Outside, it is grey and dreary. It hammers rain through much of the morning.
Inside, at the Seattle Seahawks’ posh practice facility south of the city, between Lake Washington and the drone of constant traffic on I-405, it is Competition Wednesday, and the vibe is electric.
A deejay on the sideline spins B.o.B’s hip-hop hit So Good, at high volume. It’s coming on 2 p.m., special-teams practice wraps up, the offence and defence stretch. A group of players compete in a throwing contest, tossing footballs from the 12-yard line at the centre of the indoor practice field to a grey garbage can in the right corner of the end zone. One player hits it, and cheers go up like it was six points on Sunday.
Welcome to Pete Carroll’s vision for an NFL squad. In a sport known for hard-nosed coaches, Carroll brings a high energy and a philosophy drawn from positive psychology, taking inspiration from Abraham Maslow, the U.S. psychologist who created the five-level “hierarchy of needs,” but also musician Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.
Carroll is demanding, but wants it always to be fun. Competition Wednesday is no idle moniker. He keeps score at practice, the idea being to coax the most from his charges. He throws in prizes. The defender with the most stripped balls wins the head coach’s parking spot. (Backup safety Chris Maragos has won it twice in recent weeks.)
On the practice field, even the head coach wears receivers’ gloves – Carroll loves playing catch at practice and before games. He has imbued his players with a think-positive spirit, underpinned by the maxim “always compete.” In three years running the Seahawks after a legendary run at the University of Southern California, Carroll has overhauled the NFL team and built the foundation of a contender.
These are the Seahawks who arrive in Toronto on Friday by charter flight, ahead of their 4 p.m. game Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.
The Seahawks are 8-5 this year, 4-1 in their last five. They soar at home, 6-0, including a 58-0 thumping of the Arizona Cardinals last week. But Seattle is 2-5 on the road, and its trip to Toronto to play the 5-8 Bills will be an acid test.
In January of 2010, Carroll was hired by Seahawks owner Paul Allen, the Microsoft Corp. co-founder, and given carte blanche to remake the team. There were 284 transactions in the first year alone. Now, Carroll believes his team is in the early years of something big – a heady aim for a team that has yet to win a Super Bowl since it joined the NFL in 1976.
“We want to have a famous run while I’m here,” Carroll said on Wednesday afternoon, in an interview on the field after practice.
“There’s nobody in this program that doesn’t think we’re going to win a world championship,” Carroll said. “There’s not a player here, or a coach, who doesn’t think that’s going to happen. So it’s just a matter of time. I don’t want to talk about that, I never tell anyone that, but that’s what it feels like.”
The two words that guide the 61-year-old Carroll do not literally mean win forever. They are an expression of a personal philosophy that has coalesced over a lifetime in the game.
He started to put it on paper after he was fired by the New England Patriots following the 1999 season. Win Forever – which was published as a book in 2010, becoming a bestseller – is small mélange of maxims and beliefs applied to football:
“Practice is everything.”
“No whining, no complaining, no excuses.”
“Do things better than they have ever been done before.”
The book came out in the swirl of 2010. Carroll joined the Seahawks that January. Five months later, in June, the U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association waylaid USC with major sanctions against the football team and men’s basketball.
In football, running back Reggie Bush had received gifts worth $290,000 (U.S.) from an agent. Carroll was never implicated and has always said he had no knowledge of it.
“It’s really hard to see them struggling,” Carroll said. “I feel every bit of it. I didn’t leave it, like it’s lost and forgotten. It was too big a deal in my life.”
Win Forever came together at USC, but has its roots in all the years before.
A key influence was Lou and Diane Tice, who, in 1971, founded The Pacific Institute, which sells the message of the power of positive thinking. In 1994, in Carroll’s first year as an NFL head coach, with the New York Jets, an assistant heard of the Tices and suggested the Jets staff attend a three-day session. The ideas Carroll heard there were a natural fit for his instincts.
The NFL didn’t fit, at first.
Carroll lasted one year in New York, where he was 6-10, and three in New England, where he was 27-21, and twice made the playoffs. During his run at USC, even with the NCAA sanctions, his team’s dominance ranks Carroll among the college game’s greatest coaches.
Critics still question whether his approach can work in the NFL. Seattle, however, stands at a possible inflection point. Perhaps you don’t have to coach like a fiery volcano and vengeful god to win in the NFL.
