So this is the new downslope of the most bittersweet coaching career on record, two decades that have fluctuated so wildly between failure and redemption and euphoria and sustained supremacy and then shocking brainlessness — and, of course, scummy scandal — that not even the muses of Jerry Garcia and John Wooden can help Pete Carroll now.
Ever seen so much success tinged with so much distress?
You’d think a coach so accomplished, one of only three to win a Super Bowl and a national title on the college level, would have earned locked-in status among football’s historic elite. But in Carroll’s case, you’d have to think cautiously about any Hall of Fame vote. If he has impressed as a survivor, recovering from two NFL head-coaching firings in the 1990s to thrive at USC and turn the Seattle Seahawks into a force, he also fled Los Angeles when the campus was burning after Reggie Bush took $300,000 in cash and gifts. Those probation-worthy improprieties were on Carroll’s watch, as were the practices of allowing everyone from Snoop Dogg to sleazy sports agents into his inner sanctum, which led ESPN to air a recent documentary, “Trojan War,” that left me kind of nauseous.
Hall of Fame? Are we really immortalizing a coach who also botched a Super Bowl with a brain-cramp call, gave the football world two wayward disciples named Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin and forever will be known as the coach who was dismissed before New England hired Bill Belichick? The discussions among voters will be spirited when Carroll retires.
For now, he returns to his native Bay Area on Thursday evening as just another struggling coach, unable to shake the Seahawks from a hangover that he gave them last February. From the moment Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell chose not to hand the football to Marshawn Lynch, which led to the all-time blunder of Russell Wilson throwing an interception and self-sabotaging a second straight championship, nothing has been the same in Seattle. Rather than ride the beginnings of a would-be dynasty, the Seahawks are 2-4 after blowing three fourth-quarter leads, extending this alarming pattern to six in their last eight games. Something is wrong with a defense that dearly misses coordinator Dan Quinn (now coaching the Atlanta Falcons) and somehow botched pass coverage on the fatal final play Sunday against Carolina because — ready to howl, 49ers fans? — Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas were given different instructions from the sideline.
Legion of Doom?
Legion of Dumb.
The smart quotient didn’t improve Tuesday, when running back Fred Jackson crashed his black Corvette into a planter box and a stop sign near the team’s practice facility. TMZ reported Jackson was street-racing with Lynch, but Jackson and the local police denied it, for what it’s worth. This came a week after fullback Derrick Coleman was arrested on suspicion of vehicular assault and hit-and-run.
All of which sounds like USC back in the Carroll days.
Pete? You still there?
“We’re a team that has tremendous expectations. To be where we are right now, it puts us in a position of tremendous adversity,” Carroll said. “It calls on you to do a lot of stuff, but it calls on us to believe in the guys in the locker room and believe in what we’re doing and hang together until we get things right.”
What happened to New Age Pete and the yoga sessions, the meditation techniques, the free love in the facility, his hip-dad thing, his bromance with Macklemore? Chemistry can’t hum when Wilson is involved in his own TMZ drama — a romance with songstress Ciara that hasn’t been welcomed by her ex-fiancee, rapper Future, who doesn’t want Wilson around 19-month-old Future Jr. Cohesion can’t thrive when Kam Chancellor, the battering ram in the secondary, stages a two-game holdout. Nor can the mood be right when Lynch, who has struggled with hamstring injuries and a 3.3-yards-per-carry average and hasn’t played as well lately as backup Thomas Rawls, seems more interested in developing Beast Mode Frappuccino for Starbucks and helping teammate Tyler Lockett with his 401(k) than playing ball. No longer is this a powerhouse that combines defensive torture — the Carroll trademark — with a steady ball-control offense managed by Wilson. Now, the defense is vulnerable to meltdowns as Wilson tries to avoid sacks and stagnation.
Unfathomable as it seems, a broken-down 49ers team that is far less seasoned and talented than Seattle actually has a fair chance of winning this nationally televised game. Maybe it’s a problem that frequent doses of Jimmy Graham will cure — how does coordinator Eric Mangini plan on covering a tight end who had 140 receiving yards Sunday? — or maybe the Seahawks are in the unstoppable free-fall that habitually befalls Super Bowl losers. This is where Carroll enters as a crisis manager.
He created the monster. He was responsible for the goal-line play call that wounded the monster. Now, can he stop the bleeding in a short week on the road, where his team is 0-3, inside a stadium where the home team and fans sense this could be the one high moment of a 49ers season that probably is going nowhere? If his players are down, Carroll is only letting them see his positive vibes.
“It’s a challenge that we’re worthy of taking on. I’m looking forward to turning the corner here and getting this thing going and showing that we can be in midseason form the way we want to be, and do some really cool things with this opportunity we’re faced with,” he said. “On come the Niners. It’s a new team, new coach, new play-callers, all of that, so the study that we’re challenged by this week is to see a new team. We’ve been trying to keep an eye on them. They had a big win (over 1-5 Baltimore), I’m sure they’re ready to go and get their thing going, too.”
This is a maddening game for Carroll. If the Seahawks win, well, they beat a bad team and their record is still just 3-4. If they lose? The media will declare them dead and done. That might not be true in an NFC West where Arizona hasn’t taken control and St. Louis is erratic, but if Pete Carroll loses to Jim Tomsula? No wonder he’s reaching down into his decades of experiences.
“Everything I’ve got. You call on everything you’ve ever known, said, done, seen, to make the right choices and decisions to fit it to the people and their needs and their makeup as well,” he said.
This week, he is summoning the lessons of Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, the iconic UCLA basketball coach whose books inspired Carroll when he was unemployed between the New England and USC jobs and actually writing sports columns — keep it short, Pete — for Yahoo! Is he having a harder time motivating players after they’ve won their Super Bowl rings, done their commercials, had their parades?
Said Carroll: “Coach Wooden told me one time that you don’t change your philosophy, your approach, because the players adapt as they go through their years. You always stay with what you believe in, but in that, times change, guys grow up. They mature, they get paid, they’re heading into their contract year. A lot of factors that enter into guys’ makeup, and we have to be adaptable, and fix, and help, and communicate and counsel all through that. It’s one of the really exciting challenges in coaching. I try to understand how our guys are developing, where they’re going, what’s important to them, what’s changed and what has stayed the same so we can communicate well and help them move where they’ve got to go.”
Whether that’s a lot of psychobabble or the inspirational foundation for a turnaround, Pete Carroll is at yet another professional crossroads. We forget he grew up in Marin County as the smallest kid trying out for football at Redwood High, only to mature and become a star at the University of Pacific. We forget he was a local who came home in the mid-’90s to coordinate the 49ers’ defense, who loved the Grateful Dead and went to shows at the Fillmore. He can’t be a Bay Area guy when he coaches the Seattle Seahawks, but he still can channel Jerry Garcia.
Today’s message might be: “Casey Jones, you better watch your speed.”