LOS ANGELES Before landing here Saturday, I wanted to know why Pete Carroll is still so big in Southern California.
Here’s what I learned:
Frank Clark grew up in one of the notoriously toughest areas of Los Angeles, Baldwin Village. Actor Denzel Washington depicted the neighborhood as a crooked cop immersed in its street-drug trade in the movie "Training Day."
"They call it ‘The Jungle,’" Clark, the Seahawks’ second-year defensive end, said of his native area bordering the Crenshaw district, 40 or so blocks west of the L.A. Memorial Coliseum and southwest of downtown. "Basically, I mean, there aren’t too much I want to talk about, you know what I mean, about that. It’s a rough area.
"It’s hard making it out of that city. It’s a city within the city of Los Angeles. Anybody who knows L.A. knows that’s one of the roughest parts of the city."
When Clark was 12 he saw a conspicuous, middle-aged white man with curly air and an upbeat air walking through Baldwin Village. Clark and his neighbors noticed this guy showing up in "The Jungle" at all hours. At noon on a Tuesday and midnight on a Friday, this man talked to the residents of Baldwin Village’s apartment complexes ringed with rod-iron fences. He visited with the gang members hanging out along Martin Luther King, around Jim Gilliam Park off La Brea.
Did Clark know who this white man in a black and Latino world was?
"Oh, yeah! Everybody knew," Clark said with a laugh.
"There ain’t too many guys walkin’ around that look like Coach Carroll in my neighborhood, let’s keep it that way."
Want to know why Pete Carroll, six years removed from Los Angeles, is still huge in this city entering Sunday’s game between his Seahawks (1-0) and the returned Rams (0-1) at what will be a packed Coliseum?
Don’t limit his popularity to the national championships, Rose Bowls and Heisman Trophy players USC had when he was its coach from 2001-09.
Don’t measure it solely by the fact that at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February a gaggle of media members from Los Angeles, who now had the Rams to cover again, instead were following Carroll all around Lucas Oil Stadium hanging on the coach’s words.
Or by the fact the Los Angeles Times recently published two stories in three weeks not on Carroll’s coaching but him listing in August then selling this month his two-story beach house in Manhattan Beach, south of LAX. It went for $2.05 million, $51,000 over asking. Carroll bought it, the Times reported, for $540,000 in 1999. Those stories were in the newspaper’s "Celebrity and Luxury Homes" section.
No, Carroll remains big in L.A. for what he did here outside of football while he restored a dynasty at USC.
"He’s a big deal," said Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who is from Compton just south of the Coliseum. "Not just because of what USC was doing -- obviously, they were winning a lot while he was there. He did a lot of work in the community."
Carroll didn’t just coach the Trojans. He coached the entire city of Los Angeles.
"Just his involvement in the area of the gangs, and gang violence. I know there was a tremendous impact just in regards to his understanding," Kris Richard said.
Richard grew up in Gardena, 10 miles south of where the Seahawks are playing Sunday. He played for Carroll at USC. Carroll gave Richard his first coaching job, as a graduate assistant in 2008. Now Richard is Carroll’s defensive coordinator with the Seahawks.
Richard knows there are 450 active gangs in Los Angeles, infamously known as America’s gang capital.
"You turn on the television you see the type of things that are happening in the inner city. He wanted to come in and have a positive impact there," Richard said. "Obviously for us—for those who are from the city or any inner city--that’s more of difference than the success that the Trojans have been able to have. It’s kind of the influence that he wanted to have in there. Trying to do everything he can to make a better L.A.
"Forget the winning and the losing. It’s about what you can do for people."
Carroll did it by meeting people on their street corners and at their hangouts. He started his philanthropic A Better LA organization "to bridge racial divides" at the grass- and concrete-roots levels.
"He went down there and asked the right people the right questions," Richard said. "That’s what it’s about; communication. It’s about knowing who to talk to, about having the opportunity to talk to. It’s about getting all the people in the right room and having the discussion."
It didn’t hurt, of course, that while doing it Carroll was able to cultivate from a potentially untapped recruiting mine of talented, hardened athletes with chips on their shoulders. To get those players, he had to be able to relate to and be respected by them.
It’s similar to how Howard Schnellenberger brought his gray hair and ornate, wooden smoker’s pipe into Miami’s roughest parts in the 1980s to recruit players that built a championship program at that city’s college football team, the Miami Hurricanes.
