Pete Carroll starts team meetings not with video of the opponent or from the most recent practice.
No, Seattle’s coach and executive vice president of the Super Bowl champions begins his meetings with free-throw shooting contests.
Carroll has a shooting lane cleared in the aisles of the main auditorium on the ground floor of the Virginia Mason Athletic Center’s south end. Before the meetings can begin, players get broken into their position groups. They have 30 seconds to make as many free throws they can.
“Full-size hoops. Full-sized ball. The whole thing,” said punter Jon Ryan, who was a Seahawk for four seasons before Carroll brought his idea of fun to Seattle in January 2010.
There’s even a red-white-and-blue ball, 1970s, American Basketball Association style.
Carroll has installed in the main meeting room a standard basket with a rectangular, glass backboard atop a standard bolted into a metal frame that sits on the floor. He has the entire game mapped out in the big meeting room. The players know that a certain pillar is 15 feet from the basket’s assigned place on the carpeted aisle.
“We even have a shot clock and everything,” Ryan said. “It’s been going on now for three years.”
The best Seahawks shooter?
“Bryan Walters,” Ryan said of the wide receiver, kick returner – and former all-league basketball player at Juanita High School in Kirkland. “He has the trophy.”
Wait … there’s a trophy?
“Oh, yeah, a trophy,” Ryan said. “It’s organized.”
Pete Carroll’s ways are different. And the Pete Carroll that is entering his fifth season with the Seahawks is different than the one who arrived in Seattle with general manager John Schneider in 2010. Different, in the sense that he is more of a CEO now on the field and inside the VMAC.
“NOW, THEY ALL KNOW OUR MESSAGE”
Four years ago he was doing everything but handing the guys their towels in the locker room as he chiseled his message of “always compete” into every aspect of the franchise. He threw footballs at practice. He ran all over the field, leading players over blocking pads while in his hoodie and khakis. He was 58 going on 24, a whirlwind blowing through the relatively staid NFL.
Now 62, three postseasons and Seattle’s first Super Bowl championship later, it is striking how Carroll has assumed more of a chief-executive like appearance on the practice field. He stands back and observes more, though he still will break into a spontaneous sprint 50-yards down the field to congratulate a defensive back for hustling to break up a deep pass. And, yes, he still conducts those free-throw shooting contests.
But Carroll acknowledges he supervises and delegates more now than he was when he first arrived in Seattle from USC.
It took 500 player transactions through November 2011. Then it took turning over nearly one-third of the roster before the 2013 – months after coming within a half minute of reaching the NFC title game. But now Carroll’s churn has spawned a CEO-like charm.
“Now, they all know our message. They know what we are trying to do and why we are doing it, why we stress competition and how we do all that,” Carroll said.
“Before, I had to deliver that message. Now we have guys who have been here long enough that they know.”
Center Max Unger joined the Seahawks the year before Carroll did. He participated in Carroll’s first free-throw contest with the Seahawks, with two other linemen.
“We were up there alternating shots. It wasn’t very good,” Unger said. “I made one basket.”
Asked if he has gotten better at his shooting in Carroll’s Seahawk tenure, Unger said, “Well, I’m averaging once every five years, so it might be a while before I get another shot.”
Yes, the Carroll mantra of “Always Compete,” printed on signs through the VMAC and on the scoreboard beneath the Seahawks logo in a corner of the practice fields, extends even to the free throws. Unger clanked his first try, so he hasn’t earned the right to shoot again.
He sees how Carroll has changed but the message hasn’t.
“He came in and totally stuck to his guns, gave us the iron-clad coaching philosophy he’s had for all these years – then we had all this turnover,” Unger said. “We got through that and got guys in here who have really bought in to what he was trying to accomplish. For the most part, we get it done on the field. That frees him up to handle the things that really need to be done and not necessarily the nuts and bolts of it anymore.
“We’ve internalized what he wants. He doesn’t have to repeat himself every, single time. The message is constant. We don’t change.”
That extends to the fun they have on and off the field. The now-universally known blaring bass of music throughout practices. The gags inside team headquarters. The wall-shaking music and soundtrack to videos that play before meetings. Those have the players chanting and roaring and barking like Dobermans before they dissect the opponents’ zone blitzes and “Tampa Two” defenses.
