Time has weathered his boyish looks, and his salt-and-pepper hair has lost the pepper. He's no longer a boy wonder, but Pete Carroll is enjoying his wonder year at 62. He's one victory from the pinnacle of his profession and, perhaps fittingly, it could happen where he experienced his absolute low.
Carroll was the New York Jets' coach in 1994, and he never made it to 1995 because of a perfect storm that some people still can't explain. He was undermined by a Hall of Fame quarterback's sleight of hand, by sports-talk radio, by a friend's cancer diagnosis, by a firing in Philadelphia and by a reticent owner who, overnight, became George Steinbrenner with a suntan.
The Jets were a black hole for most of the 1990s, and Carroll -- so young, so vibrant -- got sucked into the nothingness after a 6-10 record. He was fired a week after the season, blindsided by the news. He hasn't talked much about it over the years. Earlier this week, Carroll -- now the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, returning to New Jersey for Super Bowl XLVIII -- said it was "kind of a hairy time." And he didn't say much more than that about his first head-coaching gig.
Some scars just don't heal.
"Why the hell did we fire him?" former Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason asked this week. "I've talked to Pete over the years and I still haven't gotten a good answer. It's frustrating as hell."
Esiason showed up to the Jets' facility after the '94 season to pick up a bonus check, looked out a window and noticed Rich Kotite in the parking lot. Kotite had just been fired by the Philadelphia Eagles, so Esiason thought that maybe he was joining Carroll's staff as a position coach. In reality, Kotite was tabbed to replace Carroll, plunging the organization deeper into chaos.
Before it turned ugly -- a five-game losing streak at the end of the season -- there were actually a few months of hope and promise.
The Jets' former defensive coordinator, promoted to replace close friend Bruce Coslet after a disappointing finish in 1993, was an instant hit. Carroll reinvigorated the organization with his energy, enthusiasm and upbeat approach, creating a Boys Club atmosphere. He held free throw shooting contests, home run derbies, bowling nights and family picnics. He walked the hallways bouncing a basketball and he blasted James Brown in his office during the late nights of devising game plans.
"If Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick are black coffee, Pete is spiced latte," said Esiason, comparing their coaching styles.
Carroll installed a basketball court adjacent to the practice field, complete with a fiberglass backboard and a professionally lined, synthetic surface. In retrospect, it became the symbol of his coaching tenure.
After practice, he'd play three-on-three with his coaches, often times as reporters watched, waiting to interview him. Carroll, a terrific athlete, conducted more than a few interviews with sweat dripping from his brow. This was long before the days of live, totally predictable news conferences.
During practice, Carroll let reporters on the court, occasionally resulting in an errant shot that rolled into the middle of the field. Nothing can replace the sight of a basketball scooting past the legendary Ronnie Lott in a defensive backs drill ("Little help?"), but, hey, no one seemed to mind. Pete was cool with everything.
"Playing for Pete was -- I don't want to say a walk in the park -- but he made it fun," former defensive end Jeff Lageman said. "We understood that it's a bottom-line business, but you were able to come to work, have fun and enjoy the game in its original form."
Lageman said Carroll had an "Eastern philosophy" that reminded him of Phil Jackson, the NBA's Zen Master. Carroll emphasized the journey, not the destination, and his players rallied around him. Even when he tried to get tough, he followed with a punch line.
One time, Carroll feigned anger in a defensive meeting, claiming he was disappointed with the effort in a morning walk-through. He showed a tape of the walk-through, deciding to pick on Lott for not hustling. Lott, one of the fiercest competitors there ever was, sat in his chair, fuming. The room was silent.
"Ronnie had steam coming out of his ears," Lageman said. "After a couple of plays, Pete stopped the film and said, 'We just can't have this kind of thing.' Ronnie was about to come unglued, jump out of his chair and kick Pete's ass."
A second later, a message flashed on the big screen: LET'S GO BOWLING.
The players roared with laughter.
"It was all a big joke," Lageman said. "We went to a bowling alley, drank beer and bowled."
Carroll was willing to try almost anything to break up the monotony of the football routine, a method he still applies with the Seahawks. In Jets training camp, he signed former World Cup soccer goalkeeper Tony Meola as a place-kicker. On some days, the Jets ended practice with penalty kicks, with the players -- even 300-pound linemen -- trying to boot a soccer ball past Meola.
Carroll's unconventional ways were designed to foster team chemistry and competition, as there was always a competitive element to his quirky extracurricular activities.
He also believed in the psychology of sports at a time when it wasn't fashionable to think outside the box. For instance, he took a big picture of Giants Stadium and hung it in a meeting room. At the time, the Jets rented from the New York Giants, creating a stigma that some believe hurt their ability to have a home-field advantage.
Carroll wanted his players to confront it, not hide from it. Who could've imagined that, 20 years later, he'd be coaching a Super Bowl on that very plot of land?
Carroll also emphasized the importance of nutrition and rest, and he did his part by scaling back practices, preserving his players. In many ways, he was ahead of his time.
"It was almost like he was Chip Kelly before Chip Kelly," Esiason said.
