Carroll still talks faster than most teenage girls and handles himself like the mayor of the Seahawks more than some authoritarian coach. He jokes with players, glad-hands the father of defensive lineman Michael Bennett and jokes with staff as he answers questions from Bleacher Report.
Bleacher Report: Larry Bird has said that he believes coaches have a relatively short shelf life. His reason is that a coach’s message gets stale relatively quickly, and players eventually tune him out. How do you keep the message from getting stale?
Pete Carroll: First of all, I love Larry Bird, but I don’t agree with him. I love him and respect everything about him. I learned a long time ago, and I’ve made this statement: Coaches don’t lose their expertise and ability to make the calls.
There comes a time when they lose their ability to fight the fight. I think that drive to fight the fight day in and day out, I think that can go away. You can lose that. As long as you continue to be consumed and overwhelmed with the desire to get better and find another way and keep competing to figure out what you can do to help make this guy be better than he was a day ago, as long as that’s there, I don’t agree.
You will find a way to make your message fresher. You’ll find a way to make your connections in a way that will continue to inspire and direct and motivate. That’s what I’m banking on.
B/R: How do you do that?
PC: This is not a how-to. This is a who you are.
You do what you have to do to compete, and that takes you to places where you are in a relentless state to find an edge and compete. That mentality keeps you on and on point. The how is following the drive, being resourceful and creative.
I would say this: It’s not how you get your message across. It’s how many creative ways you find to get your message across until it finds a way to hit home so you can try to connect with people. The how-to is all about day in, day out finding a way to feed the monster, the drive that lives inside.
B/R: You have seen people lose that drive. Is there a common reason why?
PC: I think the stress of having to continue to fight the fight day in and day out, whatever it is, that which keeps you driving. You can get to a place where you no longer want to do that.
It’s not that you’re not smart anymore; it’s that you’re unwilling to do it. Coaches who coach know what I’m talking about. You just keep battling to help your coaches and your players, to refine your scheme, to break down your opponent, to find ways to travel and take care of your players. When that starts to not matter and you can’t find the energy for it, that’s when it’s time.
People say, well, as long as it’s fun. Yeah, that’s part of it. But to me, it’s as long as the fire is there to keep battling. There’s no time I don’t feel like that.
B/R: Were your parents like that?
PC: My dad was a good competitor. I know he’d think I was a little off the charts.
B/R: I ask because I always remember this story of John Elway playing pingpong with his dad. They would play until all hours of the morning in this downstairs den. They’d be sweating by the end, and John would be crying because he could never beat his dad, but he’d never give up. He loved it, and I think his love of competition comes from those days. It was a way of connecting with his father.
PC: My dad was a great competitor in his own way. He would never let us win at anything, and we had to work our tails off to beat him. I can translate that message but not necessarily translate who he was through me. But there was no question who he was. He was a real battler.
B/R: Who are the people you read, study or follow to look for messages or ways to get across your message?
PC: Check it out, I’m telling you what I’m telling you. I will go wherever I have to go, listen to whoever I have to listen to. Whether it’s a player or it’s a coach. Whether it’s a corporate leader, a political leader or it’s the guy sitting on the corner. It doesn’t matter to me; I’m on, I’ll go wherever.
I read a lot of different stuff, but I keep being open to inspiration. Every year, something happens, and it turns me in a direction about where I need to go and what I need to do to give these guys direction. David Brooks was a big inspiration to me this offseason.
B/R: David Brooks?
PC: Yes. The things he wrote, check it out, The Road to Character, a fantastic book. It changes. A few years ago, I was studying [psychologist] Angela Duckworth, and she had me understanding things about finding new challenges.
Our philosophy doesn’t change. We’re always competing. But the ways to approach it and the ways to make that up and make it available to our players, there’s no end to that. That’s why the thought is that you’re either competing or you're not, and that’s why I’m learning and searching and trying to transfer information to our coaches and to our players.
B/R: Who was the most interesting player you ever worked with in terms of motivating or understanding?
PC: One of my favorite guys was Ronnie Lott. I had and have such tremendous respect for him that when I finally got a chance to coach him, I couldn’t get enough of uncovering and understanding what made him tick and what made him be who he was. That’s an example. Ronnie really jumps out at me.
There were some others. Troy Polamalu was a fascinating player, and that made him. Russell Wilson is incredible. Coaching-wise, Bud Grant was an incredible person to study and understand where he was coming from. With the 49ers, Bill [Walsh] was incredible and George Seifert coming back. To dig in and make sense of what made them who they were. They are all huge inspirations.
B/R: Rex Ryan told me a great story one time about Bud Grant and his father Buddy. When Buddy Ryan went to interview with Grant for an assistant job with Minnesota in 1976, he walked into Grant’s office and sat down. Grant didn’t say a word for 20 minutes. Then, after 20 minutes, he asked Ryan, “Do you hunt?” Ryan said, “Yep.” Grant didn’t say a word for another 15 minutes. Finally, he asked, “Got any dogs?” Ryan said, “Yep.” That was the interview, and Grant hired Ryan.
