Pete Carroll: The New England years

Pete Carroll and Drew BledsoeFrank O'Brien/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Pete Carroll ushered in a radical new era when he arrived as head coach of the New England Patriots on Feb. 3, 1997.

Under predecessor Bill Parcells, players had to be five minutes early to a meeting, otherwise they were locked out and wouldn't dare interrupt.

Abrupt. Demanding. Intolerant. Intimidating. Old-school North Jersey. That was Parcells, and for four years the Patriots and their fans ate it up.

Until early 1997, when Parcells -- famously frustrated by not being allowed to "shop for the groceries" in compiling a roster -- finalized a divorce with the Patriots after taking them to the Super Bowl. He wanted control of the roster. Patriots owner Robert Kraft wasn't willing to give it to him. So in a deal brokered by then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the New York Jets sent the Patriots four draft picks in exchange for Kraft releasing Parcells from his contract.

Parcells became the Jets' head coach, and Kraft hired Pete Carroll to follow a legend.

Carroll was the antithesis of Parcells. Upbeat. Positive. Friendly. Encouraging. California cool. It didn't play well, not with the media and not with some of the veterans who were loyal to Parcells despite his defection to a division rival.

Carroll only had one year of NFL head coaching experience, having gone 6-10 with the Jets in 1994. Parcells had taken over a moribund New England franchise -- one that hadn't been to the playoffs since 1986 and had posted a 14-50 record in the four seasons before his arrival -- and took it to the Super Bowl.

"I think when you look back on it, guys that were there through the bad times where the Patriots hadn't won and then with Parcells, who was rough and gruff, we went to the Super Bowl," said Drew Bledsoe, who was the Patriots' franchise quarterback from 1993 until getting injured in 2001 and losing his starting spot to Tom Brady. "They equated that demeanor with success. So from that standpoint, I could see where there could have been some veterans who had a hard time with that transition."

Said Willie McGinest, the Patriots' first-round pick in 1994,  "I think it was a little tough because Parcells drafted me. I'm sure I share the sentiment of a lot of players. We wanted him to stay. I wanted him to be our head coach.

"Some people were probably excited; some people probably not. I know a lot of people probably weren't big fans of Parcells. That's what I was used to. Some liked the other person. The one thing you know is Pete's totally different. If you're an immature player or didn't conduct yourself the right way, you could get away with more with Pete. He would discipline you, but you didn't fear things. Bill was totally different."

Parcells led by intimidation. Carroll led by inspiration.

"Some guys couldn't see through the success with Bill Parcells," said longtime Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "Whether you were too young to realize there was more than one way to do things, or you were too old to try to do something else, that's where the problems started."

Because Carroll followed such an iconic figure in Parcells, those close to Carroll feel he never had a legitimate chance to succeed.

"Yeah, definitely I think he got a raw deal in New England," Bledsoe said of Carroll. "And I'm so happy for Pete that he's been able to go on to such great success at USC and now with the Seahawks to really prove what guys that played for him back then believed. The guy's a heck of a football coach and probably deserves to be mentioned in that top echelon of coaches."

Like most players, Lawyer Milloy didn't meet Carroll until April 1997. Carroll had served as defensive coordinator for San Francisco from 1995-96 and spent his first couple of months in New England breaking down film of the 1996 Patriots. Offense. Defense. Special teams. Every player. Strengths. Weaknesses.

In what Milloy called "a classy move," Carroll met with every returning member of the Super Bowl team individually. For Milloy's meeting, Carroll had cued tape of his 49ers defense, which Milloy, a safety heading into his second pro season, thought was "weird."

"How did you think your year went?" Carroll asked Milloy, the Patriots' second-round pick out of Washington in 1996.

"As a rookie, it obviously took me a while to get to understand the NFL in its entirety, the lifestyle and how you play on the field," Milloy answered.

"I agree," Carroll replied. "How did you think you did?"