The Jets started 2-0 and made it to Thanksgiving weekend at 6-5, playing the Miami Dolphins for a share of first place in the AFC East. Owner Leon Hess told friends he was more optimistic than he had been in a long time. The Jets opened a 24-6 lead in the third quarter, but it all went horribly wrong. The Dolphins rallied and won 28-24 when Dan Marino pulled one of the all-time sucker plays.
In the waning seconds, with the ball at the Jets' 8, Marino yelled, "Clock! Clock!" He motioned with his right hand, indicating he wanted to spike the ball. The Jets relaxed, thinking he'd stop the clock with an intentional spike. It was a ruse. Marino got the snap and fired a touchdown pass to Mark Ingram.
"They caught us napping," retired offensive line coach Larry Beightol recalled. "Marino was pretty slick."
It was a demarcation point in Jets history, the start of a 4-33 stretch that spanned nearly 2½ seasons -- or, as Esiason called it, "the NFL death spiral."
For Carroll, the Marino fake spike was the beginning of the end. His team was tossed into quicksand. The harder it tried to fight, the deeper it sank. His locker room was filled with wise heads such as Esiason, Lott, Lageman, Nick Lowery and Art Monk, but there were also volatile personalities such as Brian Washington, James Hasty and Johnny Mitchell.
On the morning of the season finale in Houston, the Jets announced that general manager Dick Steinberg had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Steinberg, a Carroll supporter, said at the end of the season that he didn't anticipate a coaching change. But as Esiason noted, "It was a rudderless ship once Steinberg got sick."
Hess was appalled by the 24-10 loss in Houston because he felt the team quit on Carroll. Hasty and Washington refused to re-enter the game, fueling dissension in the locker room.
"We had some players that quit," Lageman said, "but I don't think the team quit on Pete."
Carroll returned home, starting preparations for the offseason. Hess went on vacation to the Bahamas, where he made one of the worst decisions in football history.
The 80-year-old oil man was sunning himself at 4 in the afternoon one day when he was called in to watch a CNN report on Kotite being fired by the Eagles. Hess always liked Kotite, a former Jets assistant. He called team president Steve Gutman to arrange a meeting with Kotite. Hess reacted with such urgency that you would've thought Vince Lombardi had become available. It didn't bother Hess that Kotite ended his run in Philadelphia on a seven-game losing streak.
In a couple of days, a suntanned Hess made a rare appearance at a news conference, announcing the coaching change. He was the ultimate hands-off owner, always in the background. Suddenly, he was like Steinbrenner, growling, "I'm 80 years old. I want results now." After two decades of minding his own business, he decided to mind his business.
The tabloids had a field day. The New York Post ran front-page pictures of Carroll and Kotite, with the headline: "Dumb & Dumber" -- a reference to the then-popular movie.
At the time, Carroll said he was "caught off guard a little bit," an obvious understatement. Privately, he said Hess succumbed to the sports-talk mentality that was sweeping the area. The radio station WFAN had become enormously popular, and Carroll suspects Leon from Manhattan heard about the venomous reaction from fans outraged by the collapse.
"I think he was taken aback, we all were," Beightol said of Carroll. "I never heard of anybody getting only one year."
At the time, center Jim Sweeney famously remarked that inmates on death row got more chances than Carroll.
Steinberg died in 1995, Hess in 1999. Gutman, 79, is the highest-ranking official from that era still alive.
"When [Carroll] left, it was bittersweet for me, a sad moment," Gutman said this week, speaking on the topic for the first time in nearly two decades. "I didn't want to see him go, but it was the owner's decision.
"Pete was a terrific guy. He related beautifully to our players and the organization," Gutman added. "When USC called [in 2001], I was happy to give him a glowing recommendation, a wonderful sendoff."
Before building a dynasty at USC, Carroll was fired by the New England Patriots, but that was different from the Jets. He got three seasons, went 27-21 and made two playoff appearances. He proved he could win on the pro level. With the Jets, it was one and done, kicked to the curb before he had a chance to put his stamp on the team.
Carroll belongs to a small fraternity. Since he was sacked, only nine NFL coaches have been fired after one season, most recently Rob Chudzinski of the Cleveland Browns.
Lageman may have been one of the few people around the team not surprised by Carroll's ouster. Two months after Carroll was promoted, Lageman was sitting in an office with Gutman and Frank Ramos, the public relations director. Jimmy Johnson was on the TV screen, parting ways with the Dallas Cowboys.
"F---, it looks like we hired our head coach too soon," Gutman said, according to Lageman.
Twenty years later, Gutman said, "I don't recall that." Pressed, he said, "I'm sure [Lageman] is right."
At that moment, Lageman knew Carroll didn't have much security, that he was in a must-win situation. The Jets didn't win. In the end, the dark cloud of a dysfunctional franchise blotted out Carroll's sunny demeanor.
Soon after Kotite was hired, someone hung a sign on Carroll's fiberglass backboard. A not-so-subtle message, it read: "6-10."
A couple of weeks later, the sign was gone. So was the entire basketball court.