PC: (laughing) It wasn’t because [Grant] didn’t know what to say; he was checking [Ryan] out. See how uneasy he was and how he would react to the situation.
B/R: So Grant tested people.
PC: Oh yeah, constantly. Constantly. Do you want to hear a story?
PC: The first year I was with [Grant in 1985]—I got hired the year he came back to coach the Vikings—we were playing Tampa Bay. He told Marc Trestman and me, we were both first-year coaches on the staff: “I want you guys, you’re in charge of the officials today.”
This is right in the locker room before the game. “You’re in charge of the officials. When they come up, meet them, hear what they have to say and all that and get any information you have to get, but no matter what you do, don’t shake hands with them.” Then he walked away.
What do you mean, don’t shake hands with them? We didn’t know what to do. So, sure enough, here comes whoever the crew was. They come walking up to meet us. They say, “Hey, how you doing?” and they reach their hands out and (Carroll stands and holds his arms by his side to demonstrate how he and Trestman stood there, refusing to shake hands).
Grant did that just to screw with us. It was the most uncomfortable thing. He’s got two rookie coaches. He’s checking us out, and he’s sending a message to the officials that my guys aren’t going to shake your hand or whatever. It was hilarious, and we just walk away thinking, "What just happened there?"
Bud just put us in that situation to make us feel uncomfortable.
B/R: I remember a game in 1995 after you went to San Francisco to be the defensive coordinator. You had interviewed with Miami that offseason but didn’t get the same job with the 49ers. The two teams play on a Monday night in Miami, and the 49ers sack Dan Marino on the first three plays of the game. Was that part of you trying to send some message?
PC: You mean because Don Shula didn’t hire me? Really, I don’t remember that game.
B/R: I do. Marino was ticked off.
PC: I got to play Marino for a lot of years in the AFC East, and we had a bunch of battles. I loved those battles, and I was always hoping we could send a message to him. He was a great player, and we couldn’t always do it. But when we did, we let him have it because it was just awesome to play against him. We had a lot of memorable games and challenges, and we had some great exchanges.
There was a time I remember they were running the clock out, and we were bringing guys off the edge, trying to force a fumble. He’s looking at me like, "You keep bringing it, I’m going to have to throw it." They were running the football, but he conveyed that. We keep coming, and sure enough, he hits a big pass and makes us look stupid.
B/R: How hard is it to keep a defense together and playing at the level your team has played here in Seattle?
PC: Is that what you really want to ask, how hard is it?
B/R: Yes, how difficult is it to keep that group coming back year after year?
PC: How hard is it? I don’t know how to answer that question. What I can say is that it has been a great honor to be part of it, to coach these guys, watching them grow up and see them demonstrate such tremendous consistency for such a long period of time.
It’s something I take the most pride in: being good for a long time. Being good one time, I don’t care about that. But showing that you can keep coming back and coming back and coming back, that’s thrilling to me.
So it has been a great honor to be around this group. We have maintained the nucleus and the heart of it, and the message has always stayed the same. We’ve lost a lot of coaches around here, but the philosophy and the approach, the standards we have set and the expectations we have maintained have always been upheld from one year to the next.
I attribute that to the great character of the players and the willingness of the coaches to not get influenced and get off-message and to get out of the way.
B/R: The reason I ask is because the Chicago Bears only won one title in the 1980s with that great defense. The Baltimore Ravens only won one title with their great defense of 2000. And Tampa Bay only won one Super Bowl with its great defense. None of those teams even made it back to a Super Bowl with those defenses intact. You guys have won one and came within a play of winning a second.
PC: And we’re not done yet. But really there is a stat we take great pride in. We have led the league in scoring defense for four straight years. The last team to do that was the Cleveland Browns in the '50s or something. That’s the epitome of consistency. For our guys to do that is amazing.
B/R: How does this team compare to the Patriots team you helped build during your time there?
PC: I didn’t help build that team. I took that team over. That’s [Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick’s] team. We worked hard at it, but I didn’t have the role to build that team. I just helped maintain it.
B/R: What did you learn from that experience?
PC: I learned a tremendous amount about what was important to me as a head coach in that I was not in charge. I didn’t have final say about what was going on, and I was always having to represent other people’s views, and it was very difficult to be real, to be authentic, to be true because there were a number of people who had say about what was going on.
I realized there that if I ever got another chance, I was not going to do it that way. I wouldn’t be a head coach in that situation. I would rather not be a head coach. I can’t function that way. And the next job was USC. I was in charge of everything. It made all the difference in the world. So I learned an extraordinary lesson, and I think it really was the key to the success of the program, both there and here.
B/R: The key to the success was going through that in New England?
PC: I just realized how bad it is when you’re not in charge and you’re a head coach. Coming out of the San Francisco situation and going to New England, I had planned for us to run the San Francisco system, A to Z, top to bottom. But that’s not what happened. So I knew there was going to be something different from what we needed.
So when I got my chance, I did it.
Jason Cole covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.