But Carroll did far more than just recruit L.A.’s inner city.
"He did a lot of work in areas that most coaches wouldn’t even go into. Areas with a lot of housing projects that he would go into -- that I wouldn’t even go into realistically," said Sherman, whom Carroll tried to recruit to USC before Sherman chose Stanford.
"People respected a lot of the work he did in the community. They allowed him pretty much a free pass to go wherever he wanted because he really put his money where his mouth was. He helped the community a great deal and did what he could to make it a better place."
Still, what made Carroll think he could go into Baldwin Village and Crenshaw and Compton and made a difference? Why would a white man from upper-crust Marin County, over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, think he can change L.A.’s roughest parts?
"They thought I was crazy," Carroll said Friday. "They thought, ‘What are you doing?’
"How did I know? I don’t know. No sense at all of how we could go into the neighborhoods and all. Fortunately, what happened was a couple of guys said, ‘You’re really aren’t going to be able to do any work until you get inside and you see what’s going on and just get out and see what’s going on in the neighborhoods.’ And so we did.
"We just went visiting and did a ton of listening, watching and just trying to get to know what was happening. We found out how powerful it is to listen to people."
Carroll said what got it all started was a spate of gang violence in the city around 2002, one year into his USC tenure.
"I was driving in on a Monday; it happened to be a Notre Dame week, I remember," he said. "On the radio they announced that four or five kids got killed over the weekend. On Tuesday there was retaliation, there was two or three more. By the time we got to Thursday there were 11 kids who had died, kind of in a related sequence.
"By the time I got into the office, I picked up the phone and called an old friend that you guys may know, Lou Tice from up here, he’s an old buddy of mine. And we said, ‘We have to get something together.’ I said I think I know what we have to do, we have to see if we can help with what’s going on down there. He said, ‘OK, I’m in.’ That’s what started (it)."
Carroll then hosted a town-hall-style meeting with inner-city L.A.’s community leaders, police officers, pastors, sheriff’s deputies, teenagers, and anyone else who wanted a voice. He held it at USC’s football headquarters, which the NCAA didn’t enjoy.
"I got in all kind of trouble because people came from all over the place and I didn’t go through any of the right protocols," he said. "I didn’t know what I was doing."
More than a dozen years before Colin Kaepernick and Jeremy Lane were sitting during national anthems to protest race relations in our country, Pete Carroll was doing something about it. Or trying to.
What did seeing Carroll on his Baldwin Village streets mean to the 12-year-old Clark?
"Oh, man, it meant a lot," Clark said. "Growing up, that was one of the first people I saw coming in the neighborhood. You know, him being able to come in the neighborhood and to reach out to kids and help kids and save their lives, it meant a lot."
That’s why L.A. loves him.
"They’re still working it and doing stuff now in an area where there’s tremendous need and an extraordinary problem," Carroll said. "Look where we are now in the country, it couldn’t be more topical. It is about law enforcement, community work and how to get that together.
"That’s why you see our guys (Seahawks players, who are again planning to stand arms interlocked during Sunday’s national anthem) have jumped all over it. The cause is here and they kind of went right to it on their own which is great.
"We’ll see if we can be the bridge."
Carroll knows this is no ordinary game. He’ll be on the same sideline he was coaching USC – the Trojans stand on the north side of the Coliseum, the Rams’ visiting teams do, too. There will be more than 90,000 people there and a pregame concert by So Cal’s Red Hot Chili Peppers. Fox television’s No. 1 crew is here to broadcast the game.
"We’ve been gone quite a while now, but feel so connected to all the sports that are down there and what’s going on and the community, that kind of stuff," Carroll said. "It’s been a lot harder for me to carry on the work that I was talking about, it’s gotten really difficult as the years added up.
"I always feel a responsibility and whenever I can do something to return the help, I do. There’s still a connection. It was that deep of an experience there with the fans, the school, the community."
Carroll knows the source of that connection he will always have with Los Angeles.
"Here’s where it all comes from: it comes from caring … caring enough to listen," he said. "Caring enough to come back again.
"People in the community know when people come in they bring stuff and then they take off. They know that. They’ll take it and they know.
"But it’s those that keep coming back and show that it’s important to them, to demonstrate the caring."