The Ultimate 12th Man Guide

The Tao of Pom-Pom Pete

How Pete Carroll proved that it’s okay to have fun in the no-fun league.

By Matthew Halverson September 1, 2014 Published in the September 2014 issue of Seattle Met

Illustration by Jon Reinfurt

Admit you hated the hire. 

Admit that after the collapse of the Mike Holmgren era and even the disastrous one-year Jim Mora experiment, the news that Pete Carroll had accepted the Seahawks’ top job felt like a cruel joke. He’d been fired from his two previous head coaching jobs in the NFL, and even his absurdly successful decade at the University of Southern California was tainted by the reality that on his march to a 97-19 record and two national championships he’d routinely dismantled the University of Washington. (It was also tainted by a pay-for-play scandal, but Carroll skipped town just before the hammer came down.) The Seahawks front office had flung open the city’s gates for a Trojan, and members of the 12th Man with allegiances to the Huskies had to smile through their teeth and make nice with the devil.

Carroll’s resume was only half of what made him so unctuous, though. He didn’t just grind up the rest of the NCAA while at USC, he did it while flashing a blissed-out smile better suited for a hacky sack circle. (He took his motto for life—You don’t want to be the best one doing it, you want to be the only one doing it—from a Jerry Garcia quote, for chrissakes.) And in a sport where the way you win is just as important as winning itself, the glee with which he bopped up and down the sideline in Los Angeles was an affront to football’s code of stoicism. 

There may be no crying in baseball, but there sure as hell isn’t any smiling in football. (“I never saw a football player make a tackle with a smile on his face,” legendary Ohio State University coach Woody Hayes once said. “Never.”) Football isn’t something to be enjoyed—at least not for those who play and coach it. It’s something to be endured. It’s “three yards and a cloud of dust.” It’s “playing through pain.” It’s “pushing the pile.” This is the Protestant work ethic filtered through the lens of American sport. And since when is work supposed to be fun?

By definition, the traditional football coach is a killjoy. He is not a friend of the player. His job is to turn an unruly mass of young men with different talents and different skills—not to mention vastly different personalities—into a single unit working together with one goal: winning. And coaches like Hayes and the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick, both granite columns of aggression in a sport that fetishizes hypermasculinity, made the case that the only way to accomplish that goal was through fear and intimidation. Never mind that Hayes lost his job after punching a player and Belichick was fined half a million dollars for surreptitiously videotaping his opponents’ practices. To paraphrase the Oakland Raiders’ late owner Al Davis—another famous asshole of the gridiron—they just won, baby.

To say that Carroll’s approach has been different since he landed in Seattle is like saying Richard Sherman believes in himself. After a Seahawks touchdown, more often than not Carroll is the first one to offer the triumphant player a high five or an overly exuberant slap on the ass. (Give him a pair of pom-poms, and it’s not hard to imagine him joining a sideline routine with the Sea Gals.) A “players’ coach” is more likely to be tolerated in the college ranks by acolytes of the football-is-work ethos because, at that level, the job calls for dual roles as leader and mentor. In the pros, though, it’s seen as a weakness that will inevitably be exploited by me-first millionaire players who will run amok in the absence of a cold, dictatorial leader. (That this theory persists in a league where the vast majority of coaches are white and an overwhelming majority of players are black is worth noting.) And after posting losing records in his first two seasons, ESPN’s talking heads weighed in with variations of the most predictable of hot takes: Carroll’s stumbles proved that while he may have gained the players’ friendship, he hadn’t earned their respect.

Anyone who believed that, though, was overlooking one important factor. Underneath his very genuine rah-rah exterior is a competitive spirit that borders on pathological. A 2009 Esquire profile details a one-on-one pickup basketball game in which Carroll (who stands barely six feet tall) came back from behind to beat a USC underclassman who towered above him. “I’m not gonna let this guy have this story: ‘I beat the coach,’ ” Carroll said playfully at the time. In Seattle he wasn’t putting the players’ feelings before success. He was rewriting the rules for winning and testing out the theory that success and concern for your players’ well-being aren’t mutually exclusive. Of course it didn’t take long to prove that hypothesis. In the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Carroll’s Seahawks went a combined 28-9 and won a Super Bowl. And they did it with smiles on their faces.

Before the start of the 2013 season, Carroll offered ESPN the Magazine this explanation for his decision to make things like yoga and meditation part of the Seahawks’ workout regimen: “I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys…what would happen?” We know now what happened. First he won the loyalty of those players. Then he won. And along the way he showed that while hard work may set you free, a happy worker will follow you anywhere.

This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of Seattle Met. 

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