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Why Is This Man Smiling?
June 28, 2010
The NCAA just burned USC for violations on his watch, but Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is still full of cheer. Or is it denial?
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June 28, 2010

Why Is This Man Smiling?

The NCAA just burned USC for violations on his watch, but Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is still full of cheer. Or is it denial?

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The defiant clouds over Seattle part for the Sunshine Boy, a force of natural light that blinds as much as it reveals. Never mind the sun damage that Pete Carroll inflicted on the USC football program—the elements in the Great Northwest don't ask questions. On this spring day the sky over Lake Washington turns blue to greet him, a bald eagle alights on a utility pole a few feet from the practice field to watch him and a crowd of Seahawks employees gathers to buy into him. "I invited them," says Carroll. "I asked [team CEO] Tod Leiweke if we could shut the building down for them so they could come out and see what we're doing."

If Carroll noticed the resident of one of the houses across the lake sitting in his backyard with what looked like binoculars, he didn't seem to care. You can bet Bill Belichick would have had the eagle tagged, the lake houses evacuated and secretaries obliged to sign nondisclosure agreements. But that's not Pete. He is the Uncola of coaches: secure, self-aware, an innovator and renaissance guy who courts celebrity with the interactive savvy of Ashton Kutcher. "Hollywood," as some Seahawks good-naturedly refer to their extroverted new boss, has about 400,000 followers on Twitter. "He's a texting fool," says Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. A day after Carroll jarred USC by bolting for the Seahawks in January, he hit send on his first text to Hasselbeck. It went something like this: We'll turn this team around. Need you to buy in. I promise it works. Just saw Avatar. 3-D. Awesome!

There is an endearing enthusiasm to Carroll, a quality that won over recruits and pissed off his more dour counterparts during his nine-year revival of USC. "Never did I think of it as a negative," Carroll says. This seemingly naive spirit also helped him rationalize his failures in his first two tries as an NFL head coach: He was the young victim of an aging, impatient Jets owner in 1994, and from 1997 to '99 in New England he was perceived as the court jester who replaced the domineering Bill Parcells. Each firing led to soul-searching—internalizing a book by John Wooden, gaining solace from the song Growin' Up by Bruce Springsteen—but Carroll remained certain of one thing: He wouldn't go changing to please anyone. "I'm confident in who I am," he says. "That's the great thing about [being] here. They didn't ask me to change anything about the manner in which I operate."

Seahawks owner Paul Allen needs Carroll's lightness of being. Allen can buy anything—he has a habit of throwing his Microsoft fortune at sinking oddities, such as a yellow submarine and the 2003 Trail Blazers. By paying Carroll almost $33 million over five years, the billionaire is buying hope. "Our owner deserves that, with all he's been through," says Leiweke. Allen has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and has been undergoing chemotherapy, but he has spent time with Carroll throughout his first few months with the team and has been charmed by him.

Carroll's not interested in just winning hearts and minds. "I think what Pete wants is to compete at the highest level," says Leiweke. "He wants to show he can succeed in the NFL in a way that is true to him." In Carroll's Up with People world, the audience at that Seahawks practice—sky, eagle and staff—was participating in a séance to lift a moribund franchise with happy thoughts. "It's a mentality, it's a belief, it's a culture," Carroll says. "It's what we started at SC." He mentions SC a lot—reminiscing, ignoring the bad stuff, as if paging through a yearbook. Good times.

At 58, with a healthy head of gray hair, Carroll seems ageless as he preaches his pumped-and-jacked gospel in the camp-counselor wear that has come to define him: hoodie pullover, khakis, tin whistle. Over the years the hue of the hoodies has changed, but the pants haven't. A Seahawks staffer keeps 20 pressed pairs of khakis in Carroll's locker. "I think of them as the ultimate utility pant," Carroll says. "You can work out in them, coach in them and look like you kind of tried around the office."

Carroll has an upbeat take on every topic; his motivational proselytizing makes him the Joel Osteen of football. Like the feel-good evangelist, Carroll is an author. His forthcoming book is titled Win Forever: Live, Work and Play Like a Champion. It's bound to read like coaching soup for the soul, but those who build a following on faith are bound to be held to a high standard of righteousness.

For nine years Carroll was seen as a savior at Southern Cal. When he arrived at USC, a school demoralized after a five-year football slump, skepticism abounded. The phone banks were shut down by angry calls asking what the hell Carroll knew about college recruiting. Winning cured that. Carroll also hit town as gang violence was on the rise. His night visits to Watts and his assistance in developing the nonprofit group A Better L.A., helped tamp down violence. He even fielded blind-side hits with grace. Last December, Charlie Weis, who had just been fired by Notre Dame in part because he couldn't beat USC, aimed a haymaker at the pretty face of his rival. "I'm scrutinized when I swear," Weis complained to the website, but Carroll wasn't for "living with a [female] grad student in Malibu."

Carroll—a father of three whose wife, Glena, is always at his side—was stung. "I was really, really disappointed in [Weis], but I'm not going there," he says by way of response. "Are you a target if you succeed? Yes. But in a way, and maybe this is a bright way of looking at it, that's respect."

Now that's a beachcomber with a metal detector for silver linings. Whatever anyone thinks of Carroll's Kumbaya outlook, it's never been an act, even when he lived in the land of actors. "There is no darkness here," Carroll says. "I'm not that way. It's no accomplishment; it just comes easy to me to be optimistic. I really do think something good is about to happen."

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