The Final Word on Pete Carroll

Dear Trojan Family (and other interested parties) –

There is no doubt that the weekend’s news that Pete Carroll was leaving USC for NFL pastures was a shock to the Trojan community.  Having spent all weekend religiously following what was happening, tapping sources close to the program as best I could, reading every internet report out there (from the very astute folks at uscfootball.com to the cartoonishly stupid Scott Wolf, and everything else in between), I really do feel ready to pen my thoughts on all this, and then put it to bed.  There is a lot being said out there that no sane grown-up person should ever say, and there is also a lot being said that, while probably off base, is certainly understandable as a knee-jerk and fallible reaction.  But I am just going to speak for myself here, and hopefully it will play some role in assisting your own thought process on this ordeal.

(1)   I want to start with this.  I am certainly surprised at the news.  I have essentially attended Monday Morning Quarterback almost every single week for the entire nine years Pete has been at USC.  I have asked him countless questions in that time period, heard him answer countless others, and generally gotten to see a side of him that people who only know him from television have not seen.  One consistent thread has been Pete’s disdain for the culture of the NFL.  He never hid the fact that there was a sense of “unfinished business” there, but he also was so overwhelmingly clear that he was having the time of his life, that it just became a base assumption that he was a lifer at USC.  So yes, this is a surprise. 

(2)   While it is always possible that genuine ignorance exists, the mostly bitterness-driven assertions that “Pete has not been that good of a coach anyways” are absurd to the point of not warranting intelligent discourse.  What Pete has done in the last nine years will never, ever, ever be done again.  It has been the greatest dynasty in the history of college football, and rational predictive instincts lead me to believe they can not be replicated by anyone.  And yes, I am talking about more than the 2002-2005 seasons, though those were surely remarkable beyond words.  I am also referring to the 2006, 2007, and 2008 seasons.  USC was the best team in the country in 2008, and if it were not for one bizarre comeback-coming-up-short against a very good Oregon State team on the road on a Thursday night, we would have run the entire table.  Three Rose Bowl championships in three years after losing the greatest offensive powerhouse in the history of college football (the 2004 and 2005 tandem of Leinart/Bush/White).   Yes, 2009 was a disappointing year, but Pete set the bar so high that a 9-4 season with road wins over eventual Rose Bowl champion Ohio State and rival Notre Dame is considered a “disaster”.  Does anyone think a stretch of 8-0 against Notre Dame could ever be done again?  What about a non-conference record that includes a grand total of ONE loss over almost eight entire seasons (and that loss coming with 16 seconds to go against a phenomenal Texas team)???  Think about that: since the Kansas State loss at the very beginning of 2002, USC beat Auburn (twice), Nebraska (twice), Ohio State (twice), Notre Dame (eight times), Michigan (twice), Illinois, Penn State, Iowa, Oklahoma, BYU, Colorado, Arkansas (twice), and who knows who else I am forgetting.  Not a single loss along the way to a non-Pac 10 team besides that one Texas game.  I can not spend my entire article re-hashing what Pete has done.  What I know is this: He has given us the most incredible run any college football fan could ever dream of, and it is patently absurd and revoltingly revisionist to try and paint it any other way.  7-1 in bowl games the last eight years.  8-1 against UCLA (the vast majority of which were blowout romps).  8-0 against Notre Dame in the last eight seasons.  Four Rose Bowl victories.  Two Orange Bowl victories.  Three Heisman trophies.  And all of this with a continually re-loading coaching staff (the NFL and other college teams have begun their coaching searches with our staff) and an incomprehensible amount of players going to the NFL.  You can not watch the NFL on Sunday without being overwhelmed by USC players.  No matter what we want to feel or say about this departure, Pete’s time at USC has been complete magic.

