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Championship would redefine Carroll’s coaching legacy

Pete Carroll’s reputation as a players’ coach led to skepticism when he returned to the NFL with the Seahawks. (AP)

By Danny O’Neil

Pete Carroll returned to the NFL with a blueprint and a reputation.

The blueprint was something he laid out during a decade of unprecedented success at USC, one that could be counted up in victories, national championships and first-round draft picks. The reputation was a bit older and much less flattering. After two failed stints as an NFL coach, he was seen as someone who lacked the command and authority necessary to control a roster full of professional players.

Three years later, there’s a question of which will be fulfilled first: Carroll’s blueprint or his reputation. In fact, it’s one of the most compelling storylines entering this season of unprecedented expectations in Seattle. No less than a coaching legacy is at stake.

If the Seahawks become the championship team so many believe they can be, it would amount to nothing short of a complete rewrite of Carroll’s coaching biography because there were questions when he was hired in Seattle. Lots of them.

He had been an NFL head coach twice before, and who had been fired twice before. He had a career record of 33-31 in regular-season games, 1-2 in the playoffs, and even as he racked up Pac-10 titles at USC, people didn’t think he’d discovered some sort of magic bullet for football success so much as the fact college was a better fit for his coaching style.

There was no doubt about the man’s coaching acumen and no question regarding his recruiting chops, but there were plenty of people who felt he was just too nice a guy to succeed in the NFL. He lasted just one season with the Jets in 1994 and only three with the Patriots after taking over a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance and watching its win total decline in three successive seasons from 1997 through ’99.

None of that minimized what he accomplished at USC. Not even the NCAA can do that. Carroll didn’t just restore a Trojans team that went a decade without finishing a season in the top 10, he took it to the greatest heights. The team won 34 consecutive games, was twice voted national champion by the Associated Press and claimed seven consecutive Pac-10 titles.

Would that success translate to the NFL? There were plenty of people who weren’t so sure.

Including the postseason, Pete Carroll has a career record of 158-77 in 16 seasons as a college and NFL head coach. Here’s a breakdown:

Jets (1994): 6-10
Patriots (1997-99): 28-23
USC (2001-09): 97-19
Seahawks (2010-): 27-25

Three years later, that skepticism has receded, but it hasn’t entirely evaporated. A Super Bowl would validate Carroll’s belief that he came up with a comprehensive approach to a football team during his tenure at USC, a philosophy he went so far as writing down in a book. Not only did that approach restore a collegiate powerhouse but it translated to the NFL, a transition that has confounded so many of college’s most successful coaches.

But while a title would redefine Carroll’s legacy, the lack of one would reinforce it in at least one regard. Carroll had a reputation for having a loose grip on the reins when he was in the NFL. First, it was the nosedive his Jets took in 1994, losing the final five regular-season games. Then came the tenure in New England where Carroll replaced Bill Parcells only to experience a gradual recession as the Patriots went from 10-6 to 9-7 to 8-8.

When he was called a players’ coach, it was not a compliment. It signified a belief that he gave too much latitude to his team. He was criticized for inattention to detail, a reputation that was only reinforced by the NCAA investigation that was underway when he left USC for the NFL and ultimately landed the Trojans on probation.

Make no mistake, if Carroll’s team in Seattle fails to fulfill the potential that so many see, the coach’s control is going to be called into question. His team has had multiple performance-enhancing drug violations, with defensive end Bruce Irvin becoming the fifth Seahawk in less than three years to be suspended for four games while running back Marshawn Lynch still faces a DUI charge in California.

Carroll didn’t have anything to do with those transgressions just as he didn’t tell wide receiver Golden Tate to jokingly express a desire to put 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh on his back or steer Richard Sherman into a public feud with fellow cornerback Darrelle Revis.

But a coach is ultimately judged by the results of his players, and nothing less than Carroll’s coaching legacy is at stake when it comes to whether Seattle can win a championship during his tenure. He came to Seattle with a blueprint and a reputation, and everyone will be watching to see which gets fulfilled first.