And just like that, he was gone.
After the 2009 NFL season, the Seahawks found themselves stuck axel-deep in sludge, helplessly spinning treadless tires with little hope and zero vibes. They were five years removed from a Super Bowl appearance, but it felt like 50. With an aging roster and virtually no star power, then-owner Paul Allen stunned everybody by firing head coach Jim Mora Jr after one season and hiring the hottest college coach in the country to pull his franchise out of the mud.
It was treated like a joke. After all, hadn’t Pete Carroll fallen on his face with the Jets, and then again with the Patriots? I mean yeah, he won a bunch of games at USC since then but his particular brand of rah-rah foolishness wasn’t going to work with grown men. Kids, sure. But not these hard-bitten, battle-worn millionaires.
I hoped Carroll would be a tow truck; someone who could at least get the team out of the ditch and back on the road. Maybe even put some gas back in the tank. Instead, he left that broken beater behind and built a monster truck.
Paired up with first time GM John Schneider, Seattle set an NFL record for roster moves in a single season in 2010. They flushed out the roster with the league’s most aggressive free agency period and then bewildered the entire analyst community by going way off the radar in their first draft. A month into that first season, they traded for a fearsome yet bizarre running back named Marshawn Lynch, pushing even more chips to the center of the table.
By the time January rolled around, this seemingly flailing approach had the Seahawks sneaking into the playoffs, albeit as winners of a historically weak division. Not that it mattered, they were merely minnows in a piranha tank— a first round appetizer for the defending champion New Orleans Saints.
The Seahawks were fighting way above their weight class, but the heavyweights couldn’t knock them out. Then, like Mickey O’Neil, Pete Carroll’s boys hopped off the mat and landed a punch that shook the very earth beneath them:
It instantly became one of the most memorable moments in the history of Seattle sports, and the aftershocks rippled throughout the entire league. And there was Pete, ten toes down on a sideline that was quite literally shaking, grinning like the damn Cheshire cat. Like a man who always knew this was coming.
The following year they broke their own record for roster churn and flabbergasted the entire draft community yet again, selecting a class of players that may as well have been made up. Again, in 2012, Ds and Fs across the board from analysts. Sure, the Earl Thomas kid was good but three years of drafting, and all you have to show for it is some dude outta Utah State named Bobby Wagner, a lanky WR-turned-CB in Richard Sherman, a goofball receiver in Golden Tate, a tweener safety named Kam Chancellor, and an undrafted Doug Baldwin that could barely get on the field in college. Might as well add a too-short quarterback in Russell Wilson while you’re at it.
The league laughed at Pete, but he didn’t get defensive. He merely laughed back, and went to work. The magic was always there, and he knew it. Lynch had given us a glimpse of it a couple years ago, but it couldn’t be contained anymore. Then, Wilson announced his presence to the league when he touched the face of God on a majestic go-ahead touchdown throw to Sidney Rice. Meanwhile, a suddenly frisky Seahawks defense harassed Tom Brady and the New England Patriots into a shocking upset, giving all of us this seminal moment in the process:
Oh, so it’s like that?
All of a sudden, the entire country had opinions about these Seahawks. Anonymous no more, they embraced the villainy— a violent band of marauders sailing through the league on a glistening warship of their own creation. At the helm, a plucky old man with the heart of a 20-year-old, captaining the vessel with a smirk on his face and a jowl full of gum.
Come December, they were undeniable. Following a tight loss to the Miami Dolphins, Wilson & Co. surprised the favored Bears in Chicago. Russ led a game-tying touchdown drive at the end of regulation then did it again in OT. If this team lit the match against the Patriots, the Bears game was where the fuse met the dynamite— and the ensuing explosion rocked the league.
The following week, Pete’s Seahawks handed down the fourth-largest ass-whooping of the last 90 years, eviscerating the Arizona Cardinals 58-0. Seven days later, this motherfucker called a fake punt up 47-17 against the Buffalo Bills. That set up a primetime showdown with the reigning bullies on their block— Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers. Y’all remember what happened next:
What was heralded as the Game of the Year quickly devolved into a pummeling so savage I had to look away from the screen. The Seahawks were the scariest team in football.
