RENTON, Wash. – It’s late afternoon on the second floor of an office building on Lake Washington, and it must be after 4 p.m., because here comes the boss on his electric scooter.
He buzzes the halls, poking his head into one office before riding to the next.
“You in?” he asks. “Come on, man, I need you.”
Pete Carroll is starting his ninth season as coach of the Seattle Seahawks – two Super Bowl appearances, one championship, now two years into his first NFL rebuild – and coaching is maybe the one thing he takes more seriously than pickup basketball. And Carroll, 67, isn’t just the afternoon hoops game’s mastermind; he’s a chucker, an elbow thrower, a real menace when chasing a loose ball.
“You just get so beat up,” says Ben Malcolmson, Carroll’s special assistant, and sure enough, secondary coach Nick Sorensen just shrugs when his wife asks why he’s all bruised up again. John Glenn, who coaches Seattle’s linebackers and usually guards Carroll, feels fortunate to have only dislocated the one finger and required but a few stitches.
“I’m getting too old for this,” the 34-year-old Malcolmson says, but Carroll’s not, and the NFL’s oldest coach can prove it if you want. Come on down to the court after 4, or if you’re in a hurry, there’s a tiny hoop above Carroll’s office door. At the airport, pick your security line and Carroll will pick his, and see who gets through first. Want to see who can stay awake longer? Throw a ball farther?
“There’s a lot of doubters,” Carroll will say with that famous smile, though considering some of the most noteworthy doubts in recent years have come from inside his own building, he’s probably not kidding. “I’ll kick their (butt) if they give me half a chance, whatever we’re doing.”
Carroll moves, thinks, talks fast, and even pushing 70 he’s tough to keep up with. He’s in almost constant motion, making plans, getting excited about what’s next. The only bad days, he says, are those lacking fun, and considering he’s in charge and won that Super Bowl, he can end any meeting early because there’s a basketball court – the 3-on-3 games are best-of-five unless Carroll’s team is losing – just down the stairs.
“I’ve always tried turning a negative into a positive,” he says.
Carroll identifies as a competitor, an occasionally ruthless one at that, but perhaps even more than that he’s an idealist. Today might just be the best day of his life, and something amazing lurks around every corner.
“You can conquer the world,” Cliff Avril, the former Seahawks defensive end, says is Carroll’s 24/7 philosophy, and it took Avril a couple of years to answer a nagging question: Is Carroll for real?
Indeed, many NFL coaches are cantankerous, routine-obsessed grouches who deprive themselves of everything from sleep to joy. And for the first time, the league is trying something new: Apparently trying to unearth the next Sean McVay, who at 32 led the Los Angeles Rams to last season’s Super Bowl, six of this season’s eight teams with new coaches hired someone 44 or younger. Three of those are in their 30s.
“I marvel at the thought of how guys do it early and do it quickly,” Carroll says, and he might just act younger than any of them. He certainly behaves as if he has more to prove, so maybe he won’t mind being encircled by youth this season: not just by one of the league’s youngest rosters, but because Carroll’s three NFC West counterparts (including McVay) have an average age of 37.
The truth is, Carroll is a college coach deep down – even now, the Seahawks are a “program,” and second-year players are “sophomores” – and the old coach has always been at his best when surrounded by young, impressionable minds. He won two national championships at USC and assembled the mighty “Legion of Boom,” perhaps the greatest collection of believers and idealists to ever defend a backfield.
But time, especially in the NFL, can be unkind. Viewpoints evolve, priorities shift, idealism gradually gets eroded.
It happens. It just never did for Carroll.
Two decades ago, after New England fired Carroll from his second NFL head coaching job in five years, he couldn’t help wondering if, at age 48, he was finished.
Moping is rare in Carroll’s universe, but it’s as noticeable – his head down, words scarce – as it is brief. After being fired, Carroll chased away his doubts by reading John Wooden’s autobiography, and he realized the great Wizard won his first national championship at age 53, then won 10 more in 12 years. Carroll slammed the book closed – he had plenty of time! – and began scribbling in a spiral notebook. What did he want to be? Who did he want to be?
It was simple: a competitor. That was it. Someone who’d fight to the death on everything: football, fly-fishing, body surfing. He kept writing, listing his ideas for the perfect locker room, the most efficient travel schedule, an unusual team meeting format that’d keep players engaged.
