Monday, January 21, 2013

The Lessons of Pete Carroll's Hair

We can learn a lot from Pete Carroll's hair. I finished watching the NFL Conference Championships and got my fill of the scowling hat wearing brothers Harbaugh or the stone faced hoodie wearing Belichick and the guy from Atlanta. They all take lessons from the same coaching school where coaches don’t show emotion and never ever ever (to quote Taylor Swift) smile. They know how to scowl, stare, and in Jim Harbaugh’s case, simmer in coiled anger until exploding in ax-murder tantrums. Watching this breed of coach made me miss Pete Carroll ex of USC and presently of the Seahawks. More to the point, I missed Pete’s hair because his hair tells us a lot about how to be a good coach.

 I teach at Washington so I do not see Carroll as a paragon. He is a ferocious and cold-eyed competitor and built a superb dominating program at USC. After talking to friends, I don’t believe he fled to escape the looming sanctions that hit the program (I do believe he should have known about the Reggie Bush issues and under modern NCAA rules would be responsible for the mess)—I do believe he had unfinished business with the NFL, believed he had reached his college ceiling at USC and had an amazing offer to build an NFL program his way from Paul Allen. Carroll had nothing more to prove to himself in college football but a whole new world to conquer in professional football.

I decided that Pete’s hair (
held the key after watching him coach the Seahawks to one of their seven improbable fourth quarter victories this year. His mind never stopped racing; his jaw never stopped working on the gum; and his emotions flashed across his face in utter transparency. When the team made a mistake you knew; when they succeeded you knew. But above all his platinum hair flawlessly disheveled remained resolutely in place through all the emotional, intellectual and physical gyrations of the game. Storm, suprises, violence, purpose and platinum order amid the game chaos.

Carroll freely admits that his emotions sometimes got the better of him and he makes high-risk calls. He now expects his assistants to get in his face and remind him of the real risks association with his own high-roller instincts honed so successfully in college. Carroll likes to take chances, big chances, and in college with USC’s dominance, it usually worked. Professional ball creates a different calculus and the talent differential will not carry a team; Carroll has learned this the hard way. It tempers his emotions, but won’t dampen them.

He understands that his own emotions can catalyze and support his players. In college this matters more profoundly with 20 year-old young men, but Carroll believes that professional players are not so jaded that contagious energy cannot be created and sustained on the sidelines by the coaches. He is correct.

I do not want to romanticize the hard driving relentless and ruthless side of being a coach. In his first two years, the Seahawk roster churned through players faster than any three other teams combined. Like all winning coaches, Carroll must and will replaceunderperforming players, even veterans and players he respects and likes, with younger, hungrier and more talented players. His staff has scoured every heap of players and every league, but once in Seattle, players get a real chance to earn their shot. His team could fall apart with its intense never ending “everyone competes every day” philosophy, but he infuses this with a passion and exciting dimension that players actually can sense the fun that brought them to the game originally.

Unlike the Belichik/Harbaugh School of coaching, Carroll still believes that football can be fun for players and for coaches. He knows how demanding the game can be. He pushes his players and will cut and churn the roster to get talent and fit. He knows how quickly players and coaches go from hero to goat; but he remembers at his core that this fiercely competitive game is a game and a fun one at that. His entire approach from recruiting, to training, to cutting to game play is infused with that celebration.

Belichick’s players will dutifully say that they grew under him, and he got the best out of them. No one will say they enjoyed it or had fun. Jim Harbaugh’s players form an us against them cult and play with a chip and intensity that scares everyone. The Seahawks play hard, physical, brute and intimidating football. Their defense anchors them which surprises folks when they want to picture Pete Carroll as a laid back west coast kind of guy. The players know the drill and costs but like playing for him and will acknowledge they are having fun in the process. Dare I say it playing for Carroll can be cool.

When he used to coach at USC and regularly whump us, I wondered if Carroll did not have a portrait of Dorian Grey somewhere—you know, where the real Pete Carroll had a widow’s beak, age spots and grew fat and waddled. I still worry about it sometime, but I’ve seen the wrinkles and crinkles, the minor blemishes and know that the hair takes really really good product and blow-drying.

Coaches should take a cue from Pete Carroll’s hair in its glorious tousled impeccability (is that a word?)—Passionate but focused; aware but decisive; disciplined but open; unruly but never disarrayed.

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