One of the most important times in Pete Carroll's coaching career was the year he had off between his final season in New England and his first year at USC. As Carroll has detailed many times in interviews and in his book, "Win Forever," it was during that time between coaching jobs when Carroll studied UCLA legend John Wooden, reevaluated his own methods, and came up with the core principles and philosophies that would help him build championship-winning programs at USC and in Seattle.
But Carroll didn't quite have everything figured out when he took over the USC job following what in his book he referred to as "an enormous process of self-discovery."
These days, if you ask Carroll or any of his players about a "big game" or a "must-win" game, they'll all give some version of the same response—"Every week is a championship week, we treat every game the same," etc. Yet Carroll didn't always have that approach. As USC prepared to face Notre Dame in Carroll's first season coaching in one of college football's more storied rivalry games, he pulled out all the stops to get the Trojans up for a big game.
"We played Notre Dame the first time out when I was at SC and we went out there and we did it all," Carroll said. "We talked about all of the hype and the buildup and the history, and we brought (former players) back to talk to the players, we went to the Grotto, we walked the campus, we did it all. Then we got our butt kicked. It was such a mis-emphasis of focus, and I have never been the same since. That really was the time. It was exactly that game that week, and we haven't been the same since."
Since that game, a consistent approach has become one of the key components of Carroll's teams, and striving for that consistency not just from week-to-week but from year-to-year is a big reason why the Seahawks are in the driver's seat to earn a fourth NFC West title under Carroll and a fifth consecutive playoff berth and sixth in seven years in a league that has rules in place to create parity.
As was evident in last week's loss at Tampa Bay, even very good teams team can have an off day, but it's the way the Seahawks have kept those occasional bad games or rough patches from derailing a season that has helped them post double-digit win totals in four straight seasons, possibly five depending on how they finish this season. And while it might have taken a bad loss at Notre Dame for Carroll to figure out how he wanted to handle things on a week-to-week approach, he has long seen year-to-year consistency as a more significant measure of success than mixing an occasional championship in with losing seasons. In a story he has told on a few occasions, it was Carroll's first trip to Buffalo as the head coach of the New York Jets that helped him find his “greatest inspiration” as a coach.
"There was a moment, as a matter of fact," Carroll said. "It was the first game that I ever coached as the head coach of the Jets. We had won in Buffalo in the opening game of the year, and after the game—it was a big win, first game ever and all that kind of stuff, it was cool, they were a great team at the time so we were fortunate—and I walked back into the stadium and taking a moment to kind of just suck up all the joy of it and the fun and all that. And I looked back up at the stadium and they had the counting of their division championships, there were like eight of them in a row or something like that. It was when Marv (Levy) was there and they just were killing it, they had great teams, and it hit me in that moment that—even though they hadn't won Super Bowls, at that time I think they already lost four of them—that was a symbol of success.
"That was what you're really after, that's what you're really looking for in putting your team together. Teams can come back year after year after year, and maintain a high level of performance. That's why I've always said, to win a Super Bowl, or win a national championship, that's cool, that's a great thing, it's fun and all that, but to me, that's not the ultimate. There's way more than that. It's about showing the ability to be consistent. That's where it started, that's when my mentality was locked into, how can we find a way to carry this conversation with the players and the people who affect the program in a really consistent, highly successful way?"
"You have to be prepared for it before you ever get to it."
All this talk of consistency and of staying on top is relevant this week not just because the Seahawks are trying to get back on track after a performance that was anything but consistent with their recent play, but also because this week's opponent, the Carolina Panthers, have been fighting a season-long battle with maintaining a high level of play following a spectacular 2015 season. Last year, the Panthers went 15-1 and won an NFC Championship, beating the Seahawks both in the regular season and the postseason. This year, despite still having a talented roster, the Panthers are 4-7 and in danger of missing the playoffs all together.
Carolina has been hit with more than its share of significant injuries, and the Panthers have lost a lot of close games, but Panthers coach Ron Rivera also acknowledges that there could be something of a "Super Bowl hangover" in play this season.