They beat the St. Louis Rams to finish the season and scored 24 unanswered to do away with Washington in the Wild Card round. A last-second Falcons field goal in Atlanta kept them from advancing any further (and erased one of the bigger comebacks in playoff history), but every single one of us felt what was coming.
By the time the 2013 season arrived, it was curtains for the rest of the league. The Seahawks, now internationally known as the Legion of Boom, attacked their schedule like starving lions. Committing to the bit, they added key pass rushers in Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, and traded for unicorn playmaker Percy Harvin. They obliterated the 49ers in Week 2, allowing all of three points, en route to a 13-3 season that showcased arguably the best defense in modern NFL history.
Sometimes, when the underdogs become the favorites, they lose their edge— lose that chip. But Pete Carroll had built an insatiable monster, one he could barely keep the leash on. These weren’t brash upstarts anymore. No, the Seahawks were household names. Russ, Sherman, Marshawn, Earl, Bobby, Doug, Kam. They were known, and they were feared. And when it was dinner time, Carroll let them boys eat.
After beating the Saints in the Divisional Round, they hosted their nemeses. The 49ers came back into Seattle and gave them everything they had. It was like watching two bears fight in the wild and like all legendary games, it came down to one pivotal play. You know the one I’m talking about.
What Richard Sherman did on the endzone pass from Colin Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree is tattooed on the brains of every ‘Hawks (and Niners) fan to this day. “The Tip” joined the pantheon of indelible Seattle memories, immortalized not only for the magnificence of the play itself but everything that came before, and after.
That win, the biggest in franchise history to date, set up a showdown between the Seahawks’ dominant defense and the highest scoring offense the game had ever produced. Peyton Manning’s record-breaking Denver Broncos were favored in Super Bowl 48, but the juice in Seattle was just too damn juicy.
The Seahawks brought bricks to a pillow fight and while Denver didn’t know it yet, that game was over before the coin toss hit the turf. Four hours later I was literally weeping as I wrote this.
It started with Seahawks fans making so much noise that the opening snap sailed over Manning’s unprepared head for a safety. It swelled when Kam turned Demaryious Thomas into dust on the next drive. Then it was Kam again, picking Peyton off. Marshawn slammed one in moments before we watched incredulously as Malcolm Smith took one to the house.
The Broncos trudged to the locker room down 22-0 but none of us were counting chickens yet. We all knew what that team was capable of and, having never completely made it to the mountaintop before, the corks remained in the bottle.
For me, the happiest moment of my life as a sports fan happened on the very first play of the second half. Harvin, who had hardly played at all since being traded for, stepped on the Broncos neck with a kick return touchdown that still blows my mind. The cut he makes halfway through to cross up three Broncos while running at Olympic speed will never leave me.
Jermaine Kearse would dance on their grave with a ridiculous touchdown catch and while every other coach in the league would stand solemnly until the final gun, Carroll was joking on the sidelines with Lynch about whether they were allowed to score more points. It was unvarnished joy, all the way through.
The culmination of Pete Carroll’s 40 years in football was a 43-8 mushroom-stamping and the look of frivolity and satisfaction as he and Schneider celebrated remains one of the funniest and most heartwarming football pictures I’ve ever seen.
We all know what happened next. I’ve often said that I’m grateful for the 365 days between Super Bowl 48 and Super Bowl 49, because within that one year, I experienced the highest high and the lowest low I’ll ever know as a Seahawks fan. Everything else will forever fall between those two extremes and Pete Carroll was at the epicenter of both.
He handled the disappointment, frustration, and embarrassment of XLIX with the same aplomb with which he wore the ecstasy of XLVII. He never wavered, even though everything else around him did. It all crumbled after that, but not because of Pete.
He shouldered the heaviest burden of that ill-fated Super Bowl against the Patriots. The dynasty that seemed inevitable vanished and key members of the team never got over it— even resented Pete for years. It was an unimaginable cross to bear within the realm of the sport but he never bowed his head or bent the knee.
No, Pete Carroll spent every day from that to this attacking life and the game of football with a verve and tenacity that puts the rest of us to shame. But there was no denying that the edge was gone. The roster that had been so improbably assembled slowly fell apart. The relationship with his starting quarterback frayed, leading to one of the highest-profile divorces in recent memory. And yet, when the rest of the world counted his guys out, that stubborn SOB got the Seahawks right back into the playoffs with a career backup at QB, and followed it up with one final winning season.