“You can’t always be doom and gloom. You have to be able to break it up,” Unger said. “He lightens it up, but at the same time we are able to come out and perform at practice and get the volume of work done you need to. If you do the work on the field, and it’s quality work – it’s sharp and crisp – there’s no reason that it has to be this horrible grind for 16 weeks, you know?”
That is how Carroll gets his players to the core of his competition-everywhere philosophy. He believes the more fun the players are, the more empowered they feel, the more they will maximize what they do best.
“I’ve only had two head coaches (in the NFL, Jim Mora and Carroll), and more than a couple offensive-line coaches,” Unger said. “Coach Carroll really focuses on the positives and what you can bring to the table and how you can be featured at your position instead of what you can’t do. When you have that, it’s more ‘What can I do to get even better?’ Instead of, ‘I’m deficient’ and ‘Do this better.’
“That’s a pretty big difference.”
Ryan’s first season with the Seahawks was Mike Holmgren’s last one as Seattle’s coach, the 4-12 season of 2008. Ryan punted through Mora’s lone Seahawks season, 5-11 in 2009. At the end of that year owner Paul Allen sent then-Seahawks chief executive Tod Leiweke to Los Angeles with the mandate to hire Carroll away from USC.
“He just brought a lot of fun to it,” Ryan said. “A lot of times with other coaching staffs it’s not a lot of fun. You are going to work, and it’s a grind. It’s almost like a 9-to-5 sometimes, especially when it’s not going well it’s a real drag.
“When we are here we work our butts off – but at the same time we are having fun. It’s a loose atmosphere, right from the meetings. We have the free-throw-shooting contests. We have music at practice. We listen to music before meetings. He keeps us loose. And a lot of other teams are looking for that.
“It takes someone special to step outside the box and do what he’s done here.”
CARROLL AND “THE WIZARD OF WESTWOOD”
How did Carroll get outside that box?
People say his approach has been the same since 1994 when the New York Jets elevated him from defensive coordinator to first-time head coach.
But that’s not correct. The approach Carroll uses in Seattle isn’t what he used in that lone, 6-10 season before the Jets fired him. It’s not the one he had in 1997-99 for three relatively successful seasons as coach of the New England Patriots.
It began forming in San Francisco in 1995 and ’96, when he was the defensive coordinator for George Seifert with the 49ers and Bill Walsh was influencing Carroll as a team consultant. And it took off after Carroll internalized the foundations of leadership of a man about whom Carroll absolutely gushes: legendary UCLA basketball coach and motivator John Wooden.
“Since back in the Jets days, we are a long ways removed from there. I hadn’t written the story yet. I didn’t know where it was going to go,” he said last month.
“After the San Francisco experience I really believe that’s when it really began to all come together. And it took the New England experience to really get me on track to where I am now.”
Carroll says the crucial time for his transformation was in 2000. While the Seahawks were going 6-10 in Holmgren’s second of 10 seasons in Seattle, Carroll was out of football for a year diving into Wooden’s philosophies.
Along the bottom row of his renowned “Pyramid of Success” of leading and coaching – in the bottom-right corner, as a foundation – Wooden wrote: “ENTHUSIAM: Brushes off upon those with whom you come in contact. You must truly enjoy what you are doing.”
Carroll spent days and weeks writing down Wooden’s philosophies. They transformed him – and, eventually, USC into a national champion and then the Seahawks into Super Bowl champions.
“Putting together the approach, the language and the guidelines,” is what Carroll called that year he spent –metaphysically – with Wooden.
The bottom-center block in Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” is “LOYALTY To yourself and all those depending upon you.” That is why Carroll talks often of “taking care of people.” It’s more letting them pick what breakfast is in the team dining room or what music plays on the sidelines during practices.
For the players, it’s doing what Carroll and the Seahawks did when Heath Farwell sustained a severe groin injury in a preseason game three weeks ago. The 10-year veteran is facing surgery, and at 32 the backup linebacker and Seattle’s special-teams captain last season may be facing the end of his career.
