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A Coach's Decision

Xs and Os come easy. It's whether to ply their trade in the college or professional ranks that wrangles the country's top coaches
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006

A warm sun slants through the palms on the campus of the University of Southern California. Coeds in halter tops glide on bicycles past the football practice field. When a horn pierces the tranquility, a gray-haired man in a red and yellow sweatsuit with a whistle around his neck like a gym teacher begins a sprint toward an end zone. He yells, "Come on, come on, everybody." Four dozen athletes in helmets and practice jerseys follow.

A Man Who Knows Who He Is
The man is Pete Carroll, college football coach. He used to be Pete Carroll, pro football coach, during modestly successful stints with two National Football League franchises. With the New York Jets in 1994, he won six games and lost 10. With the New England Patriots from 1997 through 1999, he compiled records of 10-6, 9-7 and 8-8. Yet since bringing his enthusiastic style to USC for the 2001 season, he has won 54 games entering 2006 and two national championships, assuring himself a place in the pantheon of modern college coaches.

Carroll was at the top of the list when NFL teams went looking for new coaches last year. Never mind that his professional record was 33-31. The San Francisco 49ers offered a $20 million package. The Houston Texans dangled something similar. Either would have given Carroll the chance to prove he can succeed as an NFL coach.

Instead, he signed a contract extension—reportedly for five years—at the end of last year and pronounced his curiosity about the NFL sated. "People think I'm the likely guy to go," he says. "Check with the guys who haven't been there before."

Carroll has an ebullient personality. He's candid, energetic and upbeat, not safe and guarded like many football coaches. In college, where players are young and impressionable, such a temperament serves as a strength. In the NFL, he was perceived as quirky, too much of a cheerleader. "I have a way of doing things that owners don't understand," he says. "So they question it. They have to be taught that there's some magic going on. That's not a problem here."

By committing to USC, Carroll has chosen to define himself as a college coach. In the tug-of-war involving fame, fortune, ambition and quality of life, the forces pushing him toward the NFL are outmuscled by those keeping him where he is. "The makeup of this job is different than an NFL job," he says. "I love being here—the energy, the environment. I have so much control. Nothing wrong with the NFL, but it's just different. And I like this a little bit more."

One Sport, Two Professions
Fortunate is the man who knows who he is—and who he isn't. But the compelling question of how Carroll, who won one playoff game in four NFL seasons, managed to succeed so grandly at USC remains to be answered.

Sure, he's a better coach now than he was then, but he didn't become that much smarter that quickly. While he maintains he was misunderstood, underappreciated and meddled with in the pros, it also seems evident that coaching student-athletes in football—and basketball, the other big-time college sport—requires a different skill set than coaching in the NFL or the National Basketball Association. "There are similarities," Carroll acknowledges, "but there are differences."

The similarities are mostly on the field. "Coaching is coaching," says Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants, who previously led the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars and Boston College. Coughlin has put a motto on the wall of the Giants' locker room that says, "Coaching is making players do what they don't want so they can accomplish what they want to accomplish." When he coached in college, he says, "It was just as true there."

In basketball, too, "the similarities exist within the boundaries of the court," says Jeff Bzdelik. Fired by the NBA's Denver Nuggets in late 2004, he signed on with the Air Force Academy. His first season last year was the best in the school's history—the Falcons went 24-7 and earned an NCAA berth. "I really found no difference in my practice preparation, my personality at practice or coaching the game," he says.

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