Seahawk Head Coach Pete Carroll

Seahawk Head Coach Pete Carroll

 Note: When Pete Carroll was hired as the new head coach and executive vice president of the Seattle Seahawks in 2010 it was amidst many questions. Carroll was fresh from a nine year stint as head coach of the USC Trojans during which he had completely revived Trojan football. For the five years prior to Carroll’s hiring in 2001, the once proud Trojan football program had suffered through a period of profound mediocrity, losing almost as much as they won. With the arrival of Pete Carroll all that changed. Across the nine years from 2001 to 2009 his teams accumulated 96 wins while losing only 19 including national championships in 2003 and 2004 and an undefeated season (13-0) in 2004. On the face of it there was nothing in Carroll’s prior career as a football coach that would have led one to believe he could do what he did at USC. He had a long career as a college assistant coach before graduating to the NFL assistant coaching ranks in 1984. For the next ten seasons he served in various coaching capacities for the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings and as defensive coordinator for New York Jets. His first head coaching job was for the Jets in 1994 and he was fired after one season—the result of a 6-10 record. Pete spent the ’95 and ’96 seasons as the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers and then was hired, again as head coach, by the New England Patriots in 1997. Carroll’s first season with the Patriots the team won the AFC East title but then faded across the next two years. After an 8-8 season in 1999 Carroll was again fired. He took the next year off to assess his situation and then was contacted by the USC Athletic Director, legendary former USC running back Mike Garrett, about the Trojan head coaching job. Pete took the job and history records his excellence there. Then, in 2010, he came to Seattle to coach our beloved Seahawks and, as noted at the outset, questions abounded. As he was leaving USC the school was under investigation for NCAA rule violations regarding former standout running back Reggie Bush. What did Pete know? Was he culpable for these violations? Also, would Carroll’s college style translate well to the Pros? He was known somewhat derogatorily as a “players coach”, a quality poorly regarded in the NFL as lacking in the necessary discipline. Perhaps most importantly, what happened in that year between being fired by the Patriots and hired by the Trojans that had resulted in Carroll’s nearly immediate and ultimately stunning success at USC? In 2010 Carroll wrote a book in which he addressed this last question. The book is called “Win Forever” and in it he describes his lifelong search for his personal philosophy of coaching as well as life itself. As this most highly anticipated Seahawk season gets under way I thought I would provide you with a look at just what makes the Seahawk head man tick. Here it is…MA

Carroll in his USC days

Carroll in his USC days

In the spring of 1968 Pete Carroll stepped into the batters box during the final inning of a high school baseball game and prepared to hit. His team was playing the top team in the league and it had been a disastrous game. The opposing team’s pitcher, an exceptional athlete known as “Big Mike”, had dominated Carroll’s team and by the last inning the game was out of reach. As he was standing there in the batter’s box waiting an odd consideration came to Pete’s mind:

“Whatever you do,” he thought, “there’s no way you’re going to change the outcome of this game.” 

Another person may have taken that notion as a sign of resignation or apathy—but not Pete Carroll. He had grown up in a very positive and reinforcing environment created by his parents and had, even as a teen ager, taken to heart one of his mother’s favorite sayings… “Something good is just about to happen.” So as he stood there waiting for Big Mike’s pitch, instead of feeling pessimistic and defeated, Pete felt liberated. The fact that his “at bat” would not significantly impact the game one way or another had delivered a kind of pressure and worry free zone to Carroll in which he felt supremely confident that, indeed, something good was just about to happen.

As Big Mike went into his wind up Pete noticed something peculiar about him; he seemed to be moving in slow motion. Like something out of meta-physics, time seemed to slow down. As Mike released the ball plateward, Pete could not only see the spin of the ball, it seemed he could see and count its stitches as well. A feeling of total certainty came over Carroll that he was going to clobber this pitch, and crush it he did, with the ball leaping off his bat and over the center fielder’s head for a home run.

