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Point of return?

Carroll probably could have NFL job if he wanted it, but none is a dream chance.

December 02, 2008|SAM FARMER | Farmer is a Times staff writer.

Fact A: Pete Carroll preaches competition. It's a cornerstone of the USC football program.

Fact B: Carroll believes college football should have a playoff system, not a convoluted Bowl Championship Series formula, which has left the Trojans out in the cold this season.

Fact C: The NFL is football's competitive mountaintop. It determines its champion in a common-sense way and will have no shortage of head-coaching openings this winter. What's more, as an NFL coach, Carroll was no better than average.

So, with so many pro teams changing coaches -- possibly as many as three on the West Coast -- is this the right time for Carroll to return to the NFL?

It's nowhere near as simple as A-B-C.

"I'd like to see it a different way," Carroll said of the BCS system, "but I'm not using that as an issue that frustrates me so much I would want to bail. Not at all. I don't care that much about it, and I don't give it that much regard. . . . I can't do anything about it."

Unlike in other years, people in NFL circles haven't been talking about Carroll this season. They respect what he's done. They know he might be a good fit in several cities. They might even be on board with his desire for top-to-bottom control of personnel decisions.

But for the moment, the big fish aren't nibbling.

That's not to say it won't happen. Situations can change very quickly in the NFL, and some starry-eyed owner might decide to pry open his wallet so wide that Carroll simply couldn't refuse. But Carroll is paid handsomely where he is, with a total compensation north of $4 million, and people close to him constantly insist that it's not money that would persuade him to leave.

"With Pete Carroll, it's never about the money, that's not what drives him at all," said Syracuse Athletic Director Daryl Gross, a former USC associate athletic director. "What drives him is the challenge of life. If it's a challenge, he's going to go after it. He's driven by something that goes beyond normalcy."

Maybe it's unfinished NFL business that gnaws at him. In four NFL seasons -- one with the New York Jets and three with the New England Patriots -- Carroll was 33-31. Compare that with his 86-15 record in eight seasons at USC.

Then again, winning in the NFL isn't what it used to be. Consider the success this season of anonymous assistants-turned-head coaches Mike Smith, Ken Whisenhunt, Mike Tomlin, Jim Zorn, Tony Sparano and John Harbaugh. In the pros, a winning season -- sometimes even a string of them -- does not a legend make.

As good a coach as Carroll is, and as much as he has learned over the last eight years, there's absolutely no guarantee he would succeed in the NFL.

In the NFL, winning has as much to do with keeping key players healthy, making the right -- and the lucky -- decisions on draft day, and navigating the salary-cap system, as it does making good calls on a Sunday afternoon.

One of Carroll's biggest strengths is his ability to recruit some of the country's best high school players to come to USC. An NFL coach doesn't sit with the parents of a 28-year-old free-agent running back, trying his best to sway them.

Carroll probably could have an NFL job if he wanted it. But none is a dream opportunity.

Seattle? Jim Mora will succeed Mike Holmgren after this season.

San Francisco? Maybe if Eddie DeBartolo were the owner.

Oakland? Get real.

San Diego would be enticing, but General Manager A.J. Smith isn't giving up control there, and one bad season isn't going to unwind all the smart personnel decisions he has made in recent years. He has already said Norv Turner will be the coach next season.

Dallas is interesting, but offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is the heir apparent to that job. There's no indication that any other good teams will be making a switch.

"I don't see the golden opportunity in any of the situations," Carroll said.

He added: "I'm still having a blast doing this. I don't feel any different than I did six, seven years ago. The bad part is it's like "Groundhog Day." It all seems the same. But the same's always been good, so I feel like I'm very lucky."

Question is, at what point does "Groundhog Day" get old?

It's not as if all the Carroll talk in recent years came out of thin air. Teams were interested, and Carroll stoked their interest by returning their phone calls and engaging in substantive talks with their owners.

But the truth is, he already has the equivalent of an NFL job -- and it's in the nation's second-largest market. He's paid like an NFL coach, gets more attention than most, and -- if he so chooses -- would never have to buy another drink or dinner in his life.

"He's made his program into the envy of the football world," Gross said. "He can become the all-time greatest coach in USC history, and that's a school that had Howard Jones and John McKay. Everything Pete touches, he has the opportunity to be the greatest at it."

Things could get very interesting if or when the league eventually returns to Los Angeles. In that case, Carroll would be a splashy, natural draw.

For the moment, though, it comes down to this strange truth: When it comes to surpassing what Carroll has at USC, the NFL is . . .

No competition.


Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.

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