In the years that followed, when Carroll took the reins at USC, parallel legacies began to emerge: Carroll was one of the most successful leaders the college game knew, and Carroll had been a complete flop as an NFL coach. In April 2008, in fact, the NFL Network debuted “NFL Top 10: Coaches Who Belonged in College.” Carroll was No. 9.
Now 61, Carroll is re-writing his NFL story. The Seahawks’ 11-5 record this season marks his best in the NFL and for the fourth time in seven seasons as a pro coach, Carroll is in the playoffs. He’s trying to become the first coach to jump from college to the NFL and win a Super Bowl since Barry Switzer in 1996. Between then and now, there has been a long list of college-to-pro failures, from Steve Spurrier to Nick Saban to Bobby Petrino.
When Carroll guides the Seahawks into FedEx Field on Sunday to face the Washington Redskins in a much-anticipated playoff game, it will mark a culmination of sorts. He turned around a listless franchise. He did it his way. Apparently, he can coach in the NFL.
He did it with the same formula he’d used to win more than 80 percent of his games at USC (plus a national championship, later vacated).
“We came here and have done exactly to the letter what we did there,” he said this week, “in our approach and our thinking and everything.”
Carroll is one of the most colorful characters in the coaching ranks. He’s the second-oldest coach in the NFL, but as Seattle tight end Anthony McCoy says, “he acts like he’s the youngest.” Carroll is introspective and motivational. He has a reputation as a rah-rah guy, but he’s also calm and thoughtful. He works with a high-performance psychologist who has measured Carroll’s “neuroagility” — the ability to hop from topic to topic, intently focusing on each — as off-the-charts. He thinks football is more than a game, and coaching players is more than drawing up Xs and Os.
Carroll understood some of this when he was elevated from defensive coordinator to head coach of the New York Jets in 1994. He knew he wanted to be a head coach; he just didn’t know what that meant.
“I hadn’t thought about it really,” he said. “I just said okay, I’ll go for it.”
That team won just six games and closed the season with a five-game losing streak. Carroll was canned after one season. In the week that followed, he was offered defensive coordinator positions with the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos, coached at the time by Mike Shanahan.