Knowing he is now not going to be healthy enough to play this season, Carroll and Schneider could have given Farwell a lump sum of cash, an “injury settlement,” and released him via the NFL’s waived-injured route. It happens all the time to veterans, freeing them to perhaps sign with another team as a free agent once they become healthy.
It seemed obvious to Carroll and Schneider that Farwell wasn’t going to get healthy enough to play for anyone until very late this season, if at all. So instead, the Seahawks put Farwell on their injured reserve list. That ensures he will draw his weekly paycheck of $73,529 from now through the end of December, 1/17th of his $1.25 million veteran salary for 2014. Financially, it’s as if he is playing every week. And it gives Farwell medical care and access to training and rehabilitation facilities each day at Seahawks headquarters.
“There really was a moment,” Carroll said of his transformation for fired Jets and Patriots coach to national-title winner at USC and now Super Bowl champion in Seattle.
“It was when I was reading Coach Wooden’s little blue book and I got the point where he wrote that he won his first national title in his 16th year at UCLA. That hit me right between the eyes. I was like, ‘He got it! He nailed it!’ And I got the sense that once he got it he knew exactly what it took to represent him, as the head coach.
“He was very unique and quirky and all, but he had his style. And it hit me that there are so many coaches and ways to styles and different personalities, but the really good ones really had their way. I thought I had my philosophy nailed, but I didn’t. I needed to revisit everything.
“It was really kind of a catharsis. I revisited everything that was important. And in that, all of this came up – these words and this language and all these central themes: I am a competitor, competition is the central theme, all of that about practice.”
THE CARROLL WAY DOES WORK IN THE NFL
The day in January 2010 the Seahawks announced Carroll as coach and vice president a columnist in The Oregonian in Portland wrote: “The now-former USC coach is no savior swooping in on a Trojan horse to save a franchise that went 9-23 over the past two seasons. His two national championships at USC certainly raised his profile but they won’t bring the first Lombardi Trophy to the Northwest.”
That was just one voice in a nation-full of naysayers.
So now that he’s not only re-entered the NFL but won its title in his fourth year back, how validating is it to win a Super Bowl everyone in the league said he couldn’t win, and doing it while leading free throw-shooting contests to start team meetings?
“As a competitor, I always like to win. But I’d already seen it work. I was just curious as to what kind of impact we’d have and how quickly we’d have it (here),” he says. “I was curious to see when we treated people like we wanted to treat them, to see what would happen – feeling, instinctively, that it would happen just like this. Now, I didn’t know.
“That was very rewarding. It was rewarding not because we did it. It’s rewarding to be able to show that there are other ways to do this, and to give other people avenues and opportunities to pursue their best style and makeup that they have to offer. That it doesn’t have to be classic, authoritarian, an old-school style. There are a lot of flexibility here – if you get in touch with what is important to yourself.
“That’s the big victory. There are a lot of ways to do this. You can take care of people. You design a program that allows people to truly be the best that can be. And that you really mean that. This shows it can work. It’s a totally different way of doing business (in the NFL).”
Asked if he ever had a coach like himself, doing what he does as he does it, Carroll shook his head.
“No,” he said.
It was the only time he didn’t elaborate in 20 minutes of speaking.
So what’s next? What now that Carroll has reached the top…
“No, no, no. That’s not it at all,” Carroll interrupts. “Whether it’s the championship trophy or not, I don’t care about that. It’s the excellence, whether you can show you can do it over a long period of time. That’s the real accomplishment.”
In April Carroll signed a three-year contract extension through 2016. While the exact terms aren’t known, he assuredly didn’t take a pay cut for winning Seattle’s first Super Bowl, so his deal is likely worth at least $8 million per season now.
When asked if Seattle is his final coaching stop, Carroll laughs.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “Oh, yeah. Yeah. They said, ‘(Old soldiers) never die they just fade away.’ That will be me, I guess.”
Get this: He says he’s up for doing this with the Seahawks for another decade, until he is … 72?
“Yeah, I am. I don’t have any problem with the energy part of it,” he said. “We’ll just see. Really, it’s just one lifetime at a time.
“I love this team so much, and I love this formula, the support that we have and the way Paul has structured it for John and me. The wonderful players that we have.
“It’s just too much fun.”