Pete Carroll, USC's new football coach, looks almost as fit and trim now as he did three decades ago as an all-conference defensive back at the University of the Pacific. He still plays a mean game of basketball, still throws a razor-sharp spiral.
His supporters say his energy and youthful enthusiasm make him an ideal choice for USC and will be invaluable when it comes to recruiting.
But Carroll's boyishness comes at a price. He was criticized as head coach of the New York Jets and then the New England Patriots for being too soft on his players, too informal, too lodged in Never Never Land.
When the Jets fired Carroll after the 1994 season, one of the first things they did was get rid of the basketball court he had painted in the parking lot of the team's practice facility. He and his assistant coaches regularly played three-on-three games there during their spare time.
But before the workers toted away the backboard, the last vestige of Carroll's one-season reign as coach, some unsympathetic soul taped a sign to it reading "6-10." Everyone got the joke; that was Carroll's record, and the basketball court was part of his boyish legacy, at once endearing and troubling.
"He makes it fun," said former USC star Tim McDonald, who was a Pro Bowl safety and team captain when Carroll was defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers in 1995 and '96. "He tries to get a vibe for what a team needs. He's willing to do whatever it takes to get a team going."
As coach of the Jets and the Patriots, he took his teams out bowling and hosted cookouts at his house. It wasn't unusual for him to round up players for a touch football game after practice, or to stand under the goal post and try to knock field goals out of the sky with well-placed bullet passes.
Those things went over well when his teams were winning. When the losses piled up, critics called Carroll too laid back, too soft on his players, simply overmatched. He was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area and was a child of the Flower Power era. His laid-back style grated on many of those fans in New York and Boston, the ones who are high-strung and have even higher expectations.
"I think I fit better in other places," Carroll, 49, told the San Francisco Chronicle last month. He still lives outside Boston, although the Patriots fired him after last season. "The style that Steve Mariucci has there in San Francisco has been, I think, widely accepted. He's an excellent football coach, [but] if he were [in the East], he'd have been run out of here a long time ago just because of the style. It's the culture. It's different here on the Eastern Seaboard."
Sometimes Carroll's emotions have gotten the best of him. In a game against the Dolphins in 1992, when Carroll was the Jets' defensive coordinator, TV cameras captured him flashing the choke sign--putting his hand to his throat--when Miami's Pete Stoyanovich missed a field goal. Carroll later said he regretted the gesture, particularly because the Jets wound up losing the game.
In 1994, Carroll was promoted to head coach. He led them to a 6-5 record, and they were playing Miami for first place in the division, when the bottom fell out.
The Jets blew a 17-point lead in the second half, falling prey to a Dan Marino comeback and a bit of trickery in the waning seconds that made the difference. With 22 seconds to play and the Dolphins driving but out of timeouts, Marino faked as if he would spike the ball, then tossed an eight-yard touchdown pass to Mark Ingram for a 28-24 victory.
It was a particularly low point for Carroll's defensive players, many of whom were standing upright with hands on hips when Marino threw the winning pass.
The Jets lost their next four games too, fired Carroll after the season and didn't pull out of their tailspin until Bill Parcells arrived in 1997. They lost 32 of 36 games after that demoralizing loss to the Dolphins.
Carroll moved on to the 49ers for two seasons, then took over as the Patriots' head coach when Parcells left. In three years in Foxboro, Carroll built a 27-21 record and twice reached the playoffs. He was fired and replaced by Bill Belichick, owner of losing records at his previous head coaching job at Cleveland and current job with New England.
Patriot owner Robert Kraft said Friday that firing Carroll was one of the toughest decisions he has had to make since buying the team.
"A lot of things were going on that made it difficult for him to stay, some of which were out of his control," Kraft said. "And it began with following a legend."
Many of Carroll's backers, including former players Ronnie Lott, Gary Plummer and McDonald, think he will be an ideal fit for USC's program. They say his easygoing style, not to mention his football know-how, will make him a top-notch recruiter.
"He's a diverse individual and he knows there's more to life than just football," said Plummer, a former 49er linebacker. "He forges relationships with people. There are coaches out there who will leave you hanging, tell you one thing, and if it doesn't work, you get hung out to dry in the papers. Pete Carroll isn't one of those guys."