From the start, Pete Carroll had an unconventional approach to football. While his teammates at University of the Pacific spent the minutes before kickoff in usual fashion--some quietly grim, others butting helmets--Carroll slipped off to the sideline.
"Peter and I just threw the ball around," says Dave Perron, a former teammate. "We had fun."
Not that Carroll took the game lightly. Among the hardest workers on the team, he believed that staying loose helped him perform better and he proved it, to his way of thinking, by making all-conference at safety in consecutive seasons.
"You think he's a happy-go-lucky guy?" asks Walt Harris, a former Pacific assistant who now coaches Pittsburgh. "Well, he would knock you out. He would hurt you and love it."
Two decades later, when he became coach of the New York Jets and then the New England Patriots, Carroll saw himself as someone who preached the basics. But he also rode a bicycle to practice and took his team bowling, an extension of what had made him successful as a player.
Critics branded him a trespasser in the house of Lombardi. Too soft, they said, too laid-back.
"The people who say that . . ." Carroll lets frustration tinge his voice. "They don't get it."
Now, with a fresh start at USC, with the season opener a month away, the 49-year-old coach is initially reluctant to look back. It takes some doing to schedule a few minutes between meetings and paperwork.
On the appointed morning, his words come fast, somewhere between energetic and impatient. Key points are punctuated with the wave of a hand, the one with a finger that points sideways from an old injury.
"Driven," he says, "can take on different forms."
USC training camp begins Aug. 11 on a practice field a few hundred yards from his Heritage Hall office. The Trojans need to fill spots on the offensive line, at linebacker and kicker. That's what Carroll would rather talk about.
But a little reminiscing turns into an hour, then longer, as he comes out from behind his desk to sit closer to a visitor. It turns out there are some things to set straight, some ground to cover.
Start with a kid in Greenbrae, a suburb north of San Francisco. Sports came naturally until he stopped growing and bigger kids passed him by. His future teammate, Perron, went to a rival high school and recalls Carroll as "a little guy trying to be the engine that could."
About that time, a magazine ran an interview with Rick Barry and--as Carroll recalls--the former NBA player said: "I'm a 46% lifetime shooter, so if I miss my first 10 shots, watch out."
The comment struck home. Rather than get discouraged or carry a chip on his shoulder, Carroll remained confident he would get a chance to prove himself. Two seasons in junior college gave his body time to catch up and, at Pacific, he became a team leader.
"A great feel for the game," Harris says. "I always thought he'd be a natural [as a coach]."
To that point, Carroll's notions about football were instinctive. But in graduate school at Pacific--after a stint selling building materials and a failed tryout with the World Football League--he discovered a body of knowledge to go with his gut feeling.
The late 1970s were a time of exploration in sport. Michael Murphy and Tim Gallwey wrote about the "inner game" of golf and tennis. Carroll had a chance to study from them while taking psychology classes.
"He was extraordinarily interested in the whole area of consciousness," says Glen Albaugh, his professor then. "I gave him a reading list and he went through it really fast."
The books ranged from Eastern philosophy to Abraham Maslow, a leader in humanistic psychology. Maslow broke from traditions of psychoanalysis and behaviorism by insisting that each person held great potential waiting to unfold. His optimism suited Carroll, who recalls: "All of a sudden, things started to make sense."
Maslow wrote of peak experiences, what he called "a single glimpse of heaven," which Carroll equated with the way an athlete plays "in the zone," the way a cornerback breaks toward the sideline because he senses a pass coming.
As a 22-year-old graduate assistant, Carroll gathered his struggling defensive backs and asked them which coverages felt most comfortable, which techniques they needed to practice. He recalls the players left the meeting rejuvenated.
But when he recounted the discussion to a colleague, the older man interrupted: "Wait just a damn minute, boy. Don't you ever ask them what they want, you tell them what they need."
Carroll recalls: "I was totally deflated."
Seeking to Connect
The next decade took him from Arkansas to Ohio State, from the Buffalo Bills to the Minnesota Vikings. Encouraged by Bud Grant and others, Carroll continued to develop his style.