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But now, as the USC faithful look at Carroll's legacy, they might wonder if his rose-colored glasses were a prop. Sure, they all went along for the joyride while Carroll's teams went 97--19, owned the Pac-10 and won two national titles, but didn't Coach Feelgood suspect something sinister in the machinery? This see-no-evil approach led to the NCAA's smackdown of the Trojans on June 10 over the relationship between Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and a fledgling sports marketer while Bush was a running back from 2003 through '05. The marketer allegedly wooed Bush by giving him cash, a car and free airfare and his family a rent-free house.
The NCAA punished USC's football program harshly—a two-year ban on postseason games, the loss of 30 scholarships over three years, probation for four years and the annulment of 14 victories from December 2004 through the '05 season—and the BCS may yet wipe out the Trojans' '04 national championship. (USC's basketball program was also sanctioned, for violations involving the recruitment of O.J. Mayo in 2005.) "Elite athletes in high-profile sports with obvious great future earnings potential may see themselves as something apart from other student-athletes," the NCAA report said. "Institutions need to assure that their treatment on campus does not feed into such a perception."
It should be noted that the NCAA, like the rest of America, was aware that Carroll's practices looked like celebrity reunions, with everyone from Will Farrell to Snoop Dogg to O.J. Simpson invited to watch. It seems disingenuous for the NCAA to rebuke these I [hearts] L.A. practices while it profited from USC's visibility and high TV ratings. That said, there are compliance issues here. Throughout its 67-page report, the NCAA hammered USC for its reluctance to monitor its star players, and it's true: Carroll refused to dust people for fingerprints every time they approached his stars. He didn't see a problem—or wouldn't see a problem.
This selective vision was clear in Carroll's YouTube response to the NCAA sanctions, which he released through his Twitter page on June 10. "I never, ever thought it would come to this," Carroll said. "The agenda of the NCAA infractions committee took them beyond the facts, and the facts don't match the sanctions. ... I feel terrible for the Trojan family that we have to go through this, but as always we'll be strong and keep our heads. ... Fight on."
At no point during the two-minute, six-second video did Carroll accept responsibility for failing to shoo the Gucci-wearing flies away from his players. Like USC athletic director Mike Garrett, Carroll claimed the NCAA enforcement committee was motivated by envy, as if its members were UCLA operatives. During the many hours he spent testifying at NCAA hearings in February, Carroll denied knowledge of any wrongdoing, according to the report. "Listen, what we know now is different from what we knew then," Carroll says at the Seahawks' complex, leaning forward for emphasis. "Reggie Bush wasn't Reggie Bush when he was a sophomore [in 2004]. Now you look back—the second pick in the [NFL] draft, a Super Bowl champion—but he was competing for a job as a sophomore. People ask, 'Why wouldn't you have known this or that; why didn't you anticipate this or foresee that?' He wasn't that Reggie Bush then." Carroll fails to note that Bush set a Trojans freshman record for all-purpose yards in 2003, and during his sophomore year he finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting and was named the team's MVP.
Now that Carroll's aura has been buried in USC's equivalent of Pompeii, he asks everyone to remember how great, how much fun, how authentic his run was. Don't throw all that away, he pleads, because of a misguided NCAA punishment. "I know what we did," he claims. "I sleep very well at night." Maybe that's the best way to face the rain of ash: eyes closed.
The truth is that much of what the glorious Trojans teams achieved under Carroll has been branded with an asterisk. "Anytime something like this happens, there is a taint on a legacy," says Dallas Sartz, a captain of the 2006 Trojans who played linebacker in the NFL for two seasons and is now an assistant at UC Davis. "It may change the way some people think about Coach Carroll and the team, but we beat who we played. He coached the best team."
Carroll coaxed victories out of his players partly by using sing-alongs, juggling competitions and Punk'd-style pranks to bring them together. "I'll always be grateful to have been at SC," says Sartz. "It was the time of my life. I learned a lot from Coach Carroll. He's a great mentor. He's all about enthusiasm, being positive, seeing the glass half full."
In the minds of some Trojans boosters, Carroll hit I-5 north toward Washington just as the storm began rustling the palms of Southern California. "That's why, after all those years of [NFL] teams pursuing him, miraculously he's in Seattle," alumnus John Morea told the Los Angeles Times at a booster dinner the day the sanctions hit. But Carroll claims he never believed the worst was coming. His friends say he was sure the damage to USC would be minimal. "The investigation had zero, zero bearing on what I chose to do," says Carroll. "I never thought I was going to leave. This [Seattle offer] came out of the blue. I never imagined I'd have this kind of opportunity to go back to the NFL." Maybe the most powerful ally of optimism is denial.
Carroll played ragtime piano at the Patriots' family days in the late '90s. He brought life to every party. Sometimes, after long days at training camp at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I., Carroll still had energy to burn. He would slip into the campus auditorium, settle into the piano bench in the orchestra pit and begin jazz riffs. "He wasn't afraid to be a different kind of coach," says Steve Sidwell, Carroll's defensive coordinator at New England. Carroll was at ease being the outlier in a career full of one-dimensional men: He didn't eat and sleep on his office couch; didn't demean or threaten his players; didn't fret over minutiae. He went to movies, played harmonica, cruised the countryside in a gold Jaguar. The Sunshine Boy was easy to be around, which was just what Patriots owner Robert Kraft had longed for after inheriting the indomitable Bill Parcells, one part legend, two parts mule's behind.