Class Act: Pete Carroll Exits as of Course he Would

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After he finished a routine outdoor press chat following a practice at training camp, Pete Carroll was bopping — no other NFL coach has ever bopped — toward his office in the VMAC before I pulled a Richard Sherman and stepped in front, forcing the Seahawks coach to stop his route.

“Non-football question, Pete,” I said. “In your time in LA, did you cross paths with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?”

“Never did,” he said. “Why?”

“I’ve been asked,” I said, “by Town Hall to host a Q-and-A with Kareem in Seattle to talk about his latest book. No obligation, but I thought I’d ask if you’d like to show up quietly for the event, and I’ll try to arrange a meet-up.”

His face lit up. Carroll checked his schedule and said yes. He also said he’d see if any of the older vets would like to join in meeting with the then-greatest scorer in NBA history, now a successful author and columnist. The lone Seahawks player who showed up to Connolly Center on the campus of Seattle University in the summer of 2016 was the first player Carroll mentioned Wednesday during the reveal of his Seattle career farewell: Linebacker Bobby Wagner.

For 45 minutes, Abdul-Jabbar, Carroll and Wagner sat together in an athletics office. Awkward at first, the group quickly warmed up with talk of Los Angeles, ball, careers beyond ball, UCLA coaching great John Wooden, race, work-life balance and mentorship. It was one of the most illuminating spectator sports experiences of my journalism career. Nothing was ever written about the meet-up, but it was an example of how he rolled: Going out of his way for insight from high achievers and original thinkers who might offer a way forward for him and anyone in his circle. No one in my experience in sports has been so insatiably curious and eager to share.

The episode came to mind as I watched Carroll Wednesday at the VMAC auditorium, weave, often agonizingly, through his Seattle career obituary. He didn’t have to do this, especially immediately. Most fired coaches would have sent out a statement. He opened a vein. But for those of us who have been around him for most of his 14 years in Seattle . . . of course he would. Of course he would have pop music precede his entry. Of course he would throw no one under the team bus. Of course he teared up at the thought of the inevitable life disruptions for many of his assistant coaches. Of course he offered weepy salutes to his wife and two sons. Of course he said he was excited about his future, perhaps only hours after learning he was being fired — to his great surprise and dismay.

“I competed pretty hard to be the coach, just so you know,” he said, immediately causing me to wish I had been in on THAT meeting. Then the world’s most high-energy 72-year-old was secure enough to offer up a truth, which no one in management can dare say: “I realize I’m about as old as you can get in this business.”

There’s also a truth that he didn’t address. The Seahawks franchise will be sold by 2028, the 10th anniversary of the death of Paul Allen, the billionaire club owner who hired Carroll in 2011. That stipulation is in the trust overseen by Allen’s sister, Jody, who ultimately made the decision to fire Carroll with one guaranteed year left on his contract, speculated to be worth around $15 million. While not directly pertinent, the sale deadline also mandates that all of Allen’s assets be sold in top condition, in order to provide maximum value to the scientific organizations that are designated as beneficiaries.

Will the Seahawks be in top condition by 2028, or sooner, should Jeff Bezos or other mega-wealthy type seek to overpay now rather than wait a few years? Jody Allen and Bert Kolde, her brother’s longtime friend and a decision-maker behind the scenes, obviously thought a coaching change now improved the odds. Particularly after a 9-8 season that ended without playoffs but with an unease that came from largely unexpected developments. Accountability for consequences rested upon Carroll.

“There ain’t enough wins,” he said. “As a coach, there’s not enough wins. We know right now there’s not enough wins this season.”

The 30-13 home loss in the season opener to the underdog Los Angeles Rams left Carroll as gobsmacked as any defeat in his tenure. He seemed bewildered at his misread. The Seahawks recovered nicely with a 37-31 overtime win in Detroit, and eventually improved to 5-2. But a spiral of five losses in six games, largely against quality opponents, doomed Seattle to miss the playoffs for the second time in three years. After considerable investments in draft capital the past two years, the Seahawks defense, where Carroll has long made his reputation, ranked 26th and 30th both seasons in yards surrendered per game.

An undertone of seemingly unchecked player misbehavior was also a poor public look. Wide receiver DK Metcalf was among the most-fined players in the NFL, and the persistent lost yardage and lack of contrition irked many fans. Same for under-performing safety Jamal Adams, who was twice fined for putting hands on and screaming at sideline medical personnel obligated to check for potential concussions. Then there was the cigars-in-the-locker-room episode after Sunday’s win — and postseason failure — that rubbed Wagner and many fans the wrong way. Even if it was misconstrued — safety Julian Love was attempting to celebrate the birth of his child a few weeks earlier — the old trope about Carroll being too soft on players was revived. But the decision on his future already had been made.

Carroll has always been a players-first advocate. In his farewell, he offered a passionate re-issuance of his belief that players should be at the center of the NFL universe, not teams, networks, owners or coaches.  But as often was the case with Carroll, he stood mostly alone in his advocacy.

If that counts against Carroll, well, he won’t care. His football record, in Seattle and in his previous stops, speaks for itself.  What I suspect gives him greater satisfaction is sharing his vitality, curiosity, humor, passion and compassion not only with players, but with anyone who has an aspiration. Because it was time, he can broaden his aim.

Just a guess here, but Wednesday’s event was more of a beginning than an end. For Carroll. And the Seahawks.

