The Belief system.
Three rules: 1. Always protect the team; 2. No whining, no complaining, no excuses; 3. Be early.
Style: Great effort, great enthusiasm, great toughness, play smart.
Beliefs: It’s all about the ball. … Everything counts. … Respect everyone.
Philosophy: Do things better than they have ever been done before.
-- The first level of Pete Carroll’s Win Forever Pyramid.
* * *
SEATTLE – Some years ago, the NFL got Belichicked. You could not miss it. Every second coach, it seemed, grumbled constantly, even after victories. No, they grumbled ESPECIALLY after victories. These Belichicks watched so much film, their eyes blotted red and their faces seemed locked in a permanent squint. They turned their football complexes into little Pentagons, with the highest civilian security clearance needed just to watch a quarterback throw a few warm-up tosses. These coaches wore hoodies. These coaches intimidated. This was the new NFL.
And the new NFL clearly had no use for THIS GUY standing at the microphone.
“We don’t believe in big games,” Pete Carroll is saying.
Oh, Pete Carroll had coached in the NFL before. He wasn’t a bad coach either. His teams won their share. But nobody got him. In many ways, he was the reason the Belichick Era began in the first place. Carroll had a brilliant defensive mind, sure, everybody thought so, but when he became a head coach he was just … so … unfootballlike. Is that a word? He was optimistic and trippy and new-age. He had this soft California way of talking, and he said fortune cookie things, and he was interested in stuff like the potential of the human mind and the power of positive energy and a team as one living organism.
It was kind of weird.
He coached the New York Jets for one year, just one. The team lost their last five games and he was canned. He coached the New England Patriots for three years, and actually had a winning record. But he got canned there too – the owner, Robert Kraft, wanted a football coach who seemed like a football coach. He hired the ultimate version of that vision, Bill Belichick, and together they won three Super Bowls, almost went undefeated one year, and defined how NFL teams would coach and play football for the next decade or so.
And Carroll? “As hard as it is to admit,” he would write in his book ‘Win Forever,’ “I needed those challenges to bring forth my truths, soon to be revealed.”
See, it is stuff like that -- “I needed those challenges to bring forth my truth” – that kind of freaked everyone out. He left the NFL entirely, went to coach at the University of Southern California, and he built a powerhouse team that always had stars and always figured in the National Championship picture. Three of his players won Heisman Trophies (one, Reggie Bush, would return his after allegations or improper benefits were raised).
Believe it or not, Carroll’s success at USC didn’t surprise many in the NFL. No, really, people in the NFL nodded and said that it figured. See, that weird psychological bring-forth-your-truths stuff could work fine in COLLEGE, with those KIDS. That was the perfect place for that stuff. That was exactly where Pete Carroll belonged.
Only now … he’s back here, in the NFL, and he’s standing at the microphone as head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, and they’re Super Bowl contenders, and they’re absolutely loaded, and they’re about to play the defending NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers in a monster game that should help define this NFL season.
“It’s a championship opportunity for us,” Carroll is saying. “Just like last week. It’s no different.”
Championship opportunity? What the heck does that mean?
* * *
Central theme is Competition.
You’re either competing or you’re not.
In a relentless pursuit of a competitive edge.
-- Second level of Win Forever Pyramid.
“The thing about Pete,” Seahawks wide receiver Sidney Rice is saying, “is that he’s always Pete. I can honestly say I’ve never seen him out of character.”
I’m asking Rice why this Pete Carroll thing is working. Rice has been around the NFL for a good while. He has played for tough coaches and player’s coaches and, in college, Steve Spurrier, who is kind of his own category. Rice says he’s never played for a coach even a little bit like Pete Carroll. The guy is relentlessly, even absurdly, positive. He’s constant energy. He never stops being cheerful and enthusiastic and encouraging. Five minutes after going over a mistake you made in a game, he might ask you to play one-on-one basketball.
He also talks in riddles. At the entrance of the locker room, there’s a sign that says this: “To win the NFC WEST, we will sacrifice the easier wrong for the more difficult right. Both on and off the field. Leave no doubt.”
The easier wrong? The more difficult right? Leave no doubt? What the heck does any of that mean?
“I look around this locker room,” Rice is saying, “and I think these guys, a lot of these guys, don’t know how lucky they are. This is the only NFL team they’ve played for. They don’t know that it isn’t like this at other places.”