The last play call of his career was a decision to go for two, down one, with a minute left. One last plopping on the table of that pendulous, wrinkled nutsack. One last twinkle in the eye.
No professional sports figure has had a greater impact on me, personally or professionally, than Pete Carroll.
I had the distinct pleasure of playing baseball for Pacific Lutheran University, an experience I’ll treasure forever. But when their legendary football coach Frosty Westering announced, going into my junior year, that it would be his final season, I took advantage of the unique opportunity to try and walk on to the team. I had seen the transformative effect that Frosty had on some of my closest friends who played for him, and I wanted to be a part of it.
The next four months had a profound impact on me. I saw a coach lead with his heart, put others before self, and emphasize the fun of playing football to a degree that was unimaginable until I experienced it first-hand. It was pure servant-leadership, a team hyper-focused on making each other better, and the absolute elimination of personal ego. And we won a lot of games.
Frosty retired as the 9th winningest college football coach in history— at any level. He led his teams to 261 victories, four national championships, was the National Coach of the Year three times, and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005. He enlarged the hearts of everyone lucky enough to play for him, talking about being the best person you could be more than he did about football.
That autumn changed my life, even though I was at the absolute bottom of the depth chart. And when it was over, I wanted to believe that his approach could work on a bigger stage than Division III football. I wanted to believe that joy wasn’t just a reaction to success, but the cause of it. That the highest heights of a brutal sport could be reached on the twin engines of fun and competition.
And when Pete came to Seattle, I saw it. I saw it. And it wasn’t fake. His practices were insanely competitive, his speeches emotional and true. He never stopped looking for an edge, for a new way to motivate his players. The stories in this incredible article from Michael-Shawn Dugar are as absurd as they are genuine.
I read Win Forever three times and listened to it on Audible another half-dozen. I hand-traced his Pyramid of Success and framed it on my bedroom wall when I was dead broke and getting broker. I did my feeble best to create a psychological Pete Carroll mold and squeeze my life into it. Because the man had scaled the highest mountaintops of an inconceivably competitive pursuit and he did it with love, and positivity, and enthusiasm, and all the other things I wanted to portray.
Carroll won six games out of every ten he coached for Seattle, and the Seahawks made the playoffs 71% of the time under his watch. He helped bring this city their only Super Bowl, and went out of his way to magnify the greatness of his players. There was no air of superiority, no looking down on anyone. Just a remarkable way of moving through the world that was felt by everyone.
I have been frustrated with Pete over the last few years, as many of you have been. Each offseason for half a decade now we’ve all played out the hypothetical scenario where he was no longer the coach. He was the old heater in the corner of your apartment— the one that never quite gets hot enough and that makes an annoying knocking sound as it heats up. It bugs you, and is a pain to turn on and off, but it’s still there and it’s still warm.
Or, at least, it was. Because while you always imagined the landlord replacing that old heater, you never actually thought it would happen. Then one day you come home and it’s gone, a clean outline in the dust all that remains. It’s the middle of January, and it’s cold.
I don’t know what comes next, but I do feel like it was probably time. We’ll all have plenty of opportunity to speculate and debate and get mad or happy at whoever replaces him. What I do know is that as I watched Pete’s final press conference as the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, all I wanted was to reach through the TV and give that glorious man the biggest, warmest hug I’m capable of.
Maybe it’s silly for a football coach to mean this much to me, but I don’t think so. Pete Carroll transcended the job. He imprinted himself on everyone that he came into contact with and millions more that he never met. He is one of the greatest people the NFL has ever been privileged to have, and I’m going to miss him.
I’m going to miss him so much.
Thank you, Pete. Thank you for the tireless dedication to greatness, whether it was reflected in the team’s record or not. Thank you for never giving in, for never compromising. Mostly, thank you for being ours.
Onward and upward, my friend.
If you wanna smoke one in Pete’s honor, we’ve got you covered.
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We’ve also got a podcast I think y’all will like, and we’re going to spend some real time discussing what this means on the next episode. Come check it out: