob Kraft hired -- Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick -- are arguably the most successful football coaches in America right now.

"Pretty phenomenal when you think about it," said Jimmy Johnson, who won a national title with the University of Miami in 1987 and led the Dallas Cowboys to back-to-back Super Bowl championships in the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons. "Pete has led that program back from the ashes and Bill is probably the best coach in the NFL right now."

Johnson, who replaced coaching legends Tom Landry in Dallas and Don Shula in Miami, understands the difficulties of sustained success at both levels: In the NFL, the salary cap and free agency are pitfalls (and benefits); in college football, the changes are as constant, with graduation and junior eligibility.

Carroll, head coach at Southern Cal, lost Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Carson Palmer to the NFL in 2002 and won a share of the national championship the next season with quarterback Matt Leinart. Belichick lost franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe in '01, and won the Super Bowl with Tom Brady the same season.

Johnson's respect for both coaches is understandable: the last school to win back-to-back national championships was Nebraska in 1994-95. The last team to win back-to-back Super Bowls was Mike Shanahan's Denver Broncos in the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons, four years after Johnson's Cowboys did it.

"When I was at Miami, we lost nine games in five years," recalled Johnson. "I had a lot more fun coaching in college than I did in the NFL, and I guess all that winning helps that. But I enjoyed the paycheck a lot more in the NFL than I did in college. Now there are probably a half-dozen jobs or so that you would probably never leave to go to the NFL. I think Pete has one of them."

The Cowboys under Johnson won 39 of their last 50 games, won 13 straight regular-season games, and 16 straight overall. Johnson was 7-1 in the postseason with the Cowboys, 9-4 overall. In three of his last four years in Dallas, he was named Coach of the Year.

He was 52-9 at the University of Miami, finished second in the polls twice, and won the Orange Bowl twice. He was the first coach in history to win a Super Bowl and a national championship (Barry Switzer also did it, with Oklahoma in 1974, 1975, and 1985, and the Cowboys in the 1995-96 season).

It's hard to top what Johnson has done, which is why he's content as an NFL analyst on Fox -- and living on his boat in the Florida Keys. At 61, he has no desire to be on the sideline again. Asked about the possibility of returning to the NFL, Johnson said succinctly, "You'll see me on Fox. I'm very happy where I am."

Johnson is one of the few coaches to adjust to the NFL from college, with success in both. "When I was at Miami, I would always spend the offseason visiting pro camps," Johnson said. "I'd spend time with the Cowboys, Dolphins, Raiders, and I spent a lot of time with John Robinson, so I had a pretty good idea of what was ahead. The pro game requires so much more of your time. The workload is far greater for a pro coach than it is for even a major college coach now, even with all the recruiting you have to do. I know [Dolphins coach] Dave [Wannstedt] played golf with [former Redskins and University of Florida coach] Steve Spurrier one day this offseason and Steve told him, `You can have that pro ball.'

"The pro game is definitely more of a grind."

Unlike Belichick, Carroll has been a head coach at both levels. Carroll was 27-21 in three seasons (1997-99) with New England and 6-10 with the Jets (in 1994). Since starting 2-5 at Southern Cal in 2001, Carroll is 32-4. His Trojans have won 14 straight and 25 of their last 26. Belichick has followed a similar path. Since starting 5-13 with the Patriots, Belichick has gone 42-12 with two Super Bowl championships and the team has won an NFL-record 19 straight games (including postseason).

Johnson believes there are major college programs that will always produce an enormous amount of talent so "it doesn't matter who the coach is."

USC was one of those programs for a long time, but Carroll had to resuscitate it, and he may not have a problem keeping the talent level where it is.

In some respects, a successful NFL program, such as the Patriots, is able to do the same. Players want to come to New England because they know they'll be part of a winner. Good salary cap management has allowed Belichick to keep core players together much longer than Carroll could as a college coach.

"As difficult as it is to win a national championship in college, there are no guarantees you come to the NFL and make what you do in college work in the NFL," said Johnson. "And that goes the other way as well."

The other way is Nebraska's Bill Callahan, who had the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl two years ago. His Huskers lost to Texas Tech, 70-10, last week.

If Carroll wins back-to-back national titles, there could be offers to return to the NFL. Carroll has said he would only consider a move to the NFL if he had complete control.

Why would he do it? The money and the challenge.

He would want to match his legacy as a college coach with his legacy as a pro coach, just like Johnson once did.

One thing's for sure, Kraft knows how to pick them. 

in today's globe
The latest

Sunday 12F
Patriots 20 10 30
Seahawks 6 14 20
 Box   Scores  Stats
Next: 10/24 v. NYJ
Pop-up Play of the game
 Pats schedule/results
Online extras
SEARCH GLOBE ARCHIVES
   
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months