(3)   As much as it may help soften the blow of disappointment to become angry or bitter at Pete, it is just absolutely unwarranted.  I may regret his decision (and I do).  And I may not understand it (because I sort of don’t).  But he did not hang this program out to dry.  Some high profile coaches have left their teams in recent years after explicitly denying that they were looking at a certain job, and then upon taking the job that they denied an interest in, have never been heard from again (to this day) by those former players.  Pete went to campus today, met with the entire team, and held his press conference on campus.  I understand as much as anyone the incredible frustration felt over the weekend that Pete was “off grid”, and recruits were re-thinking their commitments.  But folks are not being honest if they do not see this thing through a bit deeper.  He did not tell his players that he was never, ever leaving.  He told them the opposite (“if the right thing opened I would look at it”).  He did not deny that he was interested in this job; it never, ever came up until Friday.  I really do understand why people are upset, but I just encourage you all to re-think some of that bitterness. Think of your own job and career and answer if every customer, competitor, vendor, employee, supervisor, manager, subordinate, and potential hire you have worked around would be privy in advance to your exact thinking and considerations and decisions.  I understand the shortcoming of this analogy: 19-year old kids do deserve better treatment from their multi-millionaire coach than you or I may owe our professional colleagues.  And perhaps Pete did play some deception games here and there – the likes of which I would not condone.  But at the end of the day, this is a business, and while that may pain us to say, it is incomprehensible to me that we would begrudge a man the chance to make $7 million per year doing something that everyone has told him he can not do (successfully guide an NFL franchise).

(4)   And that leads me to my fourth point: I also do not believe he will be successful in Seattle.  And in an ugly sort of irony, that is the whole point.  Pete’s single greatest attribute is also the exact foundation of this decision – he is a competitor’s competitor, and he has to know if he can make this thing work or not – for himself.  Would I prefer to see the competitor in Pete channel that drive towards reversing this year’s fortunes, and not letting Harbaugh get the last word in that budding Stanford rivalry?  Yes, I would.  But I am just going to come out and say it – it is not for me to pick what drives another man and his deep competitive fires.  I bleed cardinal and gold, and just can not even comprehend leaving USC for a situation like the Seattle Seahawks.  But Pete gets to make that decision for himself.  Pete’s inner fires are different than ours.  That is his right.  He has earned it.  And while I do not see this thing ending well up there, Pete gets to try it for himself now.  

(5)   So with all this glowing praise for Pete and his legacy, I must really believe the sky is falling, right?  Hardly.  Yes, Pete is going to be sorely missed.  And yes, he is a legend.  But he is not bigger than the university, and his departure does not dampen my enthusiasm for who USC is, and what this program is doing, one bit.  Will the new coach be another Pete?  I doubt it.  But I believe that what Pete has done this decade has sufficiently re-shuffled the deck enough to give us a chance to win for many years to come.  For those expecting undefeated seasons every single year, I do not believe it is fair to provide a respectable reply.  That is an ignorant expectation, and clueless to the point of being historically delusional.  The new coach will not repeat what USC did 2002-2008, but Pete would not be repeating what Pete did 2002-2008 either.  That is the historically sensible and common sense conclusion to draw.  I do not know if our recruiting class will suffer or not from this.  The early indications are that even if we have one or two guys drop out, we are going to have one of the better classes in the entire Pete Carroll era.  The major guys seem to be sticking to their commitments, and the new coach will be reeling a few new guys in.  I have been writing for several years now about the connections between college football and “real life”, and I guess I would just ask all of you to play this analogy out a bit.  How many of you have lives where there are no disappointments, ever?  No letdowns, ever? No imperfections, ever?  The unpredictable nature of life is its biggest challenge, and also its biggest thrill.  We will suffer as Trojans in the coming year or so, and we also have the potential to experience incredible joy and success.  This is the essence of life, I have discovered.  It is not the predictable and expected successes that give us our dignity; it is the comebacks, the beating of the odds, the outperformance, the over-achieving, the rebounding from the truly hard times.  How many of you have had your heartbroken in a relationship before, only to find a far deeper and more meaningful love than you ever thought possible in a future relationship?  How many have experienced a professional disappointment or anxiety that you thought was impossible to overcome, and yet went on to bigger successes than the mind can fathom?  USC may be down for a bit, but does it seem even remotely possible to you that we have been dealt a knockout blow?  Please.  Our new coach is either going to bring in incredible success right away, or it will take a while, or he will prove to not be the guy for the task at hand.  But we are going to do what we have always done: take our shots, give it a go, and fight the hell on.