Now, many of us have had similar incidents in various ways, but there is something about sports that seems to precipitate them. I well remember in high school playing football and having such an experience. In those days I was a talented pass receiver, the best in our gym class, but as yet no one in the class knew it. Then on one play I got my chance. I ran a deep “go” route and got behind the defensive back only to have the pass be under thrown. As I was looking back for the ball I was in that special zone described by Carroll. The ball descended in slow motion and disappeared, obscured by the body of the defender in front of me. Suddenly, miraculously, the ball re-appeared. The defender’s back was to me as I was turning back toward him, and there was the ball, perfectly balanced, resting on his shoulder. Time stood still. In slow motion I plucked the ball from the defender’s shoulder and easily outraced him for a touchdown.

Like the incident Pete described, my football incident and similar incidents by many of us, have stuck with us, crystal clear in our minds. Carroll describes such incidents as follows:

“When we have confidence and allow ourselves to become fascinated, the world seems to move in slow motion. It is an altered state of consciousness that comes from an extreme level of focus. Some performers describe this as resembling an out-of-body experience.”

For me, as for many, Pete’s description is apt. Few of us, though, have taken the time and effort to look at how these “altered states of consciousness” relate to consistent performance in any field and fewer still have concentrated on how to consistently achieve these states. For Pete Carroll, his high school game home run against Big Mike planted the seeds of what would be a life-long quest.

Growing up in Marin County, California, Pete Carroll developed his passion for sports at a very young age and, though he was physically diminutive, he was competitive from the get-go. Among his sports heroes in those years were the marvelous Chicago Bears running back Gayle Sayers, the great NBA scorer and passer Rick Barry and San Francisco Giant Hall of Famer Willie Mays. Throughout all four high school years he played baseball, basketball and football but was never able to achieve the standards he set for himself. Determined to make an impact as an athlete, yet not good enough to get a major college scholarship, Carroll entered junior college and continued to play football. Finally he began to approach becoming the player he thought he could be and started to get some major college interest, ultimately resulting in a scholarship to play safety for the University of Pacific in Stockton, California.

By the time his two years at UOP were over Carroll was acknowledged as an All Coast and All Conference player, a remarkable accomplishment for a kid who had started out small and had to compete for everything all the way up. Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough to get him to his ultimate goal, the NFL, and he settled for an invitation to the training camp of the Honolulu Hawaiians of the fledgling World Football League. Pete put all he had into making the Hawaiians but two things conspired against him. First, due to an NFL player’s strike the WFL teams were loaded up with NFL players who needed jobs making it much harder for a rookie like Carroll to make the team. Second, during practice one day he hurt his shoulder trying to tackle a receiver. The injury was slow to heal and impaired Carroll’s tackling of wide outs and tight ends significantly larger than those he faced in college. As a result Carroll was cut and he had to face the fact that his goal of being a professional football player was off the table. It was then that he got a phone call from his old coach at the University of Pacific, Chester Caddas. Pete Carroll’s life was about to take a different direction.

Coach Caddas asked Pete to return to UOP as a graduate assistant coach, a position that would allow him to get his feet wet in coaching while at the same time pursuing a master’s degree. Carroll quickly took to coaching as a way to sate his competitive fire but it was the professor of his sports psychology class at UOP, a man named Glen Albaugh, who would create the lasting impact on Pete’s life. It was in professor Albaugh’s class that Carroll was introduced to the ideas of Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who had written a book in 1962 called “Toward A Psychology of Being”. Maslow was unique in that his concentration was on what he saw as characterizing the healthy human personality and not on all of the foibles and weaknesses of the human condition.

Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow

In his work Maslow described what he called the “hierarchy of needs”; a graduated scale that started with the basic survival needs like food, water and shelter and then ascended to a higher level of needs like community, friendship and love. The highest level of Maslow’s scale he described as the level of “self-actualization”. It was at this level that people had so satisfied their fundamental levels of necessity that they became capable of what Maslow called “peak experiences”; moments in which they approached their maximum performance and full potential.

