Before Pete Carroll became the hero of a city, before he was all smiles, before he created the "Legion of Boom" and before he molded a lost franchise into the best football environment in the NFL with his own two hands, he was a scoundrel. He was a cheat. He was a coward.
That was the perception. It was everywhere at the end of those sketchy USC days, when Reggie Bush's Heisman was returned and the Trojans had their 2004 championship erased. Carroll was viewed as the engineer of those USC problems. Then, the belief goes, Carroll put on a parachute and abandoned ship before the NCAA took a blowtorch to USC and its records. Yes, this perception was everywhere.
Carroll has denied any wrongdoing, and always will, but that was the view of him. To many, that remains the case.
Where Pete Carroll was in his career not so long ago, and where he has gone, remains perhaps the best story of the title games. It's the kind of transformation that causes intense polarization. To USC fans and the college football industrial complex, Carroll skirted rules, then ran for the escape pods as the law closed in.
To Seahawks fans, he is a savior.
The truth is more nuanced, but what cannot be overstated is that Carroll has done one of the best pure coaching jobs in the past four or five years, and that he's done it in a different style than his nemesis and opponent in the NFC Championship Game, Jim Harbaugh. He's done it with smiles and guile, while Harbaugh has with sneers and sarcasm.
This is a story about a man whose career was once almost dead. Who within a span of a few years was seen as inept and then a villain and now brilliant. Carroll has felt the G-forces of every aspect of the coaching roller coaster.
In some ways, this game is a referendum on the styles of both men, who have history, going back to Harbaugh attempting a two-point conversion despite having a huge lead when both were coaching college. That led to the infamous Carroll question during a tense postgame handshake. "What's your deal?" Carroll asked.
The tension between the two is still palpable. Has it graduated to hate? "Animosity? No, erroneous, erroneous," Harbaugh told reporters this week when asked if he hated Carroll. "It's football. It's competition. It's winning."
Why do players like playing for Harbaugh? "The fact that he played the game," 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin said during a press conference this week.
Why do players like playing for Carroll?
"He's an incredible coach," Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett told Bleacher Report. "He makes you want to play hard for him because he knows how to balance letting us have fun with getting us to practice hard and play hard."
"If you're a loose guy who dances at practice, like me, he lets you be that guy," defensive back Richard Sherman told reporters. "It's all some of us have ever known in the NFL. He makes the game a lot more fun."
Sherman played for Harbaugh when both were at Stanford. When asked how much he could dance at practice under Harbaugh, Sherman added, "Uh, a lot less so."
The teams reflect each man's personality. Harbaugh is odd and short-tempered with the media, and his team is the same. It would take an act of Congress to get Colin Kaepernick to speak more than two sentences to the media. It's not a chatty locker room. All business.
The Seahawks have one of the friendliest locker rooms in the NFL. They talk a great deal: on the field, to the media, all the time. Their friendliness to fans and writers is a reflection of Carroll, who is one of the nicest head coaches in all of sports. Carroll is the anti-Gregg Popovich.
Russell Wilson, the Seattle quarterback, might be the nicest human being on the planet Earth.
The styles of both coaches have worked in their own ways. What differentiates Carroll from Harbaugh is that like a player in his third or fourth year, Carroll's learned how to adapt. He was fired from NFL jobs twice before, and along the way he learned one important fact: be yourself.
"I don't always do things the way some NFL coaches do," Carroll told Bleacher Report. "I find being myself, and not being a phony, is the way I want to coach."
Many coaches motivate through fear. Carroll has found that fine line between getting players to have fun and getting them to practice hard. The Seahawks do a great deal of both. When players aren't laughing or yapping or welcoming you with a handshake, they are playing with great ferocity.
"There's nothing phony about him at all," Wilson said. "You can trust him completely."
The Seahawks are not perfect. There have been numerous allegations of performance-enhancing drug use—so many, in fact, that Harbaugh this summer took a shot at Seattle over the suspensions and rumors.
"We want to be above reproach in everything and do everything by the rules," Harbaugh said, via the Santa Rosa Press Democrat's Grant Cohn, at the time. "If you don't, if you cheat to win, then you've already lost, according to Bo Schembechler."
Overall, what Carroll has done with his career and life is fairly remarkable. How far has he come? He was fired after one season as head coach of the New York Jets. Then he was fired after three years in New England. Then came the titles at USC and the subsequent stripping of one title and one Heisman.
Now, if Carroll wins this weekend, and wins the Super Bowl, he would be just the third person in NFL history to capture both a college football championship and Super Bowl title. The others were Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer—and since Switzer won with Johnson's players, I'm not even sure that one should count.
Over the past two regular seasons, Carroll has gone 24-8. That amount of success speaks as loudly as the stadium where he coaches.
Carroll has made mistakes, but he seems to have found his place, and that place is happiness.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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