Like what? Fun, Rice says. Positive. Cheerful. Encouraging. Every other minute, someone is telling you not only that you CAN succeed but that you will. There’s no doubt. You will succeed. There’s no doubt. Your teammate will be there for you. There’s no doubt. Nobody will take the easy way out.
Rice says that every other minute someone is telling you how you will make the play that will win the game on Sunday. The coaches rarely yell. They almost never swear. They are told not to tear players down. Everyone meditates. Everyone is ordered to get some sleep. Everyone is told to imagine themselves in the big moment and to see themselves making the big play.
“Like it?” Rice asks. “What player wouldn’t like it? What player likes being told all the time how terrible they are?”
But … but … this isn’t how coaching works in the NFL. Is it? We’ve seen the NFL Films. We’ve seen the games. Fear. Anger. Aggression. A Jedi might crave not these things, but NFL teams do.
Pete Carroll took over a Seattle team in 2010 that had gone 9-23 the previous two seasons. At the time, many people thought he was a dreadful hire, a desperation hire who was just running away from the NCAA investigations that hounded his USC program. His first team went 7-9 and, absurdly, made the playoffs. Then, they actually beat the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in those playoffs. But it was luck. Pure luck. Everybody knew it.
The next year, the Seahawks went 7-9 again, but this time no playoffs, and, yes, the Pete Carroll experiment seemed to be going exactly the way it had before. His system could only go so far. It would only be a matter of time before this team maxed out – just like in New York and New England – and Carroll would be sent off surfing somewhere.
Only, well, no. Last year, the Seahawks suddenly revealed themselves as one of the most complete teams in the NFL. It seemed to happen overnight. Their defense allowed the fewest points in the NFL. Their secondary – led by first-team All-Pros Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas – dominated opponent’s receivers, especially around the end zone.
The offense, meanwhile, scored 50 points in back-to-back weeks. They averaged more than 30 points in their last nine games. Running back Marshawn Lynch went for more than 1,500 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. Quarterback Russell Wilson became only the third player to post a 100 quarterback rating in his NFL rookie season (the others two: Marc Bulger and Robert Griffin III).
It was like a sleight of hand. The Seahawks were just an ordinary team, going nowhere and then suddenly they seemed to have no weaknesses. They lost a heartbreaker to Atlanta in the playoffs, but almost immediately the Seahawks were installed as Super Bowl favorites in 2013.
* * *
PRACTICE IS EVERYTHING.
Build confidence. Gain trust.
-- Third level of the Win Forever Pyramid.
* * *
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman prides himself on being his own man. He grew up in Compton, and determined that he would make something of himself no matter how other people might feel about it. He made straight A’s throughout school and won himself as scholarship to Stanford. He was a wildly promising college wide receiver who begged to be moved to defensive back. He was a fifth-round NFL draft pick who started as a rookie and became an All-Pro his second year.
He has shouted down ESPN’s Skip Bayless and he has tested positive for the drug Adderall – leading to him saying that lots of players in the NFL use it – and he has feuded repeatedly on Twitter and he reportedly asked Pete Carroll to run up the score against the 49ers last year.
Sherman played for the gruff 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh in college and, of course, plays for Pete Carroll now. I ask him which style motivates him better.
“Myself,” he said smiling. “I believe in self-motivation.”
Then he says this: “But I like Pete’s approach, because it’s always positive. Win, lose or draw he’s going to find the positives in it. I think with any player, nobody likes to be dogged. There’s some hard coaching with Pete, but here they do it in a way where nobody screams, nobody yells, everybody has a positive mindset.”
Everybody talks about this. Everybody seems to have bought in. Reporters roll around the Seahawks facility trying to get someone – ANYONE – to just admit that this game against the 49ers is a big game. Come on, it’s ridiculous. It’s Seattle against San Francisco! It’s obviously a big game. It’s an NFC West matchup. It’s a game featuring two Super Bowl contenders. It’s Sunday Night Football.
On top of all that, you have something unique – a rivalry between football teams AND a rivalry between cities. Seattle and San Francisco have been fighting for their place as the symbol of America’s future. Microsoft vs. Apple. Pearl Jam vs. Metallica. Starbucks vs. Ghirardelli. Amazon vs. Google.
But nobody will say it’s a big game. It’s a Pete Caroll thing. He just doesn’t believe in big games. Coaches often try to tamp down big game expectations – “We just play who they put in front of us” – but few believe it, and nobody seems to take it to the extremes Carroll does. To admit it’s a big game is to cut into the very philosophy he espouses – a philosophy without big games, without ups and downs, without good days and bad days. In Pete Carroll’s perfect world, there is just daily excellence.
