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Carroll in good place

Coach comfortable back in the NFL

Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck appreciates coach Pete Carroll’s honesty. Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck appreciates coach Pete Carroll’s honesty. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)
By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / June 3, 2010

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RENTON, Wash. — Pete Carroll has his feet up most of the time, lounging on a couch in his expansive corner office at the palatial Virginia Mason Athletic Center.

He’s flipping a football in the air. He’s smiling and laughing. He’s selling his philosophy.

That’s the Seahawks’ new coach, same as he ever was. And it’s the same guy, too, when Carroll’s face straightens, he plants his shoes on the ground, and locks his eyes on the guy who asked if it’s “Win Now’’ in Seattle.

“I’m not gonna be one of those guys — build for the future, and by Year 3 we’ll be this or that,’’ Carroll said last week. “I couldn’t care less about that type of thinking. We’re trying to win our division right now, and see how far we can take it. I don’t know any other way to think. I’m not looking for security. I’m not looking for unconditional support. I don’t care about any of that stuff. We’re all going at this thing together, and we’ll see how far we can take it.’’

See? No difference, really, than the Pete Carroll who 13 years ago landed in New England as the anti-Bill Parcells.

But in other ways — in the 10 years since being sent away from Foxborough and rendered a footnote between the franchise’s two most famous coaches — Carroll has gone through a self-exploration that didn’t necessarily change him, yet changed everything around him, most importantly his ability to succeed.

It started during Carroll’s year off from coaching, in 2000, with introspection as he studied legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s book, “A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court.’’

“It hit me immediately that he had been a really successful coach before then, but once he got it all together and got it nailed, nobody could beat him,’’ Carroll said. “It just struck me: ‘I don’t have my act together like I need to.’ And I knew if I had another opportunity, I wasn’t going to get another 16 years. I thought I’d already done this. I mean, I knew the importance of it. But then it hit me — ‘Nah, I really don’t know.’ ’’

Carroll remains defensive concerning his three years as Patriots coach. He’ll point out that his 27-21 record really wasn’t so bad, and laments the loss of Curtis Martin, to the division rival Jets of all teams, after his first season as a major tipping point.

But he also is aware of his mistakes. Without that awareness, he couldn’t have won two national championships and seven Pac-10 titles in nine years at Southern Cal. Without that awareness, he feels he wouldn’t have this shot, nor would he have the chance to make his third chance as an NFL head coach so much different than the first two.

“I didn’t try very hard to convince anybody that I was exactly the right guy for the job,’’ Carroll said. “I was just doing the job, knowing that I was. I didn’t work at selling my approach, my principles, to try and give myself a base of understanding. I didn’t appreciate that thought at that time. I didn’t think I needed to do that. That was a mistake.

“I was following a tremendous football season and team, an extraordinary head coach with charisma and stature and all that. And I didn’t care about any of that stuff. I was just gonna coach the heck out of them, and my coaching was gonna win out. I wasn’t gonna worry about that stuff, and that was a mistake.’’

For better or worse, Carroll now has the Seahawks marching in lockstep. That is, perhaps, the biggest difference between what he had in New England, and what he has in Seattle.

You might say he’s “pumped and jacked’’ for this opportunity. But then, that opens you up to oversimplifying a man who returns to the NFL with far more credibility than with which he left it.

Watch your steps
Everyone who was in New England and with the Patriots from 1997-99 remembers the back stairs. That’s where veterans retreated when they didn’t like what their coaches were telling them. That’s the route you took to the offices of the owners and Bobby Grier’s personnel department to air grievances over the coach’s head.

That’s the place where Carroll’s juice in the Patriots organization went to die.

“It was horrible,’’ Carroll said. “That’s not leadership. But that existed, yeah. That was there and [the front office] thought it was kind of cool. They liked it like that. I think the ownership, they wanted information and they thought that was the way to get it. And really, in all fairness to the Krafts, they didn’t know yet how to do it, they were just figuring it out.

“They’re brilliant people, and they figured it out. They figured it out through my experience and through Bill [Parcells’s] experience in two totally different time frames, different cultures. And they came to a way of doing it, and they hired Bill Belichick and let him do it.’’

Any discussion of Carroll’s time in New England has to start here, because the division of power ultimately led to a chaotic environment that was the coach’s undoing.

The unraveling of the relationship between Robert Kraft and Parcells, and subsequent trust the owner put in Grier, resulted in the team resisting giving any one person in the organization too much authority. Carroll believed Kraft was “still stinging from the past’’ and said he saw the issues from the start, but was optimistic to think that he and Grier and everyone could work it all out.

“It wasn’t so much a division as it was a lack of organization,’’ Carroll said. “There was a time, and I don’t even remember what year it was, when we’re sitting in a meeting and I still didn’t know what the pecking order was. I’d been there for over a year, and still didn’t understand what the structure was.’’