Art Thiel
Art Thiel
Art Thiel is a longtime sports columnist in Seattle, for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now as founding editor at SportsPressNW.com.

28 COMMENTS

  1. Great column. A mediocre Seahawks team under Pete Carroll is way more interesting to watch than a winning team under Belichick.

  2. I don’t really follow sports very closely, except for the ‘human interest’ aspect. It seems to me that what’s called ‘ageism’ can freely and openly be raised now in sports and justified as a reason for any decision the powers that be make for all personnel and for players over age 30. It also applies in politics. I’m well over 70 years old and it troubles me for many reasons. My thinking is still intact.

    • I’m sympathetic, yet Carroll has crossed a frontier in establishing post-70s vitality. The decision to fire was more about failure to improve on the field, and the franchise’s sale value.

  3. Love the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar anecdote. Very cool. Thanks for sharing it!

    And it hadn’t occurred to me to connect this development to the potential sale of the Seahaawks. Very interesting.

    • It was a remarkable little episode for me. As far as the inevitable sale, there’s no urgency, but massive-estate brokers always advise clients to be ready to off-load assets fast. As we have seen, the world changes fast.

  4. A really outstanding piece, as usual. Art perfectly frames the key elements that fueled the transition of the Seahawks from their greatest coach.

  5. I would have jumped at the chance to meet Kareem. Disappointing that, not surprisingly, only Bobby accepted Coach Carrol’s invitation. I’m wondering if the Seahawks will bring back BSwag with the change of coaches.

    I’m assuming that this termination happened because the Seahawks have an opportunity for a head coach that they like. I did not expect the Seahawks to make the playoffs this season. This roster isn’t good enough yet to contend for a title and teams were going to treat them more seriously this season after their success the previous season. If the Seahawks brain trust feels that Coach Carroll is the reason for the decline of the franchise since their Super Bowl years GM John Schneider shares equal blame. Carroll coaches the players but Schneider scouts players and brings them in. And there’s been players who have seriously underperformed.

    What I’ve always admired about the coach is how he accentuates the positive and when he’s criticized by others through the media he always rises above it. He heralded a class of coaches that practiced the same philosophy that arrived in Seattle around the same time in Dan Hughes, Chris Peterson, Brian Schmetzer and Scott Servais. You would never see Coach Carroll dress down a player during a game on the field the way Sean Payton did with DangeRuss, much less start an incentive like Bountygate.

    The Seahawks will be hard-pressed to re-Pete in their hire. Their history has been to get a coach who doesn’t work out then find a long term solution. Hoping that isn’t the case but after following this team since its inception that is the pattern. Hope the best for the Carrolls.

    • Carroll is a one-off, John. No chance for a replica. Fans should seek to evaluate his successor on merits, not comparison. Besides Dan Quinn, whom Schneider worked with in earlier stints in Seattle, I don’t think he entered January with an idea that he would survive a playoff whiff to be the football boss choosing a head coach. Can’t know all who might be available.

  6. A superb column, Art. You got his essence, character and yes, his joy in his players ,the game, the fans . I will miss him, even as I hope he continues to be the face of the Seahawks while mentoring his replacement

    • Thanks, Jane. I think the advisor role is a fig leaf. If he stays in football, it’ll be somewhere else, largely because he won’t want to be around to second-guess the new guy.

  7. Some time after Carroll released that tackling technique video (safe, heads-up, rugby-style tackling) for high-school football programs, he hosted a day-long tackling class in California with one of the Raiders’ defensive coaches. Some were asking why he would run such a thing with a rival coach. Carroll said that teaching tackling fundamentals was good for the game as a whole. The more young players learned to tackle well and safely, the fewer injuries and greater enjoyment of they game they’d have, and football’s grassroots would improve.

    Very true. Carroll’s mission in life is to maximize the potential of everyone he came across, in and out of football. It’s working. Anecdote: My brother went to a number of high-school games after that video came out, and noticed that the teams were successfully utilizing Carroll’s tackling methods, which led to better fundamentals, and much better games. Since few things in sports are sadder than high-school football blowouts, that’s a welcome development.

    Looking forward to how he helps the team and the new coach going forward. With the Hawks having some roster holes but by no means needing a total tear-down, this should be a very attractive job.

  8. Glad you shared the tackling video anecdote. Perfect Carroll trait. Regarding his future, I suspect it will be elsewhere. I don’t think he wants to make eye contact with Jody Allen or Bert Kolde.

  9. Agree about your ‘Fig leaf” reference to a previous commenter.
    Pete kinda said as much (without actually saying it) during his farewell presser.
    As the dust has started to settle I’ve loved seeing the outpouring of thanks for Pete post departure. So well deserved.
    A favorite video clip I’ve seen is from just afterwards where a somber Geno, Bobby & Quandre are walking down a passageway and Pete all smiles(on the outside) catches up to Geno and “hugs him up”. Speaks volumes about the man.
    And thanks for this really nice and informative article Art!!!
    (Still fondly remember the time or two you and I played hoop together back in the day)🙂

  10. Great writing Art, thank you. As another writer said, it’s really the human interactions that are the ‘meaning’ in sports, not the scores or standings. As Detroiter celebrating our own ‘life-first’ coach these days, I feel fortunate to have had so much Pete in my life these years. Lots of lessons, first and foremost about how to be a generous leader and supportive mentor.

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