The transition from college to NFL had not been done successfully since Jimmy Johnson in the late '80s. And there was no shortage of attempts. From Butch Davis to Steve Spurrier to Nick Saban, there was a twenty-plus year run of coaches who enjoyed unprecedented success in college failing miserably in their opportunities in the NFL.
So when Pete Carroll left USC to become the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks in 2010, the news hardly made huge waves. More people viewed it as a dump and run situation in which Carroll was leaving USC after being involved in numerous NCAA violations, avoiding the sanctions that were sure to come.
The punishment was harsh, and the team struggled under his replacement Lane Kiffin. But rather than give Carroll credit for his coaching prowess, critics were quick to dismiss USC's run of success as a product of improper player benefits; essentially calling Carroll and his program cheaters.
Carroll pressed forward, accepting the Seattle position with the opportunity to build a team according to his own vision and blueprint.
The team hired John Schneider as general manager primarily because he shared that vision, and it was evident from their first draft. The first two years in Seattle did little to change Carroll's reputation as a rah-rah college coach whose philosophies did not translate to the NFL.
In 2010, they went 7-9 but still won the division, setting an NFL record for worst team to host a home playoff matchup. They did win that game, however, beating the defending champion New Orleans Saints in a contest that was defined by an unforgettable touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch, who had been acquired in a midseason trade that season for a fourth and a fifth round pick.
Beast Mode was one of many brilliant acquisitions by the Seahawks during the Carroll/Schneider regime. Their first draft in 2010 netted Earl Thomas and Russell Okung in the first round, both future Pro-Bowlers and cornerstones on offense and defense. They also took Golden Tate in the second round, a major contributor on offense and special teams, as well as Walter Thurmond and Kam Chancellor in the fourth and fifth rounds respectively. That is three-quarters of the now-legendary Legion of Boom in a single draft.
Thurmond replaced Brandon Browner, a CFL import currently serving a suspension, as one of the starting cornerbacks this season. The following year they drafted Richard Sherman in the fifth round, building a secondary unlike any other in the NFL. To compete with the bigger and more physical receivers an increasingly pass-happy NFL, Carroll decided to build a defensive backfield with even bigger and more physical players.
Constructing his defense from the outside in, Carroll began focusing more on the front seven in the later rounds of the 2011 draft. He took linebackers K.J. Wright and future Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith in the fourth and seventh rounds in 2011, then later selected Bobby Wagner in the second round in 2012, after selecting pass-rushing defensive end Bruce Irvin in the first.
Irvin was one of several picks that was questioned by draft pundits, but Carroll and Schneider stuck to their plan, and the results slowly started to become evident. Another 7-9 finish in 2011 put the Seahawks under the radar going into 2012, but the pieces were in place. They just needed a little more from the quarterback position.
Seattle GM John Schneider had his eye on Russell Wilson from Wisconsin for many months, and it did not take long to convince Pete Carroll that he was their guy. Some experts rated Wilson as highly as the other quarterbacks that were the consensus top two picks, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, only Wilson was a few inches shorter, which made a huge difference in the eyes of draft evaluators.
Schneider and Carroll saw this as an opportunity to get the quarterback they wanted at a bargain basement price. When he slipped to the third round, the Seahawks pounced on Wilson and the rest is history. He earned the starting job in training camp, beating out high-priced free agent acquisition Matt Flynn in a decision that few coaches other than Carroll would have had the guts to make, especially in his third season when his coaching seat was getting hotter.
Things really didn't take off for the Seahawks until late in the 2012 season. Wilson showed some flashes, but the team struggled on the road and the passing game struggled with a lack of reliable weapons and numerous dropped passes. But Wilson never pointed any fingers and maintained a steady demeanor as the quarterback and leader of the offense, and Carroll never lost confidence in his young quarterback despite some calls to bench him for Flynn.
In reality, they did not need much from Wilson. While building a top-notch defense, Carroll did not ignore his offense, drafting two offensive linemen in the first round in 2010 and 2011. They would focus their offense around the talents of Marshawn Lynch, as Wilson learned and grew into his role on the job.
By late season, coaches and fans knew they had something special in Wilson. He singlehandedly carried them to victory over a formidable Bears team in Chicago, which would prove to be the difference in reaching the playoffs that season. He led them to a road victory in Washington in the opening round of the playoffs, and played tremendously well in a loss to the Falcons in the divisional round, when a valiant comeback attempt fell short. The Seahawks surpassed all expectations for the season and finished with as close to a moral victory as possible.
They were already considered among the Super Bowl favorites going into the following season, despite playing in the same division as the talented and former NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. And this was before they acquired Percy Harvin in a trade with the Vikings and added Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to their defensive line.
Once they crushed the 49ers in Week 2 of the 2013 season, the statement was made. The NFC West, and the entire NFC goes through Seattle. They did not disappoint, securing home field advantage and ensuring any opposing team would have to win in front of the rabid fans in Seattle to reach the Super Bowl.
The rivalry between the Seahawks and 49ers reached a boiling point in the NFC Championship game, in which the Seahawks rallied back to victory and Richard Sherman made the game-clinching play to seal the victory. Sherman is a Stanford graduate, who played under 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh in college, but was also recruited by Pete Carroll during his USC years.
Carroll's understanding of athletes from a young age has served him well in the NFL, but that is no substitute for talent evaluation. Sherman was a converted wide receiver in college and Harbaugh allegedly told him he had no NFL future, Carroll saw it differently. Sherman has 20 interceptions over his first three seasons and is widely considered to be the best cornerback in the NFL. It is no surprise that Carroll was voted by NFL players in a recent poll as the coach they would most like to play for.
Carroll has also influenced other coaches to make the same jump to the NFL. Harbaugh did so in 2011, and it was less of a surprise that he enjoyed instant success with the 49ers. Another former Pac-10 coach Chip Kelly joined the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013 and installed his offensive system and led them to an NFC East title.
The stigma of hiring college coaches is completely gone now, and Carroll rarely gets any credit for that. Now that he has a dominant Super Bowl victory under his belt, maybe Carroll will finally get his due as a brilliant football mind at any level.
With each passing year, it is becoming more evident that his team's struggles in his earlier NFL coaching opportunities were the result of owner impatience or personnel shortcomings, not his coaching ability. Carroll's emphasis on competition at every position and positive encouragement is a blueprint that can be used by coaches all over the country.