- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2003

PASADENA, Calif. — USC coach Pete Carroll took the press room podium before Michigan’s Lloyd Carr at yesterday’s final pre-Rose Bowl media gathering. Frankly, it was a little like the Beatles opening for Buck Owens.

Nothing against Carr, who has long been one of the coaching fraternity’s ultimate class acts. But simply calling Carroll charismatic would be an understatement on the order of calling Michael Jackson eccentric.

If you want to know why USC (11-1) is on top of the college football world again after being mired in mediocrity for a dozen years, spend a few minutes in a room with Carroll. If you want to know how a school buried in one of the ugliest, most crime-ridden urban settings in America could have lured two consecutive top-five recruiting classes to its campus, tune in to passionate Pete. If you want to know why the Trojans will be playing for their first national title in 25 years when they meet Michigan (10-2) today in the Rose Bowl, just ask a USC player about the 52-year old kid on their sideline.

“It’s sounds cheesy, but his personality really is infectious,” said junior defensive tackle Shaun Cody. “It’s just impossible to be cynical around the guy. He’s so upbeat. He just genuinely loves football and loves coaching. Being around him reminds you of why you started playing football in the first place — because it’s fun.

“He’s made the turnaround here look easy, because it’s happened pretty quickly. But I remember his first year and mine [2001], when we got punked by Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl. We were 6-6 and no good, but he still made it fun. When your players not only believe in you but also love playing for you, that’s powerful stuff. SC football is rolling right now, and it’s really all because of that guy and his energy.”

Like so many crossover coaches before and since, Carroll’s magic never quite worked in the NFL. His energy and magnetism were renowned even then. He was so popular among his players as a defensive coordinator for the New York Jets (1990-93), that he was the players’ choice for the franchise’s top job in 1994. But that season, and three more as the coach of the Patriots (1997-99), yielded pedestrian results (28-23 career record) and Carroll was fired after New England finished 8-8 in 1999.

“I don’t know exactly why things didn’t work out in the NFL,” Carroll said. “I’m sure it was a lot of little things, my own deficiencies, my personality. I don’t know. I do know I learned an awful lot about myself. Coaching in the NFL, particularly in that Northeast corridor, will take you to the limit. Everything about you as a person and as a coach is exposed, and that’s an opportunity, however painful, for tremendous growth. The upshot was that by the time I came here to take the job, I felt really well prepared.”

Carroll’s hire at USC was greeted with a universal groans from Troy alums, who wondered how a two-time NFL loser who hadn’t coached in college since 1983 (Pacific) was supposed to resurrect their broke-down behemoth.

“I never begrudged fans or alums a second for that, because they didn’t know me. I probably would have reacted the same way,” said Carroll, a San Francisco-area native whose only link to Southern Cal was a daughter enrolled as a freshman. “But almost from the minute I got here, things have just flowed beautifully. I always thought USC was a sleeping giant, because of Los Angeles, the California recruiting base and the program’s amazing tradition. We hit the ground running 1,000 mph, and three years later we’re fortunate enough to be playing for a championship in the Rose Bowl — which is football mecca when you come to USC.”

Carroll made a pair of excellent hires upon arriving at USC. He tapped Ed Orgeron, the mastermind of Miami’s dominating defenses of the early-1990s, to help him orchestrate the defense and recruiting efforts. And most importantly, he lured Norm Chow away from N.C. State to run his offense.

For the last 30 years, Chow was among the keenest offensive minds in football. From 1973 to 1999, he was the man behind the curtain at BYU, tutoring record-setting quarterbacks like Jim McMahon, Robbie Bosco, Steve Young and Ty Detmer while Lavelle Edwards took the bows as the Cougars’ coach.

When Edwards retired after the 1999 season, Chow expected to be rewarded for his loyalty with the job in Provo. Instead, BYU hired Chow’s understudy, Gary Crowton. Chow has intimated that his heritage (Chinese-Hawaiian) cost him the job. In any case, he left BYU for N.C. State, spent one season in Raleigh turning Philip Rivers into the national freshman of the year and then returned to the West when Carroll called.

It took Chow two years to convert Carson Palmer from an underachieving blue-chipper into a Heisman Trophy winner. And it’s taken him less than a season to turn unknown sophomore surfer Matt Leinart into one of the nation’s most prolific passers.

“I came to USC for one reason — the chance to work with Pete Carroll,” Chow said. “He is more in tune with what college football is all about than anyone I’ve ever been around.”

What is college football all about, according to Carroll and Chow?

Fun. It’s plain, simple and sappy.

“He plays fight songs sometimes, and not just ours, at team meals just because he loves the whole idea of college football,” USC defensive tackle Mike Patterson said. “He’ll run up and give you a high five when you make a big play on defense. He’ll jump into the huddle with the first-teamers and play quarterback without a no-contact jersey. He’s crazy-fun, you know? He just loves it.”

And maybe that innocent passion is why Carroll’s style of coaching translates so much better to a college game played by overgrown boys than to a pro game played by paycheck-cashing men.

“Maybe that’s true,” Carroll said. “Everybody is always trying to get me to say that I’m more suited to the college game, and maybe I am. I also think a part of it is West Coast versus East Coast. I’m just more comfortable out here with the attitude, maybe it’s not quite so serious.

“I remember back in training camp with the Patriots one year I would ride a bike from the dorms to the field, and everyone would look at me like, ‘What are you doing riding a bike? Don’t you know this is football?’ Apparently, real coaches don’t ride bikes. I guess I just fit in better out here, and maybe I fit in better with players at this stage of their development.”

If USC tops Michigan today to earn a chunk of its first national title since 1978, Carroll will fit in beside Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops as one of the two hottest coaching commodities in the college game. And then he can ride barefoot on a unicycle to practice and nobody will raise an eyebrow.

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