By Danny O'Neil
REDEMPTION CITY, USA – It wasn't all that long ago that Pete Carroll was written off in the NFL.
Nice guy. Solid coordinator even, but as a coach he didn't command the kind of respect it takes to lead an NFL team. At least that's what the world of professional football seemed to decide as Carroll was fired first by the Jets after the 1994 season and then by the Patriots following his third and final year in charge of that team in 1999.
No sooner had the Seahawks arrived in New Jersey on Sunday than the recalibration of Carroll's coaching legacy began, and for all the time that will be spent discussing Peyton Manning's legacy this week, the Seahawks coach may have even more on the line.
Manning is going to be considered one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL regardless of the outcome of this Super Bowl. The only issue regarding his legacy is whether he'll be remembered closer to Dan Marino or John Elway because while Manning won a Super Bowl with the 2006 Colts, his one-and-done playoff appearances have been frequent enough to warrant comparison to the historically prolific yet often futile playoff fortunes of Marino, who never did win a ring.
Carroll's legacy is much less secure, and while Seattle seems poised at the beginning of an extended run as a perennial playoff contender with Russell Wilson at quarterback, Carroll is the second-oldest coach in the league behind the Giants' Tom Coughlin, and the first Super Bowl appearance of any kind in Carroll's coaching career is a chance to show the rest of the country just how wrong it was about him in the 1990s.
Carroll wasn't quite a punchline back then, but no one was expecting him to resurface as an NFL head coach. Not after his single season as Jets head coach ended with a six-game losing streak. After two years of reputation rehab as the 49ers' defensive coordinator, Carroll was hired to replace Bill Parcells in New England, and the Patriots promptly saw their win total decline in each of Carroll's final two seasons.
Pete Carroll is the second-oldest coach in the NFL, but Sunday will mark the first time he's coached in a Super Bowl. (AP)
He did not coach in 2000, the only time in the past 40 seasons he wasn't serving on someone's staff, and he turned to college not because he was seeking a career alternative but because he knew it was the only place he could get a head-coaching job.
Carroll wasn't USC's first choice as head coach in 2001. Or its second. But what he did with the Trojans was historic – seven straight conference titles, a pair of national championships and a 35-game home winning streak.
That may have changed his reputation within the coaching profession. It did not, however, change his reputation in coaching professionals. He was a coach better suited for the college game. His enthusiasm made him a master recruiter, and his personality was better suited to coaching scholarship athletes as opposed to young millionaires.
That's the reason Carroll's hiring was greeted with as much skepticism as celebration back in 2010. The Seahawks had hit the reset button on their football structure to bring aboard a coach whose professional coaching record of 33-31 was only slightly better than previous coach Jim Mora's record in four years as an NFL head coach.
Well, the Seahawks have won 24 regular-season games over the past two years, notching back-to-back double-digit wins for the first time in franchise history, and are a win away from their first league championship.
It's too soon to talk about Carroll's legacy. He hasn't given even a hint that he won't be coaching for the foreseeable future, but with the Seahawks here on their sport's biggest stage up in the corner of the country that was once doubly certain Carroll wasn't fit to be an NFL head coach, well, it's impossible not to imagine a whole region full of sports writers getting busy with their erasers and beginning to rewrite Carroll's coaching history.
That's the thing about reputations: They aren't always fair, but they can be changed, and the man who was once considered too soft to coach in the NFL has one of the league's hardest defenses.
That same unrelenting optimism that was mocked in the 1990s is now praised. In an anonymous poll of 320 players across all 32 teams, ESPN found that more than one-quarter of them – 27 percent – chose Carroll as the coach they would most like to play for.
Seattle's coach doesn't allow players to be themselves so much as he celebrates those personalities.
On the Sunday the Seahawks arrived in New Jersey, touching down in the place that Carroll once called home, he was asked to reflect back to that one season as Jets head coach. Specifically to the 11th game that season, when Carroll's 6-4 Jets were playing the Dolphins with first place in the division on the line.
That game will be remembered for the final play when the Marino faked like he was going to spike the ball to kill the clock with Miami in scoring position only to turn and throw a touchdown pass against the Jets' unsuspecting defense. That loss triggered a landslide, the Jets' losing their final six games, costing Carroll his first coaching job.
"It's one of the seasons I recall that we didn't finish very well," Carroll said, "and we've gotten a little better at that in the years since then."
And on Sunday, he'll have an opportunity to write a new chapter in a NFL coaching career that so many considered to be closed in 1999.