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Two Head Coaches Prove Nice Guys Don't Finish Last

January 04, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Football purists might cringe when they hear Texas players talk about dancing to rap music with their coach. Or when a USC linebacker says he would not want to play for a man who screams and curses all the time.

"I wouldn't be comfortable," Oscar Lua said. "I prefer the laid-back, California-beach style."

The archetypal football coach comes in two forms, stone-faced or caustic, both decidedly autocratic. The standard was established by the likes of Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes.

But tonight, when the No. 1 Trojans meet the No. 2 Longhorns for the national championship at the Rose Bowl, a different breed will pace the sidelines.

Pete Carroll of USC is known as personable, a prankster even, conducting practices as upbeat as they are competitive. Mack Brown of Texas says he has tried to loosen up and better understand his players, which includes lending an ear to their music.

"For too many years, you had to scream and shout and beat a table to be a coach," Brown said. "That's not right."

During their careers, Carroll and Brown have been characterized as too soft. Now, with USC and Texas sitting atop college football, observers of the game wonder whether their "humanistic" style will gain respect.

Some experts say it might even be better suited to the changing youth culture. It is an argument Carroll has made for years.

"There is a way to have great discipline and great intensity ... and enjoy every minute of it," he said. "I know it's hard for people to understand."

Many fans grew up with icons such as Hayes, the volatile former Ohio State coach, and Bryant who, with a houndstooth hat and stoic manner, ruled over Alabama for a quarter century.

From the start, Carroll took a different path.

There is a story from his early days as a graduate assistant working with defensive backs at University of the Pacific.

The defense was struggling, so he gathered his players and asked them which coverages felt most comfortable and which techniques they wanted to practice. The meeting seemed to go well, the unit rejuvenated, but an older coach on the staff later grumbled, "Don't you ever ask them what they want. You tell them what they need."

Carroll refused to waver. Through the 1970s and '80s, with the emergence of sports psychology, he continued to blend traditional coaching with concepts of performance enhancement and humanistic psychology.

This approach drew fire during his stints as head coach of the New York Jets and New England Patriots in the 1990s. With his teams going a mediocre 34-33 over four seasons, the media frowned upon his riding a bike at training camp and arranging team bowling nights.

"They ran him out of town," said Leonard Zaichkowsky, head of Boston University's sports psychology program, who watched Carroll closely with the Patriots. "They didn't feel he was tough enough."

Fans were equally wary when he arrived at USC. He talked to players about their classes and girlfriends and pulled Halloween pranks. He was often cheery, even laughing, at practice.

Two consecutive national championships later, many in the game say his style was misinterpreted.

"Don't mistake authoritarian conduct with discipline," said Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Assn. "Check the number of penalties that USC commits, the turnovers -- that's a very disciplined team."

For all the fun they have, the Trojans are known for the intensity of their practices and off-season conditioning. And Carroll has balanced his staff with assistants who more closely fit the traditional mold.

"We have coaches who will yell at us and another coach who will calmly tell us what to do," safety Scott Ware said. "Different guys respond to different things.... It's a good mix."

So-called "players' coaches" have been around for years, and this isn't the first time experts have suggested that they are on the rise. It can be an uphill battle.

"Football is macho and tough, and a lot of people feel the only way to get that is to be really authoritarian," Zaichkowsky said. "That's why the vast majority of coaches adopt that style."

Count Brown among them, at least early in his career.

As an offensive coordinator for Oklahoma in 1984, he was known to ride players mercilessly. That season, Coach Barry Switzer pulled Brown aside and suggested he reconsider his methods. If it wasn't an epiphany, at least it started a learning process.

Over the years, Brown said, "I've talked to five or six [coaches]. More than anything else, it was a combination of people saying, 'You've got to smile.' I never thought about smiling. I thought about preparing and working hard."

Darrell Royal, the former Texas coach, showed Brown that self-preservation was part of the equation.

"Here's a guy who was 50 years old or so, who after 20 years quit because he wasn't enjoying it," Brown said. "I've got a job coaching Texas and I'm in the top five.... If I can't enjoy that, I'd better get out."

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