Maslow’s description of “self-actualization” and his concentration on the best qualities of the human condition resonated with Carroll and caused him to re-evaluate his role as a coach:

“What if my job as a coach,” Carroll asked himself, “isn’t so much to force or coerce performance as it is to create situations where the players develop the confidence to set their talents free and pursue their potential to its full extent? What if my job as a coach is to really prove to these kids how good they already are, how good they could possibly become, and that they are truly capable of high-level performance? 

The realizations that Carroll was deriving from his study of Maslow’s principles flew in the face of traditional football thought on the role of a coach. For some reason that was OK with Pete. He willingly started to shed a lot of what he had “learned” as to how to coach the game of football and subtly began to change his approach.

This process was aided when professor Albaugh brought another speaker to his sports psychology class at UOP; a man named Tim Gallwey who had written a book called “The Inner Game of Tennis”. [1] His mind opened by what he had learned from Maslow, Carroll was immediately captured by Gallwey’s message. Simply stated Gallwey was saying that it was possible for any athlete to elevate his performance by mastering the ability to achieve what Gallwey termed a “quieted mind”;  a state he said was accomplished through the use of certain meditation techniques. Himself a tennis player (at one point the captain of the Harvard tennis team) Gallwey had used these meditation techniques to quiet his own mind and raise the quality of his play. One of Gallwey’s observations was that when faced with uncertainty or situations in which a person doubts or fears some possible outcome he will instinctively over tighten his muscles. Furthermore, he pointed out, this was an embracive phenomena taking in all sports and even other life situations such as business and relationships.

Carroll immediately realized the truth in what Gallwey was saying. He could think of lots of examples of this “over tightening” phenomena both from his own athletic career and from those of others he had observed. He also immediately recognized that such “over tightening” was the enemy of peak athletic performance. No athlete, however talented or gifted, could perform to his peak potential when so stricken and Carroll began to see that his true role as a coach was to deliver to his players circumstances and situations in which they could achieve the sublime states described by Maslow and Gallwey. If he could accomplish that then he could help his players perform fear and doubt free and therefore allow their peak performances to be tapped.

Tim Gallwey

Tim Gallwey

Along with this Carroll began to realize one more thing: if the conclusions he was coming to based on what he had learned from Maslow and Gallwey were true, and he instinctively saw that they were, then the real competition a player needed to engage in was not against or with the other players in practice or on the opposing team; a players real competition was the “inner game” within himself to achieve his “quieted mind”. Only by accomplishing that could a player achieve the peak performance of which he was capable.

As a result of what he was learning in professor Albaugh’s class a major door was opening for Carroll. His view on the real role of a football coach, or any coach or individual who wanted to assist himself or others to reach their full potential, was dramatically changing. In coaching the defensive backs at UOP Carroll took his first tentative steps at applying his new tools. At one of his regular meetings with the defensive backs, instead of the usual format, he spent the time asking the players what they thought they needed in order to improve. The players loved it and rapidly engaged in providing their suggestions. Carroll felt it was the best meeting he had ever had with the players and it concluded with everyone looking forward to the next practice so they could implement what they had discussed. The optimism did not last long. When Carroll told his boss coach Caddas about the meeting he was told in no uncertain terms that as long as he was coaching for the University of Pacific he would not ask the players for their views on what should happen at a meeting or in practice. Old attitudes die hard and it would take some time for Pete Carroll to translate his new awarenesses to peak success on the football field.

The next big break in Carroll’s coaching career took place in 1977 when a friend of his on the coaching staff at UOP, a man named Bob Cope, took a position on the staff of the legendary college coach Lou Holtz [2] at the University of Arkansas. The friend convinced Holtz to offer a graduate assistant position to Carroll and Pete didn’t think twice about it, packing up his family and heading off to Razorback country. The defensive coordinator at Arkansas in those days was a man who was destined to have a vast effect on Pete’s life and, indeed, on the game of football itself, defensive strategy guru Monte Kiffin.