"I did my part," Milloy said. "I could've played better in the Super Bowl."

"Here's what I think," Carroll said, turning to the tape.

Carroll showed Milloy highlights of San Francisco strong safety Tim McDonald, who had been to six Pro Bowls. Carroll thought Milloy had that kind of potential, that kind of talent. He wanted Milloy to aspire to greatness.

"I was really taken aback and surprised that he viewed me that way individually," Milloy said.

Milloy was on board.

Bruschi was another young player Carroll targeted to be a team leader. A two-time consensus All-America defensive end at Arizona, Bruschi had not played linebacker until the Patriots selected him in the third round of the 1996 draft. Parcells moved Bruschi to linebacker his rookie year, and by the time Carroll arrived, Bruschi still was feeling his way through the transition.

Carroll wanted Bruschi to take a leadership role and grab command of the team by being outspoken and demanding more of his teammates.

"I was learning to transform myself into this player they wanted me to be," Bruschi said. "I could not grasp what he wanted me to be as a leader because I was so worried about solidifying my spot on the team. I heard what he was saying, but I wasn't ready to do the things he wanted me to do. I think that could've been a theme for him."

Like left tackle Bruce Armstrong, tight end Ben Coates, running back Curtis Martin and to an extent Bledsoe, McGinest was a Parcells guy.

"The one thing you knew with Parcells is if he gave you a compliment, that meant you did something right," said McGinest, now an NFL Network analyst. "He didn't pass out compliments or pats on the back very often."

When McGinest met with Carroll, the new coach told him about the "elephant" position on his defense. Carroll wanted McGinest to roam the defensive line, play side to side and rush the passer, and McGinest said Carroll had him study film of five-time Pro Bowler Charles Haley.

"It puts you in position to make a lot of plays and cause havoc, so I was excited about it," McGinest said.

Carroll's practices were crisp, fast and organized. One former assistant, Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton, said Carroll was one the first coaches for whom he worked that focused on situational football in practice: the two-minute drill, four-minute drill, downs and distances. A defensive tackle for the Patriots from 1973-81 and a longtime defensive line coach, Hamilton said Carroll implemented 10-10-10 practice schemes, where the team would work on one aspect of the game for 10 minutes, then another, then another.

Carroll blasted music during practice. During lunch breaks, he often played basketball with his assistants. On Saturday nights the week after a win, he would show players clips from the television broadcast of their previous game.

If the Patriots had lost the week before, Carroll wouldn't show any clips. The message was: Celebrate the positive and forget the negative. Most players, Hamilton said, "really, really liked it," although he acknowledged that a handful of them never bought in.

"He tried to bring about more of a family atmosphere," said Hamilton, who was a Patriots assistant throughout Carroll's three-year tenure in New England. "Pete's personality is just the opposite of Bill's. ... You follow a legendary coach like that into a situation, there's going to be some difficulties, simple as that."

Asked to elaborate, Hamilton said: "Just the perception of fans, the perception of the players that are still there. They had just come from a Super Bowl. A lot of times when you go to a new team, the coaching staff has gotten fired because of a losing season. Those guys had been winning. It was a different deal because Parcells [didn't leave] because he was losing. You come into a winning team and they just played for a legendary winning coach, that was difficult to follow."



There were other things working against Carroll, according to those who worked and played for him.

Like Parcells, Carroll did not have control over assembling the 53-man roster. That power was split among Bobby Grier, the vice president of player personnel; Andy Wasynczuk, the contract negotiator; and Carroll. But there was a clear divide between the head coach and the front office.

Because he didn't have control over playing personnel, Carroll had limited influence when running back Curtis Martin left as a restricted free agent after Carroll's first season. In an interview with ESPNBoston.com after becoming Seattle's head coach in 2010, Carroll said his biggest regret from his time in New England was not fighting harder to keep Martin, who joined Parcells with the Jets and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.

