FOXBORO -- Pete Carroll’s a sly communicator.
Don’t be distracted by the breathy enthusiasm and smiling, gum-chomping, ass-slapping sideline persona. You don’t get where he’s gotten and have the success he’s had without having the traits of a cutthroat competitor woven into your DNA.
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What happened during his three-season tenure in New England from 1997 through the first weeks of 2000 left an imprint on him and shaped his course going forward through his reign at USC and then onto Seattle.
He can smile about it now because he didn’t just survive his New England firing; he’s thrived after presiding over a post-Parcells slide that saw Carroll jettisoned after an 8-8 season in 1999. But Carroll believes the autonomy to run his program his way was something Robert Kraft reneged on after hiring him. And it’s obvious Carroll believes it would have been different here if he had the same independence Bill Belichick got from Kraft.
On a conference call with New England media Wednesday afternoon, Carroll said, “When I went into New England, I was really committed to being able to bring the philosophy and do it exactly the way you wanted to do it and be in control of it. It didn’t really work out that way, the way I hoped, until I went back to USC and when I got a chance to be in charge again and be a head coach, I got to see the philosophy through, from the head coach throughout. I thought that was really important, I had learned that along the way.”
Carroll speaks in such a stream-of-consciousness style that I inject myself here to just provide this context.
Bill Parcells’ successful run as Patriots head coach began with him being in charge of coaching, personnel and spending. But after a few free-agent signings in the mid-'90s didn’t pan out, the Krafts felt they needed some checks-and-balances on Parcells’ personnel and financial decision-making. They didn’t want Parcells spending like a drunken sailor on aging free agents and then -- if things didn’t pan out -- hitting the road for a new gig and leaving the Patriots with their pockets turned inside out. So Parcells lost a chunk of his “final say” and the selection of Terry Glenn in the first round of the 1996 draft over Parcells’ protests caused a rift that never healed and led to his departure after Super Bowl 36. The “if they want you to cook the meal, they should at least let you shop for the groceries” line summed it all up really well.
When Carroll was hired, there was what I called a triangle of power structure installed by the Krafts. Andy Wasynczuk did the cap and finance. Bobby Grier did personnel. Carroll would coach the team. Carroll’s rendering of a bait-and-switch being pulled on him by the Krafts is a little disingenuous. They weren’t giving full control in 1997 to a guy who’d been canned after one winning season with the Jets in 1994, no matter how charming and inspiring Carroll was during interviews.
Anyway, back to Pete.
“It’s proven really true to me that at USC I had a chance to do it really the way I wanted to do it and make all the calls and you win or you lose, you fail or you succeed. I felt like that was a really learning illustration for me, coming out of there,” Carroll posited. “When I got the opportunity, I thought I would be at USC forever, because I would never have a chance to have that much control. Then when we came up to Seattle, I was thrilled to see that we were able to take the philosophy from one place to another and go for it in that manner. It worked out.”
Bitterness that Carroll felt toward Kraft and Belichick that existed at the turn of the century has faded. All’s forgiven. It’s not been forgotten. You don’t need a guide to read between these lines and see what Carroll’s driving at.
“I think it’s really awesome to watch New England,” Carroll said. “When Bill got the job there, Robert gave him the chance to take that thing over and run it and do it exactly the way a football guy sees it and the rest has been a great history and a great success story. I couldn’t have agreed with that approach more and I was thrilled to see it happen. I think it’s good for football coaches that we’ve had a chance to show that when a coach runs the whole program and takes charge of it, it’s the best way to do it. That’s a big takeaway and it was a great reinforcement and illustration to watch how Bill did it there. It’s been historic and awesome to watch and I couldn’t have more respect for a guy running a program like what he’s done.”
My first year covering the Patriots coincided with Carroll’s first season on the job. I had conversations with Carroll during his tenure in which he told me he intended to build the Patriots with the same structure the 49ers had. He felt the Krafts only paid lip service to that intention but balked when it came to spending to make it happen.
I asked Carroll if he thought he was going to have more control back in 1997.
“I know I was really naïve to think that based on the way it ended, but I really came in there with that thought,” he admitted. “I thought I was going to bring out ways from San Francisco and do all that kind of stuff. It just didn’t quite work out right and I wasn’t on my game enough to pull that off. It was a great lesson learned.”
In the Krafts’ defense, they had just purchased the team five years before, Robert Kraft was a neophyte owner (still “Bob” at the time) and the Parcells experience left bruises. They weren’t flush with money, either, and were intending to take big chances on getting a new stadium built. The fate of the franchise was too much at stake to let Pete Carroll drive the boat by himself.
The animosity that followed Carroll’s dismissal and Belichick’s installation has long since been put behind all sides. It’s as if all sides realize they are better for having gone through that period, painful though it was for Carroll in particular. Of the Krafts, Carroll said, “They’ve been tremendous since and I have great respect for their family and their connection to putting that program together and how important it was to connect with the community and how they’ve done it. Just the extraordinary success.”
That respect and appreciation didn’t mean that Carroll would pass on his last chance to slip in one more little tweak you had to know the backstory to appreciate:
“My hat has always been off to Robert to give Coach Belichick the chance to do it the way he did and to watch him put together a great program, a championship program.”