Today the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, Kiffin [3] is considered to be one of the preeminent defensive minds in the history of the NFL. He has served with many NFL teams but is most widely recognized for his work as defensive coordinator with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996 to 2008, a stretch that includes the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl victory in 2003. It was at Tampa Bay in the late 1990’s that Kiffin and then head coach Tony Dungy  [4] tweaked the standard “Cover 2” defense used by many NFL teams and created what is now called the “Tampa Cover 2” or just “Tampa 2” defense. [5] But all of that was in the future when Carroll met Kiffin at the University of Arkansas. The two men would go on to become fast friends with Kiffin becoming something of a mentor for the much younger Carroll.

Defensive genius Monte Kiffin

Defensive genius Monte Kiffin

It was Kiffin who imparted to Carroll what would be the next significant milestone for Pete on his route to becoming a top flight head coach. During one of their many talks, well before Carroll had entered the ranks of NFL coaching, Kiffin told him of the importance of having a philosophy to go by:

“In order to be successful,” Kiffin said, “you must have a consistent philosophy. If you change who you are from year to year you’re never going to be great at anything.”

Kiffin then pulled out a piece of paper that had no more than five or six sentences on it and read it to Carroll. Those five or six sentences were the personal coaching philosophy of Monte Kiffin, which centered around and emphasized the need to always play with great energy as well as discipline. It was then that Pete Carroll realized that if he ever wanted to achieve his coaching goals, at some point he too would “…have to stop just collecting pieces and develop a philosophy of my own.”

Following a short stint at Arkansas Carroll took a position as a secondary coach at Iowa State under Earl Bruce. When Ohio State’s iconic head coach Woody Hayes finally stepped down following the 1978 season Bruce was tapped as his replacement and Carroll went to Ohio State with him. That year the Buckeyes made it to the 1979-80 Rose Bowl which they lost, ironically, to Carroll’s future employer, the USC Trojans. The next year, when Monte Kiffin took the job as the head man at North Carolina State Carroll joined him as defensive coordinator and served three seasons for Kiffin in that role. In 1983 Kiffin left NC State for the NFL. Meanwhile Pete’s old friend Bob Cope got the head coaching job back at the University of Pacific and Carroll returned to his alma mater as Cope’s assistant head coach and offensive coordinator. By the end of that 1983 season Carroll felt that he, too, was ready to make the jump to the NFL and took a job for the 1984 season coaching defensive backs for the Buffalo Bills. Pete’s career as an NFL coach was underway.

Coaching football was a natural fit for Carroll. As he says in his book:

“I loved everything about the coaching life—the strategy, the tactics, the focus, and the pace. I loved the tight-knit intensity of coaching a position group, and in my close relationship with the guys I coached, I guess I developed—for better or worse—a reputation for being a ‘player’s coach.’ / Not everyone saw that as a positive, but I always felt it was important to have a relationship with the players I coached.” 

Along the way, as can be seen from Pete’s early college coaching career, he had the opportunity to learn from some of the all time greats in the profession. That pattern would continue in the NFL when Pete left Buffalo after one season and went to work in 1985 as a defensive backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings and head coach Bud Grant. [6] Carroll spent only one season under Grant, but in terms of his coaching education he made the most of it. With reference to Grant, Pete says that his example “…taught me more about the art of coaching, leadership and the importance of observing human behavior than any graduate class ever could.” 

Hall of Fame Coach Bud Grant

Hall of Fame Coach Bud Grant

Coach Grant, according to Carroll, “saw what was happening in front of him so much more clearly than anyone else.” This ability at times allowed him to predict things on the football field with uncanny accuracy. Carroll relates a time during the ’85 season when the Vikings were playing the San Francisco 49ers, the Super Bowl winners the previous year. The night before the game in a team meeting Grant told the players that the 49ers were a great team but that they were used to winning easy. That strength, Grant said, would be their weakness. They had so much productive offense and scored so much they simply were not accustomed to playing a close game. He told the players that if they could keep the game close, “…we’ll beat these guys in the fourth quarter.” 