"Personally, it was devastating," said Kirby Wilson, who was the Patriots' running backs coach. "You're talking about a Pro Bowl player and a great player in his prime, and so that was tough."

Said Bledsoe: "That was a pivotal thing with the Patriots. Curtis obviously went on to finish his Hall of Fame career with the Jets, which was kind of thrown back in our face over and over again with his success. Because he was with Bill, that was even harder to swallow."

Carroll's other major regret was not working harder to change his image in the New England media as being a laid-back California guy. Before Carroll's first training camp, one newspaper ran a caricature of Parcells with pearl-handled pistols looking like Gen. George Patton and Carroll with a surfboard, sandals and a glass of wine.

"Probably the thing that hurt him the most was following Bill Parcells, who was huge as a media personality, particularly in the Northeast where they like that kind of attitude," said Bledsoe. "When Parcells stepped into a meeting room, he had this intimidating presence. Pete is enthusiastic and fun but did not have the same intimidation factor Parcells had. When you put those two together, particularly in the Northeast, there's a perception that Pete doesn't have the same hard edge or desire, and that's definitely not the case."

Asked whether that perception bothered Carroll, Bledsoe said: "I'm sure it probably did. I can't pick a person in the world that's more competitive than Pete Carroll in anything. I'm sure it bothered him there was this perception that he was this happy-go-lucky guy that didn't take it seriously. He just does it with a positive attitude. For that to be perceived as some sort of weakness or character flaw, I'm sure it bothered him. As a friend, it bothers me he was perceived that way."

Carroll's first New England team went 10-6 and won the AFC East. The Pats beat Miami 17-3 in a wild-card playoff game and then lost to Pittsburgh 7-6 in the divisional round. Carroll's 1998 team went 9-7 and lost 25-10 to Jacksonville in a wild-card game. His 1999 team started 6-2 but lost six of its next eight to finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

Each year was a step backward in the win column.

It didn't matter that the Patriots' front office had misfired on multiple draft picks or that their first-round pick in 1998, running back Robert Edwards, suffered a devastating knee injury during a sand football game at the Pro Bowl. It didn't matter that the roster had aged and started to rot. It didn't matter that wide receiver Terry Glenn was a divisive presence in the locker room, two former assistants said.

Expectations in New England were higher than .500. Kraft fired Carroll and hired Parcells disciple Bill Belichick.

"The No. 1 thing that was very, very clear back then was he didn't have control over the entire roster," Milloy said. "Us ending the season out of the playoffs, going one game behind each year he was there, ultimately ended out of the playoffs -- I think it was easy for the organization to want to get the next hot guy, which was Bill Belichick, and dismiss Pete Carroll. I don't think it was totally his fault."

Carroll went on to win two national championships in nine seasons at USC and is on the brink of consecutive Super Bowl titles with Seattle.

"How many guys have won a national championship and a Super Bowl?"  Bledsoe said.  "Seriously, how many?"

Three.

Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer and Carroll. 

"Barry Switzer, he's a great football coach, but he inherited a Dallas Cowboys team that was pretty darn good," Bledsoe said. "Pete had to rebuild a team, and he has done it."

Milloy was in Seattle for the first year of the Carroll era there in 2010. He helped Carroll set the tone in the locker room and watched as Carroll, who has control over the Seahawks roster, made more transactions that year than any team in the league. Carroll wanted -- and got -- his own guys.

"We had an atmosphere that was conducive to the players," Milloy said. "Pete was still the guy smiling, throwing the ball around, but the competition was real. He came back in the league on his own terms with an organization and a city that ultimately had the patience to see it all pan out."

The New England experience "totally screwed with his karma," joked Seattle quarterbacks coach Carl Smith, who also worked with Carroll in New England. "But really, he did well coaching that team. And I hear he did well after that."

That Carroll did, and he did it his way.

ESPN.com reporters Terry Blount and Ben Goessling contributed to this story.