“I was so ready to go, because I had my feelings clear with what I was going to do,” he says now, though teams weren’t exactly ready for him.
NFL teams wouldn’t take his calls, he says, and eventually only USC, coming off a 5-7 season, invited him for an interview. Carroll aced it and went on to bring the ideas in his notebook to life: competition, music, skits, fun, over-the-top energy and never-too-high hopes. Carroll won his first national title in January 2004 – he was 52, a year younger than Wooden had been – and the remnants of his days at USC are unmistakable inside Seattle’s facility today.
“He just knows our generation,” says DK Metcalf, a Seahawks wide receiver and at 21, one of the youngest players on a training camp roster whose average age is 26 years old.
On a Thursday morning in June, what is ostensibly a team meeting includes a rookie dance-off, scenes from “The Office” and highlights from the Stanley Cup playoffs. Eventually the group will get around to film review, but for now there are more important matters, and as usual they involve a basketball.
Carroll has, for the past five years, staged a single-elimination free throw tournament: 30 seconds to make as many shots as possible with the “Space Jam” theme blaring and teammates jeering (and maybe placing a few side bets).
Players raise their illuminated phones as if at a concert, and a red scoreboard lights up as tournament finalists Tyler Lockett, a wide receiver, and Tyler Ott, the team’s long snapper, take their places.
“The entire offseason culminates today,” Carroll tells the audience of 90 players and two dozen coaches, and if he’s exaggerating, his constant smiling and swaying when the music begins make it impossible to know.
Nearly a decade ago, this auditorium was full of future stars and long shots, first-round picks and undrafted hopefuls. And in here, then as now, if everyone just believed, something amazing really could happen.
Carroll told stories, brought in guest speakers, told players he loved them. That he truly loved them, and unlike Carroll’s mentors – “For every young player you play, you’ll lose one game,” former Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant used to tell him – he preferred the pliability of a mind unspoiled by the years.
“College guys don’t have an opinion,” Carroll says now. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Back then, almost nobody in here did. In one seat was an ambitious and thoughtful former fifth-round pick named Richard Sherman, not far from first-round safety Earl Thomas and undrafted defensive end Michael Bennett. Over there was Bobby Wagner, a linebacker with an insatiable work ethic, sitting near Kam Chancellor, a young safety who craved stardom. In here they were equals, fighters, brothers whose coach just wanted them to have fun and be great.
“There was real power and love,” Bennett would say much later, adding that Carroll has an “uncanny way of connecting with people.”
Carroll’s impervious positivity was working. Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor became stars, determination and talent and belief combining into one of the best secondaries in football history. Wagner would become one of the league’s best defenders, and Avril and Bennett would become the soul of what would become a defense that, between 2011 and 2017, would combine for 20 Pro Bowl appearances, 120 interceptions, eight playoff wins. Everyone was feeling so good that a few players couldn’t help wondering if all this was transferrable.
“I used to tell the young guys this all the time: The grass is not greener on the other side,” says Avril, who in 2013 joined the Seahawks as a free agent after five seasons in Detroit. “Trust me. Trust me.”
But the years and attitudes changed, and for better or worse, Carroll never did. Seattle’s young believers, regardless of their beginnings, were stars now. They were rich and confident, and many were starting families and eyeing – and comparing – endorsement deals. Their minds weren’t so fresh anymore, and neither was Carroll’s message.
“Everything he says, I definitely listen,” says Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright, now one of only three remaining players – offense or defense – from the Seattle team that lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in February 2014. “At the same time, I’d be like: ‘OK, I’ve heard this before.’ ”
When Carroll held his raucous team meetings, some players would roll their eyes or distract themselves. Bennett would pass the time by reading books. Sherman was among those who grew more and more frustrated – as thoroughly detailed in investigations by ESPN and Sports Illustrated – with Carroll’s treatment of quarterback Russell Wilson. By 2016, the Legion of Boom had begun splintering, and two years later it had dissolved. Carroll, for the first time since New England, was unable to captivate his audience.
“Guys have heard the stories, the same stories a few times, so it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, here we go again,’” Avril says now. “We’re all going to the Kumbaya meeting room. You just knew it was coming.”
Carroll, though, kept trying. Kept smiling, kept telling his stories. It was all he knew to do, because these were things that still brought him joy and made sense to him, and maybe the worst part was that he couldn’t understand why they didn’t to anyone else.