“People get the idea if you’re positive that you’re weak,” Diane Tice said. “That isn’t the case at all.”
Tice, a long-time friend of Carroll’s, says he brings creativity to football, and notes he is a skilled pianist and has attempted screenwriting for Hollywood.
In football, she cited an example of what sets Carroll apart: reviewing game film. A coach can berate a player, rewind and play a mistake over and over in front of the whole team. Or a coach can highlight a blown play but try to draw a positive from it, and also highlight other instances of strong play.
The Seahawks’ main film day, generally, is Monday, a day in the Carroll vernacular called Tell the Truth Mondays, which along with Turnover Thursday and No Repeat Friday were adapted from his USC days for the pro-football weekly calendar.
“His approach is different,” said Wally Buono, general manager of the B.C. Lions, who retired as head coach in late 2011 with the most wins in CFL history. “His approach is more the collegiate or high school where it’s all ‘rah-rah’ stuff. But he does innovative things. He’s not afraid to do new things.”
Buono cites two examples.
One, Carroll puts his first-team offence against his first-team defence in practice, which is unusual in pro football.
Two, after having a hole at the quarterback position for Carroll’s first two 7-9 seasons in Seattle, he brought in promising Green Bay Packers backup Matt Flynn last March on a contract worth up to $26-million, presumably to become the Seahawks’ new starter.
But in Carroll’s world, it is always compete, and in late April, the Seahawks drafted in the third round, 5-foot-11 quarterback Russell Wilson out of the University of Wisconsin.
Wilson won the starting job in training camp, and while the first weeks were imperfect, he is now the No. 7 ranked passer in the NFL, helped by a weekly practice against his own team, one of the best defences – especially the secondary – around.
Buono says it is a rare coach who “pays $26-million for a quarterback and starts a 5-11 rookie.”
“It tells you a lot about his confidence,” Buono said, “and his trust and his belief in what he can accomplish.”
The players are all in, and they are constantly reminded to be: Above every door at the practice facility, the indoor field, the outdoor field, the weight room, there’s a sign, “I’m in!”
People thought Carroll’s approach wouldn’t work with veteran pros. He hasn’t forced it, instead crafting one of the youngest teams. It is just like at USC, where Carroll started a freshman at every position during his nine years.
In Seattle, Carroll found a like mind. Hired one week after Carroll, John Schneider became one of the youngest general managers after eight years in Green Bay. Schneider wanted a young team. Carroll agreed.
“John was shocked, because most coaches don’t think that way,” Carroll said. “Most coaches think you get the old experienced guys and sprinkle in the young guys.”
More than half the Seahawks players – 29 of 53 – are 25 or younger. The team’s star, running back Marshawn Lynch, is 26. The most experienced guy is 10-year veteran Marcus Trufant. The 31-year-old cornerback was first coached in Seattle by Mike Holmgren, who took the team to their only Super Bowl appearance, in 2005.
“Holmgren was kind of a throwback coach, a hard-nosed coach, you got to get it done this way. He was a great coach, he was well-respected,” Trufant said in the Seahawks’ spacious dressing room. “Pete is a fun-loving coach. He approaches the game mentally. He gets you thinking in that way, that positive way, doing everything positive, and just getting better.
“It’s all about competition, that’s every day, that’s at meetings, that’s off the field, that’s at practice, that’s all the time.”
‘Our own path’
Outside football, Carroll, in 2003, started an organization called A Better LA, dedicated to reducing youth gang violence in inner-city Los Angeles. There is now A Better Seattle. And next March, Carroll is helping to bring Canadian activists Craig and Marc Kielburger’s youth-empowerment We Day to Seattle, its U.S. debut.
Pete Carroll is not Vince Lombardi. Pete Carroll, in nine years in college football, established himself as a legend. In the NFL, he could be poised to attain the same status.
In a story three years ago, Carroll’s son – Brennan Carroll, who coaches at the University of Miami – called himself and his father “weird.”
As Competition Wednesday shifts to post-practice meetings, Carroll chuckles at the description.
“If Brennan said that, that’s okay with me,” Carroll said, his coach’s whistle around his neck. “We’re not run-of-the-mill, you know. We’re a little bit on our own path. So I can see why people sometimes don’t understand.”