"I think it's got a little bit to do with it," Rivera said on a conference call with Seattle-area reporters.
Understanding that a lot of extra baggage comes with being a Super Bowl team—everything ranging from extra media and endorsement opportunities for players to increased external and internal expectations to having free agent players become more coveted by other teams—Rivera even tried to research how Carroll and the Seahawks handed things after the 2013 season, allowing them to go back to the Super Bowl a year later.
"I tried to look up articles in terms of what Coach Carroll has done to go back to back, just trying to get an understanding and feel for it," Rivera said. "Unfortunately we just haven't had the luck, that's the hard pill to swallow because last year we made our own luck.
"There's a lot that has been written on their success with those back to back years. I try to look up those things on the internet and delve through certain things and read some of the things that he's done. Coach (Carroll) is a tremendously successful coach. You'd be nuts not to try to pay attention to the things that he says or he's done."
Unfortunately for Rivera and his team, things haven't gone according to plan this season, but while the Seahawks did get back to the Super Bowl in 2014 and return to the playoff last year, it wasn't exactly smooth sailing throughout either of those seasons. The 2014 team started the season 3-3, then 6-4 before winning six straight to close the season and earn another division title and Super Bowl berth. And last year's team started even worse, opening with a 2-4 record before again turning things around in the second half of the season.
"We fortunately made it through the effect of the Super Bowls," Carroll said. "Remember, both years we started sloppily in the early part of the season, but I think there's a whole thing to that… I think you have to be prepared for it way before you ever get to it. If it's the first time you ever talk about it, I think you might not be able to have grounded thoughts and approach to deal with it, because it's an enormous impact, win or lose. I think I've tried to share that with you guys, it affects you regardless of what the outcome was, and how you handle it is what's so crucial. I think if you don't have mentality for handling past experiences and how you're going to deal with that, in a disciplined fashion, when you hit it for the first time, you don't know what's going to happen. Lots of times it has an effect that you didn't anticipate and you weren't able to head off, and it gets you. There's a big history of teams really struggling after a year of going (to the Super Bowl), particularly when teams win they have a big problem, but it's hard anyway."
"Most teams go up and down a lot, we're trying to not be that style… It's a great challenge in all sports."
While the challenges of sustaining success are different at the college and professional levels, understanding how to handle success and expectations does carry over, and Carroll has been able to apply a lot of the lesson he learned winning multiple championships at USC to his time in Seattle.
"I don't think there's any question," Carroll said. "We were in that mode for a very long time and I feel very comfortable with it. I think there's a whole dialogue and mentality and approach that is something that you have to seed early to be able to endure it, because the impact can be so overwhelming at times. I do think there's a lot to it."
And trying to be consistent, trying to treat every week the same, that doesn't mean pretending to live in a vacuum where big-picture expectations don't exist. Instead, what the Seahawks try to do is focus on the things they can control that, in the end, will allow them to meet the lofty standard to which they are held.
"I don't think you ever are not dealing with the impact of the expectations, whatever they are," Carroll said. "Expectations come at you from yourself, from within your building, expectations that come from the outside, the media, from all walks. I go back to, I think it takes an ongoing conversation and approach to deal with that, so that when the time comes and the unanticipated occurrences start to knock at you, you can handle them. I think there's a real discipline to it and there's language, there's dialogue, there's expectations, there's how you practice and present it. I love this whole thing that we're in with the mentality to try to keep from being up and down and being normal. Most teams go up and down a lot, we're trying to not be that style, and over a long haul, that's when you can look back and see how've you done. It's hard to see that when you're in the middle of it. It's a great challenge in all sports."
"There's a tremendous amount going on there. As a coach you have the opportunity to deal with that, with individuals, with coaches, with fans, with how you express it to the media. It's an ongoing endeavor to try to maintain the kind of focus and discipline and continuity you need to not be up and down and be like most teams."