(6)   So if I am not mad at Pete, and not despondent about our future, and yet also not overly confident in his NFL prospects, what exactly am I?  The answer, my friends, is that I am a Trojan.  I do not know how to do this any other way than to believe our next day will be better than our last.  I can understand the legitimate need to wallow in this for as long as some people need to, but I am actually very excited for what could be an incredible opportunity here.  I do have my own little list of coaches and coordinators I like and don’t like, but I can be patient enough to let this thing play out (and for those insistent that we hire a new coach within the next couple of hours so as to not jeopardize the commitment of a couple recruits, I would simply point out that Carroll kept Shaun Cody, Hackett kept Carson Palmer, and our new coach will end up settling this fracas as well).  These kids are upset, and they have a right to be, but it is myopic to a tragic fault to rush a coaching hire over a couple young recruits.  I want us to keep every good player in this graduating high school class, but I think the most important consideration must be that we get this hire right.  The rest will work itself out.  I don’t know any more than the next guy right now about what direction the university is going in, but I do believe we are going to be really happy with it.  But regardless of who ends up being hired, and in keeping with my theme of college football mimicking real life, I would encourage you all to see the utter futility of being overly encouraged or overly discouraged in any hire.  We just will not know until we know.  No coach, regardless of what his resume says, is sure to be a sure-fire winner.  And no coach, no matter how unknown, is sure to be a flop.  I believe we are a big-time program who ought to be able to hire a big-time coach.  But a three-time Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator just proved to be the biggest bust in NFL history.  A plethora of coaches who excelled at small-time programs went on to big programs and ate humble pie (remember Dan Hawkins when you preach the merits of Chris Petersen).  Is it not possible that some guys are meant to coach mid-tier recruits, and other guys meant to coach top tier ones?  Have you ever seen a manager who excelled at motivating those who had low expectations, yet could not seem to raise the game of top producers?  There is not a single name being floated who is a “sure thing”.  You find the guy who seems and feels best right for the position, who has a passion, who loves the university, who wants to be here for a good, long time, who has the profile of a guy who can win in a program like ours, and you empower him to win.  That is all you can do.  Children want everything to be guaranteed and made certain for them.  Grown-ups know that life does not work that way.  We are going to be fine, but we are going to have to let that play out – even if it follows an unconventional path.

(7)   Do I believe Pete is leaving because we are going on probation?  Nope.  If it comes out that we have bad probation coming and Pete was pulling a John Calipari, will I change my mind?  Sure.  But I know what happened with Reggie Bush, and I know what a joke this Joe McKnight episode is.  This is good media, and more importantly, good chatter for opponents of USC who couldn’t shake their inferiority complex about USC if you paid them to (probably through tax subsidies), but it is not a real story, and it was not a factor in what happened this weekend.  Reggie Bush did not take money, and there is absolutely no proof that he did whatsoever.  Reggie, without any legal obligation to do so, has gone to the NCAA and now said so.  Did his wretch of a step-dad play a situation to get a rent-free house out of it?  Absolutely.  If you think USC is in deep trouble over this, you are fooling yourself.  Obviously any part of this [very, very old] story could change at any time, but I am extraordinarily confident that the sensationalistic yearnings of some rather small people aside, this whole escapade is much ado about nothing.

(8)   This will be my final point, and I believe it to be my most important.  I do not want to be one of those self-righteous little moralizers who uses an occasion like this to foolishly discuss how unimportant football is in the grand scheme of things (though it is surely true that football is not as important as many other things in our daily lives).  But that attitude has always been rather disingenuous, and it ignores the real life lessons we analogize with football in framing its importance to us.  I can not tell you how many people have said things in the last 72 hours like, “are you going to renew your tickets?”, and “have you been staying away from sharp objects and tall buildings?” …  While some comments have been meant in fun, there is a literal culture of people out there who can not even comprehend the idea of viewing this as anything less than a death blow.  Forgive me if I have been hit harder than this before.  To the extent that some of the defeatism is coming from within USC camp, I do confess that I am excited for a purging of the bandwagon that the Carroll era at USC has brung.  Good riddance, my fair-weather friends.  The bottom line is that USC has lost a legend who has done something no coach will ever do again in college football, and USC now has a chance to start a new era with an entirely new coach who generates entirely new success stories.  How exciting is that?  For me, it is too exciting for words!

Goodbye, Pete.  You will never be forgotten.  I do truly hope and believe that you have laid everything out.  I know you have given this all that you had in you.  I know you have cared about these kids, and have produced some amazing men and ball-players over the years.  I wish you well in the NFL, and ask your forgiveness if my focus will not be on what you are doing with the Seattle Seahawks.  For while your heart is now chasing something different, my heart remains in the one place it will always be:

The University of Southern California.  Fight on.  Can’t wait to meet you, [new coach].  You are a lucky man.  You are going to be joining the greatest school and richest football tradition in the country.  You are going to have the time of your life.  Just ask Pete Carroll – he knows.