Seattle Seahawks

How, why Pete Carroll seeks to forge deep Seahawks bonds within cold, cutthroat NFL

That postgame water dumping and raucous honoring the Seahawks gave Pete Carroll after their latest win wasn’t just a birthday celebration for the ol’ coach.

It wasn’t only a commemoration of his 100th NFL coaching victory, either.

The bonkers scene of 20- and 30-something players mobbing and showering their 68-year-old coach in the visiting locker room at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Sept. 15 was years of appreciation for the relationships the oldest coach in the NFL has worked consistently to create on his teams.

For Bobby Wagner, it was seven years of appreciation for Carroll.

“I’ve always seen that he has a great relationship with the players. When I got here, it was the same thing,” the Seahawks’ eighth-year, All-Pro linebacker said while preparing for Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints at CenturyLink Field. “You would hear from other guys on other teams that it’s not like that anywhere else, and he (Carroll) could be faking it, or whatever. From the moment I’ve been here, it’s been genuine.

“I think that’s what allows him to relate to us because he’s been genuine. He’s honest, and you can tell that he wants to succeed.”

All coaches from little league to Bill Belichick want to succeed.

How has Carroll come back to the NFL for a third try, after New England and the New York Jets fired him in the 1990s, to lead the most sustained run of winning in Seahawks history?

How has he successfully made the transition almost everyone said he could not when arrived in Seattle in 2010 — from national championships and Rose Bowl wins at USC, rebuilding that college dynasty in the 2000s with players who cycled through campus every four or five years — to winning the Super Bowl and NFC West titles?

How has he remained uniquely bonded with Wagner, franchise quarterback Russell Wilson and longest-tenured Seahawks player K.J. Wright since 2011 and 2012?

“I think it’s probably surprising to people that are watching, thinking, ‘How could this guy get along with those guys?’” Carroll said.

Yes, exactly how does a 68-year-old white man from Marin County, Calif. — the Bay Area enclave just north of the Golden Gate Bridge that is one of the most affluent, advantaged areas in the country — relate so effectively with Richard Sherman from Compton, Marshawn Lynch from Oakland, Michael Bennett from Houston, K.J. Wright from Mississippi, Doug Baldwin from the Florida panhandle and Justin Britt from rural, central Missouri?

“I think if there’s a key to it, I understand better how it works relationship-wise,” Carroll said. “We’re a relationship-based organization. That’s the heart of how we operate.

“And that means that to do that, the way I understand, you have to give to the relationship. You’ve got to pay attention. You’ve got to listen, be available when the times are necessary to develop a relationship. Build an understanding. I don’t think it matters how old you are or how young you are. I’m doing it with my grandkids. It doesn’t matter to me, same fashion.

“I do that, caring so much that I’ll do whatever I need to do to make sense to them and help them out. Maybe that’s the connection or element that gives us a chance. I won’t know that it’s an issue until they tell me that it is.”

Some have.

Or at least Sherman and Bennett loudly said to the media on their ways out of Seattle that Carroll’s ways and messages had become stale, that they and other Seahawks veterans began tuning him out after a half-dozen years or so. Bennett claimed he brought a book to team meetings because he’d heard Carroll’s messages so often. This was after Bennett and Sherman won Super Bowl rings and got megabucks contract extensions with the Seahawks.

Carroll and general manager John Schneider fixed the notion of a stale message by sending away those who perhaps thought it got stale. They traded Bennett, their Pro Bowl defensive end, to Philadelphia and waived Sherman, the three-time All-Pro cornerback, in the same spring month of 2018.

“The thing I would tell you about that is that we’ve been through a lot around here. We’ve grown tremendously together and all of that, and changes are inevitable,” Carroll said that April when asked about Sherman’s and Bennett’s assertions. “Sometimes, guys can’t hang with what’s expected, for one reason or another — their growth, their development and all of that.

“And the best thing I can tell you is, that they’re not here.”

The guys that are left bought into what Carroll was selling years ago and still do. Wilson, Wagner and Wright are are all in, to use one of Carroll’s pet phrases.

Yet it’s not that Carroll is so set in his rah-rah, USC ways that he hasn’t adapted in the later years of his decade running the Seahawks.

Wagner, the team’s second-round draft choice in 2012, said Carroll seemed to recognize the need to change his messaging and approach a few years ago, after the foundational players to Seattle’s consecutive Super Bowl teams in the 2013 and 2014 seasons had been in his system for beyond the college-like four and five years.

“When he first came back and was coaching, you could feel that he was used to the college. You got guys for four years and then you move on and get a new crew,” Wagner said.

“We were — myself, Sherm and K.J., all those guys — were together for so long that you could see like his mind kind of shift and see that he was helping young men grow into older men. You could tell, he tried to just start helping us with life outside of football and what is our purpose. Where do we see ourselves outside of playing football?

“To me, I thought that was cool because coming in, you didn’t hear about that. Coaches don’t care about your purpose. Coaches don’t care about what you do after football. For him to just ask that question was pretty cool. And he’s been doing it ever since.”

Carroll took the entire Saturday before a 2017 Sunday game at Tennessee to scrap final preparations to play the Titans to listen to his players’ voices on racial and social inequality in our society — and specifically the players’ raw reactions to President Donald Trump saying that weekend NFL owners should “fire” players who do not stand for the anthem and that any player who doesn’t stand is a “son of a b----” for expressing his views in that way.

Carroll met with his players for hours before that game in their hotel in Nashville to agree on how to word an official team statement the Seahawks issued the next day before kickoff, saying, “We will not stand for injustice.” The entire team, players and coaches, stayed in their locker room instead of on the sidelines for the national anthem that day.

