Pete Carroll jumps into the scrum at USC football practice, sometimes diving over a goal-line pile as if he were a 22-year-old tailback leaping for the end zone.
Carroll, age 5, jumped over a tower of pillows in a living room, diving for the imaginary end zone if only he could evade the hulking form of his 10-year-old brother.
It is September, his USC football team is playing at Cal, and Carroll has left 25 tickets for the guys -- for Skip Corsini and Jim Peters, for Henry Diaz and Ken Roby -- for his football pals, his basketball buddies, his baseball compatriots, for the gang from Redwood High in Larkspur, Calif., for the kids who thought the Carroll backyard was, Corsini said, "Mecca."
It was Thanksgiving 37 years ago and Pete and his big brother Jim were calling Corsini and Peters, Diaz and Roby and others, yelling into the phone: "Let's play football!"
In an instant, a tradition was born: Neighborhood kids, young guys home from college, newlywed dads, middle-aged men and their sons and daughters playing football together on Thanksgiving, still playing, even this year. Except for Pete.
Pete couldn't make it. Again.
On Thursday, Carroll, 52, will lead No. 1-ranked USC against Michigan in the Rose Bowl. In three years, Carroll has rebuilt the Trojan program from mediocre to excellent, from stagnating to electric, from boring to intriguing, from No. 2 in its own city to maybe the best in the country. He has been honored as 2003 Coach of the Year. He sits with his team as part of the studio audience at the "Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and the crowd hoots and hollers. Despite the demands of this season, he still checked in to make sure, Corsini said, "that everybody showed up for the Turkey Bowl."
Carroll walks in a hurry, always on his toes, moving ahead as if there is the coolest car waiting for him or the prettiest girl or the best party. It turns out Carroll is just going to practice, where he can throw passes and teach coverage to his cornerbacks, leap in joy when his quarterback gets it.
He can afford the coolest car now. He's got the girl, Glena, a volleyball player who received the first athletic scholarship awarded to a woman at Pacific. ("My kids got their athletic genes from their mother, believe me," Carroll said.) Parties don't matter, unless it's with the boys from the neighborhood.
But practice, "I love practice," he said. "I really do. You watch the kids get things, you see it in their eyes, and it's the best."
That is the thing about Carroll. He enjoys. Everything.
"You'd have to say we had a dream childhood," Jim Carroll said. "We played sports all the time, everywhere. We had great parents. We lived in Marin County before there was traffic."
The Carrolls -- Jim, who was a liquor salesman, and Rita, who seemed always to be at home so her two sons could always have a dozen friends over -- lived in Greenbrae, a middle-class place of tidy homes and big yards. "We didn't have all that other stuff," said Jim, Pete's brother. "We didn't go to movies or watch TV or have video games. We played sports."
What Jim did, Pete did. Jim played football, baseball and basketball. So did Pete.
"We'd play knee football on the lawn," Jim said, recalling that he would walk on his knees to offset his size advantage. "We'd play football in the street, we'd play pickup basketball games. Then, when I was a junior in high school, we won the league championship. I guess I was about 15, Pete was 10. All the guys his age looked up to all the guys my age. We were the big high school football guys. That was our life. I was the offensive lineman, Pete was the running back. That's how it was."
Carroll collected friends by the season. He had his football friends, his basketball friends, his baseball friends.
"Even when we were kids, 9, 10 years old, you couldn't help but notice a couple of things about Pete," Corsini said. "Pete always wanted to get everybody fired up. And Pete had a genius about the games."
The fired-up thing?
"Pete was so deeply enthused about whatever it was he was doing that he couldn't believe the rest of us wouldn't be," Corsini said. "So we would always be playing our hardest. I mean, I've never seen the guy have a down day. Never."
And the genius?
"Basketball wasn't even his good sport," Corsini said. "I was playing, Pete would be on the bench and we'd have a timeout and Pete would come running out, all excited, to tell me something he'd noticed about the other team or about some play we should run because he knew it would work. And he was usually right."
Monte Kiffin noticed it. Right away.
Kiffin is now the defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Then he was an assistant coach at Arkansas when Lou Holtz was the coach. Carroll was a 25-year-old grad assistant.