In 1999, Pete Carroll was fired as the head coach of the New England Patriots after three seasons. It was the second time he’d been fired as a head coach, and he seemed destined for the dustbin of history at that point. The NFL is pretty merciless, and though it’s been known to give guys a couple of chances at running a team, it’s very rare when it gives a guy a third chance.
I was living in Vermont when Pete coached the Patriots, and I remember listening to the local sports radio and there was simply little love for the guy, which was weird, because his teams were always above .500. But they hated how he never seemed angry after losing a game. They hated that he coddled his players instead of being a hard-ass to them. They hated that he wasn’t conventional. Granted, if he had won a few more games here and there, they would have been willing to overlook all that, but you simply got the feeling that he didn’t fit in.
New England (the region, not the team) is Establishment America. It’s about as old as you can get in terms of the United States, so they like doing and saying things a certain way. I learned that when I got there. I was a native Puget Sounder who found himself in Burlington after graduating from UW, lured by a job. Shortly after settling in, I made the mistake of proclaiming that I was now a Vermonter, and people looked at me funny. Then someone explained that unless your grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents were also Vermonters, then you are most certainly not a Vermonter. No wonder I got the hell out of there a year later and found myself in San Francisco.
We all love to chide California as the land of laid-back surfer dudes, but it (and the West Coast in general) is the embodiment of American renewal. "Go West, Young Man," as Horace Greeley once implored. We’re the pioneers, the trailblazers, the ones who left all that Eastern and Southern baggage behind. Screw your society dinners, lacrosse teams, and Civil War reenactments. We don’t care where you come from; outside of the Native Americans, we’re all pretty much newcomers here.
So it’s no coincidence that the hotbed of reinvention and innovation and ingenuity is in California. Silicon Valley is the ultimate meritocracy. It takes people from all over the world and lets them loose and doesn’t give a damn about procedure or tradition or how things are supposed to be done. The only thing that matters is that you want to change the world. They don’t care how you do it. They don’t care who you are. Just do it. Upending the order of things is the order of things down there.
Why do I bring this up? Pete Carroll was born in San Francisco, raised in Marin, and went to Pacific in Stockton. So he’s not only a Californian, he’s also a Bay Area dude through and through. And once you start looking at what he’s been doing with the Seahawks, you start to realize that if he wasn’t a football coach, Pete could easily be running Google or Apple with his forward, unconventional thinking.
We all know what Pete did when he returned back to California after New England. What USC did was allow him to implement his system his way for the very first time; there was no pesky owner or general manager telling him no. Hell, I imagine that USC probably encouraged him. After all, in the land of yoga pants and chi tea lattes, no one is going to blink if the football coach wants to do a few things differently. So how tremendously satisfying it must have been for Pete when it started to pay off in BCS championships and annual domination.
USC was the test bed, the proving ground, the prototype of Pete’s system. So when he finally went back to the NFL, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. Is it no wonder that Paul Allen, a guy who knows a thing or two about innovation and disruption, would buy in?
The Seahawks have implemented a culture that would fit in at the Googleplex. As ESPN The Magazine wrote this past summer, Pete has incorporated everything from mandatory yoga, to nutritional organic food, to even tracking dopamine levels in players to detect if anyone is entering a funk. Players go to sleep wearing bracelets to monitor their sleep patterns. Positive thinking is encouraged at all times; and there’s no negative reinforcement at all. It seems crazy, the ultimate in New Age coaching, and the absolute antithesis of what we expect a smash-mouth football team to be.
Yet let’s keep in mind that Pete also shares another trait with the giants of Silicon Valley: Sheer ruthlessness. Pete runs at 110% 110% of the time, and if you can’t keep up, you’re doomed. Like Google and Apple, he wants only the best, and if you’re not performing or you’re not on board with the program, you’re gone. We saw that with how he overturned the roster when he came on board. Then, he and John Schneider went through hundreds of player transactions in a year, like Google churning through resumes of the graduating classes of the Ivy League.
The Seahawks we all know and love are the ones who made the cut, and they have it better than anyone in the NFL with all that Pete has put in place around them. It reminds me of the situation of my friends at the Googleplex or Infinite Loop. They’re the best at what they do, so everything is done to minimize all the distractions of everyday life. There’s free gourmet food so they don’t have to waste time going to lunch. Or there are Wi-Fi-equipped private buses so they don’t waste time stuck on the 101. Or there’s free this and that so that they can go about in the orderly business of printing truckloads of money in the basement.
Pete has done essentially the same thing. He’s using constant innovation and out-of-the-box thinking to continually hone the end product. Only, he’s not busy building smartphones or search engines. Instead, he’s building the ultimate quarterback-killing, touchdown-scoring, funk-soul-dancing football team on the planet.
After the results of last Sunday, I imagine more than a few NFL teams are going to start looking into what Pete’s doing and, distasteful as it might seem, start trying to embrace DJs at practice and mental health counseling. This is the ultimate copycat league, but I think they’re going to discover that you simply can’t copy the Seahawks formula. Much like many other regions of the country and the world keep trying to create their own Silicon Valley, the original is still on top for a reason. Because while everyone is busy trying to replicate the parts, they completely miss out on the culture. The scary thing about Silicon Valley is that, when you get down to it, it’s really just a bunch of nerds building completely terrifying technological behemoths for fun. The same way that Pete Carroll has gone about building his completely terrifying football team. Not to make money or to get famous, but because he's having an absolute blast.
So, good luck, NFL teams. You may copy our New Age ways, but unless you truly believe in them, everyone's gonna know it's a disingenuous gimmick. What you need is the ultimate California dude, a 62-year-old driven visionary who truly believes everything he's preaching, from teamwork to positive thinking, to giving even the most overlooked of young men hope and a second chance. These Seahawks, to a man, love Pete Carroll because he's the real deal, and you can't manufacture what he's selling. You can only find it assembled in Seattle.