Wilson spoke on the mistreatment of minorities in America. Bennett called the Seahawks not coming out for the anthem “revolutionary.”

Carroll not only facilitated that, he encouraged his players to speak their minds and hearts on the matter. He hugged Seahawks players who were supporters of Trump before that game, to let them know their coach and team supported and respected their beliefs.

He met throughout that season and next with his veteran leaders when they wanted to talk about bettering society beyond football, about Baldwin wanting to meet with state attorneys general to fix the use of deadly force by police officers.

“Because you are a football player you should be grateful and shut up? That’s not what this is about,” Carroll said during the 2017 season. “I think it’s extraordinary that this is happening, and I think it’s a moment that we all can learn what we want to learn out of this. I hope we learn about empathy, to listen, to come to an understanding that someone else feels without passing judgment.”

He routinely brings basketball legend Bill Russell in from his Mercer Island home across Lake Washington to talk to him and the team on lessons in teamwork, leadership and humanity. Russell’s most recent visit to the Seahawks was late last month.

Carroll instituted an incentive for how players travel for games. Win a road game, and veteran Seahawks take the coaches’ first-class seats on the jet back to Seattle. Carroll and the coaching staff have to take the players’ normal seats back in coach class on the team’s chartered commercial airliner.

That’s also why Wagner and the Seahawks celebrated Carroll following last weekend’s win at Pittsburgh.

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Coach Pete Carroll gets drenched by Russell Wilson (3) and his Seahawks teammates in the visiting locker room at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh following Carroll’s 100th NFL coaching victory on his 68th birthday. Rod Mar/Seattle Seahawks

Wilson still marvels over meeting Carroll for the first time, at the 2012 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. Wilson had just led Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl.

“You get a note card, you get a little note card and it says a little number. All of those numbers are like room numbers that you go to, and you don’t know what team it is or anything like that,” Wilson said. “So, you go to that room number, the first team I got was the Seattle Seahawks. And the room was full. John Schneider was in there. (Then-Seahawks offensive coordinator) Darrell Bevell was in there. ‘Tater’ (then-quarterbacks coach Carl Smith) was in there. Coach Carroll. A bunch of people were in there. I remember coach Carroll Just giving me a big hug, ‘Yeah, you’re one of my favorites,’ and this and that.”

Wilson said he spent about an hour and half in that room in Alabama with Carroll and his staff nearly eight years ago.

“I remember leaving that room, and I just remember walking out and said, ‘Man, that’s the team I want to play for,’” Wilson said. “The biggest things about relationships, I think, (is) to be able to connect with people, and ultimately genuinely care about people. I think Coach Carroll genuinely cares about each man that’s ever come into the locker room, been on our team, each person who works here, too, as well. He cares about each player.

“We’ve always had people that want to win, try to do everything they can, and that’s where we all relate. It’s hard to have 53 guys who all think the same way. That’s got to be impossible right? I mean pretty much, but we can all believe in the same thing. That’s the best way to win, how do we win. The fight for that, the determination for that, Coach Carroll demonstrates that every day. I think his consistency is something that makes him a great coach.”

Wilson then brought up two of the coaches with the most championships in college and pro football the last couple decades.

“Nick Saban is one way — he’s a phenomenal football coach,” Wilson said. “Coach Belichick’s another way — phenomenal football coach. Coach Carroll is one of the best to ever do it, and a lot different than us, too. But, the passion to win is what drives everyone.

“What we have here in terms of Coach Carroll has been really special.”

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Pete Carroll (right) hugging Russell Wilson during the 2017 season. The coach and quarterback share like minds on the power and supreme value of mental preparation and positivity. They have shared that, really, since the first time they met 7 1/2 years ago in at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. Elaine Thompson AP

Thing is, Carroll is sharing and listening and relying on personal trust as a bedrock of his program in an ultimately controlling, cold, calculated, bottom-line industry. The NFL by nature and necessity keeps player and coach separate and not equal. Coaches cut players, stop their paychecks and end their dreams on a daily basis.

How does Carroll succeed in forging intimate relationships within a system that is inherently the opposite of what he seeks to do with his players?

“Wow. That’s a great question,” Carroll said, pausing to consider it. “To me, it’s all the same in all areas to me. The decision-making process, the analysis, the observation and the making sense of the observation and acting on it and all that. To me, it’s all the same. It doesn’t matter whether we’re taking about family, or we’re talking about kids, or we’re talking about business, or talking about your house or whatever. Real estate. Whatever you’re dealing with. You’ve got to listen really carefully. ...

“If a guy has to be released, then there’s a tough decision. If a guy has to be (placed on injured reserve), and you have to figure out if you can keep him around or you can’t. All those choices, they’re all human issues that deserve every bit of every ounce of focus I can give to it and care. Whether it hurts me, or I feel bad about having to go through it, I don’t worry about that. It’s hurting their feelings, too. We try to go through it together. ...

“The last part of it is, if you trust the people that you work with like John and I figuring stuff out. I impeccably trust him. When we figure stuff out and we go back and forth and if we don’t agree on it, we keep working until we do. And we will. We know that. Both of us have to give and take. It’s no different with any relationship. Work your way through it because you care so much. Take the time and spend the time.

“In the end of it, it feels good when you do it that way. Even when it hurts.

“Thanks for asking.”

Gregg Bell is the Seahawks and NFL writer for The News Tribune. In January 2019 he was named the Washington state sportswriter of the year by the National Sports Media Association. He started covering the NFL in 2002 as the Oakland Raiders beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. The Ohio native began covering the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl season of 2005. In a prior life he graduated from West Point and served as a tactical intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, so he may ask you to drop and give him 10.
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