This is why Carroll, for a time, doubted that he’d ever return to the NFL. It wasn’t so much that he wanted to be the general manager, as that he wanted to hire the GM, because in his time in New England he learned how important philosophical synergy was.

Seattle gave him that chance, and he hired John Schneider from Ted Thompson’s personnel department in Green Bay, citing his “agile mind’’ in scouting as a determining factor.

But Carroll also had to go through a period of self-improvement. And that’s where Wooden’s book came in.

His share of the blame
As much as Carroll will point out the good done in New England in his three years, and how the 1999 season started 6-2 and some close losses swung the pendulum, the new Seahawks coach is just as quick to point the finger at himself.

The biggest reason Carroll thinks he wasn’t successful during his two 1990s forays as an NFL head coach isn’t because of the environment he was in or a lack of help. It’s because he didn’t know himself well enough, and that’s what made it hard to sell his philosophy to players.

As he puts it, “I needed to know what my philosophy was more clearly than I did, so that I could teach the people around me where I was coming from.’’ That meant defining himself as a person and building a program around that.

“Early on in that search of writing, filling out notebooks and stuff, to put things on the paper, it hit me that I’m a competitor,’’ Carroll said. “That was enormous for me. It was like, ‘Well, no kidding, I’ve been competing my whole life at everything I do.’ And so it only makes sense that if I’m gonna build the structure of a program, the central theme is gonna be competition.

“That way I’d be able to stand for the core of the theme of what it’s all about, and I’d be really good at staying in connection with it, because it’s the truth.’’

It was that way at USC, and it produced practice sessions that were legendary — many players to emerge from the Trojan program would say those were more intense than the games. It produced championships there and has been replicated in Seattle.

This is what he didn’t have in New England.

“He’s confident in his plan,’’ says Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. “He’s so confident that he’s figured out the recipe for success and how to win. His principles are key to that. He said to us, ‘When I coached in the NFL before, I had things I believed in, but I didn’t know who I was.’ He’s very transparent, open and honest with us.’’

A big reason why is that now he has something to sell, this philosophy, and working to sell it the same way he sold it to his players and recruits at USC.

“I’ve been working to teach our coaches on how we think and how we operate and what our expectations are — even to the point where I don’t want them talking to the media because they can’t talk about it yet,’’ Carroll said. “They can’t talk in accordance with it yet, because they haven’t been around it long enough to know.

“But these guys are starting to speak the language and understand it and be supportive, and be great disciples of what we’re talking about it.’’

Message is clear
Sean Morey was there in New England, a rookie that made Carroll’s first roster in 1999. And he says now, after bolting a comfortable NFL home in Arizona (he was the Cardinals’ special teams captain) to join Carroll in Seattle, that the man hasn’t changed.

But his way, to a certain extent, has.

“The message is more focused, and he is more concise in his delivery,’’ Morey said. “Like any player would, he had time to refine his skills, and he’s coming with a track record. He’s got credibility from USC. The young guys, he can relate with them, and the veteran guys respect him.

“And he’s made it very clear that competition is the central theme. Competition at every position, for every job, within the division, within the league. And his message is, ‘If we show up every day, and do it this way, why can’t we be the best?’ ’’

What has that created? Well, Morey has played for Belichick, Andy Reid, Bill Cowher, and Ken Whisenhunt, and feels comfortable saying, “I’ve never seen a more competitive offseason.’’

All this talk, Carroll knows well, could wind up meaning nothing.

The ditches on the side of the NFL highway are littered with coaches who came into new situations and created this kind of excitement. Maybe the Seahawks will win. Maybe they won’t.

But what Carroll is certain of is that he’s further along now, roughly five months in with the Seahawks, than he ever was in three years with the Patriots. He’s in charge, and the entire organization is thinking in lockstep, and in his opinion that makes all the difference.

“We’re thousands of miles ahead, because these guys know what program they’re in, they know what’s going on,’’ Carroll said. “They’re very clear with who’s in charge and what’s happening. It’s not even an issue. Nothing has to be proven or anything. They’ve just accepted it.’’

Carroll says he “felt horrible about being at the Jets and being at New England and not having my act together.’’

Things are different now, of course. He’s got the support and the foundation and the philosophy to build something better than he did in New York or New England.

And while some regret lingers, he sees the endgame, for both he and the Patriots, as positive. Both sides learned plenty about themselves, and the wild success to follow for each is the best evidence of that.

“I wasn’t as good as I needed to be. And a lot of people aren’t,’’ Carroll said. “Understand that: A lot of people don’t have their act together, even successful people who could be better. If you want to sustain consistent success, you gotta know what you’re doing, you gotta know who you are, you gotta know what your approach is, so you can re-create it. If you don’t know it, you can’t re-create it. It’s just slop.’’

In the end, Carroll changed, and the Kraft family changed, and each experienced the best of times in the years to come.

But only now do we get to see what Carroll, as an NFL coach, might have truly been capable of in those lost years in New England.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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