“Next week will be just as big,” he insists. “That’s not to make light of anything. That’s just the way we look at it. I don’t expect everybody to understand or comply with that. That’s just the way we do it.”
They really do it this way. You know this because everybody says the same things – often echoing Carroll’s very words.
“Every time we step on the field, it’s a championship game for us,” quarterback Russell Wilson says.
“We think of every game as a championship opportunity,” wide receiver Golden Tate says.
“Each week brings its own challenge, that’s what’s awesome about the NFL,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn says.
Ah, but then there’s Richard Sherman. He does not conform. He does not blindly follow. A reporter asks him to describe the significance of the upcoming game, and Sherman’s face changes, and he talks like he’s a spokesman, and he says, “Well, this matchup involves two great teams with great respect for one another.” Then he breaks out of character, and he laughs and shakes his head and says, “Naw,” and he laughs again, and now he will give us the real thing.
“No, but really it is a great matchup,” he says. “A lot of great players.” And he moves on to another question.
* * *
Confidence and trust lead to focus.
“KNOWING YOU’RE GOING TO WIN.”
-- The top level of the Win Forever Pyramid.
* * *
There have been NFL coaches who spun positive, of course. Tony Dungy was positive. Marv Levy was positive. Bill Walsh was more of a teacher than a hard-edged disciplinarian. But it has been the tough coaches – Vince Lombardi, Paul Brown, Chuck Noll, Tom Landry, Bill Parcells, Belichick, Jim Harbaugh – who have carried the day and defined the league.
Anyway, none of the other coaches took this positivity to the extreme that Carroll does. He talks about being positive every day. It is central to everything he does. He preaches relentlessly about abandoning fear and trusting each other and never treating one game, or one practice, or one play as more important than any other.
“The mind is a strange thing, men. We must begin by asking, ‘What is losing?’ Losing is a disease, as contagious as polio. Losing is a disease, as contagious as syphilis. Losing is a disease, as contagious as … now I want you to imagine you are on a ship, gently rocking …”
No, wait, sorry, that’s not Pete Carroll. That’s the weird psychological witch doctor they hired to help the New York Knights break their losing streak in “The Natural.” But it sounds a bit like Pete Carroll. You might remember, Robert Redford walked out on that talk in the movie, and we cheered him for it.
Then, it’s not EXACTLY like Pete Carroll because he never talks about losing. He talks only about winning. “Knowing you’re going to win,” is at the very top of his coaching philosophy. It’s a state of mind, and everything he does is geared to getting his players into that state of mind.
And, it seems, the players get it.
“I try to be the calm in the storm,” Wilson says.
Of course, Carroll learned much of what he now knows from UCLA’s legendary basketball coach John Wooden. He read Wooden’s books while coaching and failing at New England. Wooden’s pyramid of success was obviously the model for Carroll’s Win Forever Pyramid. But more, it was Wooden who inspired Carroll to coach from his own heart. He had tried to mesh his own beliefs about competing and winning and success with what people seemed to expect from a pro football coach. It got him fired. He tried to temper the wild and strange thoughts going on in his head so that he could connect with his players. It got him fired too.
And so, he let go of all of it. It hasn’t all been joy and victories. There are a lot of people who don’t like him. His USC program was put on probation just after he left and there will always be people who think he got out of town one step ahead of the sheriff.
His team has had more players suspended for PED use than any other team. People have pointed out that while he preaches loyalty and trust and family, Carroll will aggressively release players to gain small advantages with the salary cap. This offseason, he released one of Seattle’s most beloved players, Michael Robinson. And there are plenty of people who see the whole thing as an act.
But in the end, what does it matter what anyone else thinks. In Seattle, nobody seems to care about that. Winning helps, of course. But, basically, in the locker room, you have a bunch of players who love this stuff, who would not trade teams with anybody else. Pete Carroll’s Win Forever system is supposed to end with players being so relaxed, so happy, so confident, that they know they will win. Fear is gone. Fury is gone. Last week is gone. Next week is too far away. Believe. Compete. Practice. Perform. And all that’s left is the hunger for a championship opportunity and the certainty, absolute certainty, that the team will win.
“If you feel like you played the worst game of your life,” Sherman says. “he’ll make you feel like you had a decent game.”
“As a player,” he adds, “you can’t help but love that, right?”