Sometime this spring, Carroll received an invitation to Avril’s retirement party. It would be at downtown Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, where five years earlier the Seahawks had received their Super Bowl rings. It would be a reunion.
“I didn’t know if I belonged,” Carroll says, and the doubt felt unusual to him.
Avril and Chancellor had, two years earlier, suffered career-ending neck injuries, and Sherman tore his Achilles tendon in November 2017. The Seahawks, initiating – and maybe even welcoming – a full-blown rebuild in March 2018, released Sherman and traded Bennett within days of each other. Then, last October, with Thomas embroiled in an increasingly bitter contract dispute with the team, the player fractured his leg during a nationally televised game. As he was carted off the field, Thomas raised his middle finger toward his own sideline.
Carroll, as he’ll do, tried looking on the bright side. At one point it occurred to him that, when he was at USC, he oversaw a rebuild almost every year. In nine seasons, he coached 14 first-round picks, including three players who won the Heisman Trophy. (Reggie Bush, who received thousands of dollars’ worth of impermissible gifts, would later forfeit his, and USC would vacate wins and scholarships, but Carroll maintains leaving the Trojans for Seattle in 2009 was more about a new challenge than escape.) When players left, Carroll thought about how the next season, the next recruiting class might just be the best one of his life.
“It didn’t bother me before,” he says he realized after the Seahawks’ dissolution, and it was around that same time that he decided, yes, he would attend Avril’s party.
Carroll made his way downtown, said a few words and shook a few hands but mostly stood near a wall and watched.
“I was extremely, extremely shocked to see him there,” Avril says. “But it was awesome.”
Sherman, who’d gotten married 15 months earlier, had come. So had Bennett, who now had three children and considers Carroll his favorite coach ever, and Wright, who’d also recently married. A few players engaged Carroll in a few of his old jokes, rehashed a few of the old stories, and like you do at a reunion, discussed how it took a separation to appreciate what they’d once had.
“When I look back at it,” Bennett says, “I really appreciate the things he was doing.”
The kids, Carroll says, had just grown up. This was another graduation, and he says the negativity of the previous years had only amplified the positive feelings of that one last night together.
“I kind of felt stupid that I didn’t realize that that could’ve happened,” he says, and after a while Carroll slipped through the exit, leaving the party to younger men.
He’s in his office at Seahawks headquarters, surrounded by toys – the chalkboard and plastic baseball bats are for his seven grandchildren, but the charging scooter and holstered basketball belong to Carroll – and talking about the future.
There’s his own: Carroll had a knee replacement in 2012, recently went to a mostly plant-based diet, only takes a single gulp of Mountain Dew each day before throwing the rest away. And for a while he’s had a five-year plan when it comes to addressing retirement. If he’s still energized in a year, still motivated to chase another Super Bowl and throw a few elbows on the basketball court, the five-year clock will reset.
“Old coaches don’t lose their smarts,” he says. “They lose their willingness to fight the fight.”
Then there’s the NFL itself and all the symbolism of an old coach who acts young and young coaches trying to prove they belong. Carroll will go on about the coaches’ bona fides, how impressive they are, but deep down his competitive instincts sense an advantage: He has life experiences they cannot yet claim. He knows what he knows, even if to certain audiences it can grow repetitive or even annoying.
It happens. But he can live with it. At least he knows.
And here’s one of the things he learned, and it’s something most of the buckaroos across the league haven’t yet felt: In 1994, when Carroll was 43 – not exactly McVay young, but certainly not old – the New York Jets elevated him to head coach. The Jets went 6-10, and Carroll couldn’t wait for his second season.
Then one day Carroll walked into his office and found Jets owner Leon Hess waiting. Hess motioned toward an empty chair.
“I thought I was looking at the devil,” Carroll says. “I’m looking at the old dude, and I didn’t know him!”
Carroll sat there, knowing he was being fired but not knowing how he’d take it. Did this qualify him as a failure? A bad coach? Could he respond? Would he? Hess was still talking, but Carroll had zoned out.
“I didn’t hear a word he said after that,” he says, and as his mind wandered something occurred to him.
Carroll had three years left on his contract. He was a millionaire! So as the old man went on about the negatives and the young man considered the positives, Carroll decided this wasn’t a bad thing at all.
And in that moment, he decided that the next day he’d take his family and his newfound freedom, and they’d all load up and go to Disneyworld to celebrate.
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