That’s exactly what the team did. Entering the fourth quarter the Vikings were trailing the 49ers by a touchdown. Minnesota had just scored and was now kicking off to San Francisco. Carroll was listening on the headset as Grant called the kickoff team together. Pete states that Grant confidently told his kicker to, “Kick it to number twenty-six. Kick it to twenty-six, he’ll fumble it.”

The kicker did as Grant asked and twenty-six received the kick, headed up field and then, exactly as Grant had predicted, coughed up the football when he was hit by a Vikings player. Minnesota recovered the ball at the fifty yard line. It was an unbelievable moment and the whole team went nuts; all except Bud Grant who calmly stood there with a smile on his face. For Carroll it was not just a lesson in the power of observation, but a lesson in the importance of staying positive and having clear intentions; points he would come to emphasize repeatedly as his career unfolded.

Carroll coached with the Vikings for five seasons, his longest stretch with one team to that point in his career. In 1990 he left the Vikings and joined the staff of the New York Jets as head coach Bruce Coslet’s defensive coordinator. Becoming the defensive coordinator for an NFL team was a definite step up for Pete and he approached the job, “…with the same spirit I had approached every other opportunity in my career. We worked as hard and competed as much as we possibly could, and felt grateful to have the chance to do it.”

Following the ’92 season the Minnesota Vikings head coaching job opened up and Carroll interviewed for the position. While he lost out to Dennis Green for the post, Carroll realized in the process that head coaching was where he ultimately wanted to be and set the task of becoming one as his goal. It was a goal that would not take long for Pete to realize. Following an 8-8 record during the ’93 season the Jets fired Bruce Coslet and after a short search elevated Pete Carroll to the job of head coach. It had taken him twenty years of coaching to get there, but at the age of 43 Pete had finally arrived at the zenith of his chosen craft. He was the head coach for an NFL team.

In the NFL the position of head coach is not one known for its job security. Carroll realized this of course, but would have it pounded home by his Jets experience. At the time he had developed a number of the elements of his philosophy but had not yet melded it into a cohesive message that he could easily communicate. Nevertheless at his first team meeting with the Jets he made a stab at it. He realized that he had become the head coach because of his success as defensive coordinator and he was not going to change who he was in becoming the head man. He reiterated to the team the points that he always emphasized and that he always tried to exhibit. He told them he wanted them to be, “positive, focused and extremely competitive.” 

He also told the team that they would succeed if they became a single, united team. He wanted them to realize that their collective vision couldn’t be about “not failing” but instead that each coach, player, trainer, in fact everyone in the organization, needed to search within themselves and develop, “a positive approach to winning.” He wanted every person in the organization to realize that they had a role in the team’s success. In the room for the meeting was the team’s 80 year old billionaire owner Leon Hess. While Carroll’s talk went over well with the players, coaches and staff, for some reason it did not resonate with Hess and Carroll would not talk to him again for the rest of the season.

Buffalo Bills Hall of Famers, L-R Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and Jim Kelly

Buffalo Bills Hall of Famers, L-R Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and Jim Kelly

The first game of the season for Carroll’s Jets was against the Buffalo Bills at their home field Rich Stadium. While today the Bills have fallen upon hard times back in 1994 they were coming off four consecutive AFC championships and Super Bowl trips. Their roster was loaded with Pro Bowl and eventual Hall of Fame players like Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Andre Reid and Thurman Thomas. The Jets played a fantastic game that day and in a most unlikely victory defeated the Bills handily by the score of 23-3. Long after the game was over Pete walked back out into the now empty stadium and stood in the middle of the field reveling a bit longer in the great feeling of his team’s accomplishment. It was then, in the quiet of the empty stadium, that he noticed all of the Buffalo championship pennants and banners hanging from the stadium rafters. On seeing them Carroll realized the greatness of the team he had defeated and had the thought that true success was not just in winning a game or even one championship; it was doing it again and again and again, season after season. The ultimate success would be accomplishing a permanent state of winning.

Another key element of what would become Pete Carroll’s personal philosophy was coming into focus.


