Pete Carroll's first Super Bowl: A trip two decades in the making

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- It was a notorious NFL coaching shaft, a premature termination on par with the final scene from the last "Sopranos" episode.

Nineteen years ago, Pete Carroll was his era's version of Rob Chudzinski, a one-and-done head coach whose dismissal caught him and virtually everyone else off guard.

After beginning his first season as an NFL head coach with so much promise in 1994, guiding the New York Jets into playoff contention by Thanksgiving, Carroll dropped his final five games -- starting with a loss marked by Dan Marino's infamous *fake spike* touchdown pass at Giants Stadium -- and got deep-sixed by owner Leon Hess after finishing 6-10.

The news came shortly after the regular season ended. At the press conference to announce the hiring of Carroll's replacement, Rich Kotite, Hess infamously declared, "I'm 80 years old. I want results now."

As Carroll prepares to return to the scene of the crime, coaching the Seattle Seahawks against the Denver Broncos in a Super Bowl XLVIII showdown that will take place a few hundred yards away from where the venue the Jets once called home used to stand, he predictably winces at the memory.

"It was a mess," Carroll recalled last week, during an interview that will air on NFL Network's "GameDay Morning" before Sunday's game kicks off at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. "It was a mess. You know, we never really got started, and the ownership didn't see it like there was any future there. (It) was a big shock."

If Carroll is deriving any vengeful satisfaction from coming back to the Big Apple, nearly two decades later, in a far more secure and accomplished phase of his career, he isn't voicing it. And really, he doesn't have to, for history has borne him out.

Hess, who died in 1999, saw his Kotite fantasy implode, as the team went 3-13 and 1-15 during a two-season reign of error. Having been shut out of a 45th consecutive Super Bowl this season, the Jets remain in search of their first AFC championship.

Carroll, meanwhile, won a pair of national titles during a phenomenal nine-year run at USC and is one victory away from securing a first Lombardi Trophy for the Seahawks. And though he has certainly evolved over the past two decades, a stretch that included a reasonably successful three-year stint as the New England Patriots' head coach, Carroll is still relying upon many of the same player-friendly, out-of-the-box philosophies he brought to his truncated Jets tenure.

Known for blasting James Brown through the hallways of the Jets' facility during late-night game-planning sessions, Carroll has continued to preach the power of music at the workplace, as I detailed in a column last week.

"Pete himself is an up-tempo, hyped-up guy," defensive end Cliff Avril said in that story. "If your coach is like that, it kind of trickles down, and you can't help but have fun."

Jets players from that '94 season wouldn't be surprised to learn that Carroll's hoops fixation has hardly waned. Back then, Carroll -- the Barack Obama of the NFL -- had a state-of-the-art basketball court constructed next to the team's practice field, often participating in three-on-three games with members of his staff before conducting afternoon interviews with reporters. He frequently bounced a basketball while walking around the team facility.

Now listen to the Seahawks' All-Pro free safety, Earl Thomas, talk about his coach: "He's young ... just his vibe. He's always throwing the football at the basketball goal (near the Seahawks' indoor practice field), and he makes those shots, too."

In December, as the Seahawks staged a walkthrough at MetLife the day before their 23-0 victory over the New York Giants, Thomas and his teammates were treated to an even more egregious display of Carroll's youthful verve.

"We're doing our walkthrough," Thomas recalled, "and we look over there and see Pete lunging into the snow, diving into a snow pile, like a little kid. Who does that?"

In this case: A 62-year-old man who counts as the NFL's second-oldest head coach, behind only the Giants' Tom Coughlin (67).

"Pete's on HGH or something," joked Tarvaris Jackson, the Seahawks' backup quarterback. "He's got a lot of energy. I hope I can move like that at 62."

Added 42-year-old Seahawks general manager John Schneider: "He's young at heart, young in spirit and way more hip with the music scene than I am."

Speaking of, Carroll and Schneider have -- buoyed by the support of owner Paul Allen -- made beautiful music together, turning the Seahawks into a desirable destination for free agents. Creating that type of atmosphere was all part of a plan Carroll developed during his year away from football (in the wake of his January 2000 firing by the Patriots) and subsequent nine-year run of excellence with the Trojans.

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After Carroll was fired by the Jets, the Marin County native landed close to home, taking a job as San Francisco 49ers coach George Seifert's defensive coordinator. Two years later, he got a second head-coaching chance, as Patriots owner Robert Kraft hired him to succeed Bill Parcells, who had bolted for the Jets after guiding New England to Super Bowl XXXI.

It was a tough act to follow -- and Carroll did a reasonably good job, going 10-6 and winning a playoff game in his first season. The Pats made the playoffs again the following year after a 9-7 season, suffering a first-round defeat. He was fired after an 8-8 campaign in '99.

"You look back, we weren't terrible in those days, you know?" Carroll said. "It was just in comparison to being in the Super Bowl the year before I got there. But that was really frustrating, 'cause I was really ready to go, and I wanted to do the things that I got to do later -- but it just didn't work out right. I was just mad, 'cause I didn't get to follow through with it. But I understood, and I couldn't wait for the next chance."

Carroll waited nearly a year, remaining in Massachusetts -- against the advice of a legendary ex-Niners coach with whom he was friendly -- for what turned out to be an awkward sabbatical.

"Bill Walsh had told me, 'You gotta get outta town. Don't stay,' " Carroll recalled. "But we had kids in the school and it was just a hard transition. So we just kinda toughed it out. It was uncomfortable. You know, it would've been nice to just move and get away, but we didn't know where to go at the time."

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One thing Carroll learned quickly: "I didn't like retirement," he said, laughing. "Wasn't ready for that. I was ready to get back, and (there weren't) very many opportunities at the time. I couldn't get people to give me call-backs."

USC finally did, the school ultimately offering the head-coaching job to Carroll, who was believed to be the Trojans' fourth choice. He attacked his new gig with a certainty of purpose, something he traced back to the soul-searching he did during those 10 months of unemployment.

"Oh yeah, (that) year was enormous for me, and it really took a number of months before I dug in," Carroll said. "When I was reading John Wooden's book, that's really when it happened. It really hit me that I needed to get my act together and start all over again. And from that point, all of the philosophy and all of the direction and all of the focus totally shifted. I needed a kick in the butt to get right. And from that point forward, everything's been different."

So, for the record, the experience that propelled Carroll on a nine-year run that restored USC's place among the collegiate elite was reading a book by the Wizard of Westwood, the legendary basketball coach who led the Trojans' crosstown rivals to 10 NCAA titles. I'm sure UCLA fans are thrilled to learn that.

When Carroll came back to the NFL, shortly before the Trojans were hit with NCAA sanctions, he was lured by the promise of being able to build a program his way, as opposed to repeating previous NFL coaching experiences. Four years later, Carroll is one victory away from becoming the third-oldest coach to win a Super Bowl and joining Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer as the only coaches to capture championships on the NCAA and NFL levels.

In other words, he is getting results now -- nearly two decades after he was jobbed out of a job on an aging owner's impulsive whim.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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