Pete Carroll strutted toward the high fence surrounding the team parking lot at Foxboro Stadium. On the other side of that fence was a collection of Patriots media members.
It was January 3, 2000. Carroll’s last day as Patriots head coach. Since he wasn’t getting a goodbye press conference after going 8-8 in the final year of his three-year stint, you could tell by the determined, half-smile on his face he was going to make a statement anyway.
For three years, he’d been kicked around pretty good. He was alternately referred to as "Poodle Pete" and "Petesy." He was derided as a California surfer boy who didn’t “get” New England. He was lampooned for saying in that breathy half-stammer that he was “pumped and jacked,” and he opened one of his first press conferences in his final season with the Patriots by stepping to the mic and warning, “I’m feeling a little dangerous today. Little dangerous.”
He was universally regarded as being in waaaaayyyyy over his head.
Robert Kraft hired Carroll in large part because Carroll was everything Bill Parcells was not. Which made Carroll a target before he uttered his first word.
The media corps was largely made up of card-carrying Tuna devotees because Parcells filled tape recorders. He made life easy on writers and columnists who’d show up, write the same story with different words and then go home. He also restored relevance to a franchise that was the worst in pro sports at the start of the decade and – by 1996 – was in the Super Bowl. He got the whole media to Bourbon Street on the company dime, for God’s sake!!
"Kraft blew it!" That was the prevailing media opinion at the time.
The Poodle would be smoking-gun proof of where the team was headed under Kraft’s stewardship. The owner was maligned as a meddler and credit-grabber and comparisons were that he’d be a 21st century Steinbrenner. Only Kraft would have a Double-A franchise.
Carroll never had a chance. And the same incestuous band of media harpies would flit from one platform to the next, seven days a week tearing Carroll a new one from sunup to sundown.
It was a different time in Boston sports and in Boston sports media. After Len Bias died tragically in June of 1986, nothing “good” happened with any of the four teams. Even seemingly successful seasons ended in controversy and embarrassment (see Clemens, Roger).
Everything was contentious. Everything was mocked. The suck was embraced.
Carroll neared the fence. His 27-21 record over his three seasons as head coach wasn’t enough. Being accommodating to the media and chill with his players didn’t help him. He’d just been fired for the second time in five years. Doubtful he’d get another shot. Probably best if he took his rah-rah act to college. That was the prevailing belief in the media.
Once at the fence, Carroll didn’t make a statement. Instead, he worked his way down the line of media from right to left, shaking hands, making eye contact, moving on. I don’t remember this being a warm moment.
It was more Carroll quasi-confronting everyone, with a hard grip and hard eyes. Almost as if to say, “You screwed me. And you screwed me. And you screwed me…”
He was pissed off. A two-time NFL loser. And he wasn’t just pissed at the media. He felt hosed by Kraft. They told him everything would be first-class, just like San Francisco, where Carroll coached after being canned by the Jets. Next thing he knew, Carroll was getting chewed out for using too many office supplies in Foxboro. (True story!)
Forty-eight years old and out of work. They’d be uprooting the kids in Medfield. The whole thing was kind of a raw deal.
But the half-smile on Carroll’s lips as he went down the line of media said something about his mindset. Actually, Carroll had done something similar the previous day, slapping hands with Patriots fans after the team closed the season with a win over the Ravens. Like, enthusiastically slapping hands. Celebratory.
There was a resolve he was showing. He’d seemingly convinced himself – accurately – that the dismissal wasn’t really about him. And it damn sure wasn’t going to break him. He’d take the money the team still owed him, gather himself, get the right situation and then use everything he learned from 1997 through 1999 to be a better Pete Carroll.
He would not get fooled again.
The Patriots play the Seahawks on Sunday. It’s a matchup of the two oldest coaches in NFL history: 69-year-old Carroll against 68-year-old Bill Belichick, the man that replaced Carroll here.
Both are legends. Both men – and NFL history, really – was shaped quite a bit by that five-year period from 1995 through 2000 in New England.
I asked Carroll on Wednesday what he learned here in New England that he carried with him.
“Oh yeah, there's a lot,” he said in that same shallow-breathed, hyper, half-whisper staccato he’s always had.
“When I was there, I was kind of under the impression that we were going to bring in the 49ers’ system, you know, coming from San Francisco and all of that,” he continued. “And that's not really what happened, you know. The philosophy and approach was really a blend of what it had been and what they had done and all that. So it didn't quite work out the way I had intended it to go in there, so I was frustrated by that. And so when I got my next chance, you know, at USC, I was able to do it the way I wanted to do it."
“In essence, the fact that it didn't work out there really sent me into a mode of uncovering, really the philosophy to, really a greater depth than ever,” he explained. “And we would just think the same for the last 20 years you know, here and at SC. Our approach and mentality and how we treat people and expectations of the program all really developed out of the New England experience.”
I started covering the Patriots the year Carroll was hired. I was 29 and working for the MetroWest Daily News. I usually sat to Carroll’s right during press conferences in a chair no more than five feet away from him. I was fascinated by his mangled right ring finger which jutted in the wrong direction. I was an active participant, asked plenty of questions and worked really hard.
Because he and his family lived in Medfield – our circulation area – I pitched Carroll on a little “slice-of-life” story where I’d meet him in town.
We settled on a time. One of his son’s Little League games. Carroll and his family were leaning on the fence down the left field line. His wife, daughter and another son were there watching as well. I remember asking him about how he divided his time between coaching and family and his answer was something about being “totally present” when he was with his family.
I later realized that my being there was an intrusion on that effort to be totally present. But he’d agreed anyway. Probably because he saw me as a young guy working hard, and what was the harm?
Later in Carroll’s tenure – a Monday after the Patriots lost to an opponent I can’t recall – Carroll turned to me as the rest of the media was still settling into their seats. He asked me, “Do you like it when we lose?”
I was caught flat-footed. I gave a smart-ass answer without really thinking.
“There’s more to write about when you lose,” I smirked.
He looked away and kind of shook his head as if to say, “Even the young guys just starting out are dinks.” At least that’s how I interpreted it.
I wanted to shake Carroll’s hand that day.
I’d thought, just like everyone else, that it was time for him to go. I’d made my wisecracks in print, sure. But that’s the job. Inform, entertain and know what you’re talking about. But still, I liked the guy. I guess I wanted to tell him, “Good luck” or “Thanks…”
Didn’t happen. I got the same curt, firm handshake everyone else got and he was on his way.
I didn’t realize it then but I do now. Pete Carroll knew what we didn’t. That wasn’t goodbye. It was, “You’ll be seeing me again. I promise.”
How right he was.