To be continued…


Copyright © 2013

By Mark Arnold

All Rights Reserved

[1] Tim Gallwey would follow up his seminal “The Inner Game of Tennis” with a series of books stressing his concept of the importance of the “inner game”. Some of them were “The Inner Game of Golf ”, “The Inner Game of Music” and the “Inner Game of Work”.

[2] Lou Holtz is one of the great collegiate coaches in NCAA history.  He is the only college coach ever to lead six different programs to bowl games and four different programs to top twenty rankings. His 1988 Notre Dame team went 12-0 and won the national championship.

[3] When they were coaching together in college Pete’s wife would sometimes watch over Monte Kiffin’s young son Lane. Many years later Pete would hire Lane Kiffin to coach for him at USC, ultimately handing the reigns of the USC program to him when Carroll left for the Seahawks before the 2010 season.

[4] After leaving the Buccaneers in 2001 Tony Dungy became the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts in 2002 where he helped a young player named Peyton Manning develop into one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time.  He set an NFL record in 2008 by leading the Colts to the playoffs, the tenth consecutive season a Dungy coached team had done so, and also was the first African American head coach to win the Super Bowl (2007)

[5] The terms “Cover 2” and “Tampa 2” are really versions of the same defense. The “2” refers to the two “Safety” positions in a standard defensive alignment. In “Cover 2” one safety will have responsibility for defending passes on his side of the field and the other safety his side. The innovation of “Tampa 2” is the role of the middle line backer. In “Tampa 2” once he ‘reads’ pass on a play the middle line backer takes an unusually deep drop to cover the area between the two safeties. To effectively run a “Tampa 2” the middle line backer must be an excellent and fast player.

[6] With 290 career wins between his stints in the Canadian Football League and the NFL, Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant is the third winningest professional football coach in history, trailing only Don Shula and George Halas. Grant is the only coach to lead teams to both the Grey Cup (4 times with Winnipeg) in the CFL and the Super Bowl (4 times with the Vikings) in the NFL.  In his playing days Grant was an excellent athlete, having a brief career as an NBA basketball player before returning to pro football. As a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1952 he caught 56 balls and was number 2 in the NFL in yards gained with 997. He later played in the CFL where he was named an All Star three times. During his college days Grant attended the University of Minnesota and in an ironic side note dated my aunt Elizabeth (Liz) Arnold around that time. My family has deep Minnesota roots extending back through my grandfather on my father’s side.

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9 Responses to Win Forever! The Philosophy of Pete Carroll-Part I—by Mark Arnold

  1. Dennis Munsterman says:

    Great read. I see u read the book. Go hawks as Russell would say. Big game soon. Denns

  2. Steve says:

    Wow, Mark!
    Fascinating and extremely well paced. I can’t wait for the next installment!

  3. Great article! Great timing to write about Pete Carroll and his life work, philosophy and success. Looking forward to more…..

    • Mark Arnold says:

      Thanks Steve! If there ever was a true “mental side of sports” story this is it; the remarkable story of Pete Carroll. Go Hawks!

  4. Clark says:

    Nice read, Mark. Only twice in my years of playing sports did things move in slow motion, and only for a short time. Definitly a bit of out of body thing going on. I’m guessing it happened all the time to the Hall of Famers.

    For fun, you should research the story of Bryshon Nellum. A USC track guy(Carroll wanted him to return punts). I followed his career from a junior in HS, to USC, to being shot, to an Olympic silver medal, to carrying the US flag during closing ceremony in Bejing in 2012.

    • Mark Arnold says:

      Thanks Clark! When I read about the slow motion “time stand still” phenomena in Carroll’s book I instantly thought of the times I had something similar, and I am sure you are right about the Hall of Famers. Would be interesting to talk to them about it. I will make a point of looking up Bryshon Nellum. Sounds like an interesting dude from all you say.

  5. whoah this particular site will be spectacular i adore reading through your articles. Sustain the truly great function! You already know, a number of people need spherical just for this details, you are able to help them enormously.

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