When USC fired Paul Hackett after the 2000 season, a 24-year-old Rocky Seto was dejected.
"I was like, 'Man, my career's over before it started,'" recalled Seto, who at the time had just finished his first year as a graduate assistant at USC.
Little did Seto know, his career trajectory was indeed going to be affected by USC's coaching change, just not in a way he could have imagined.
When training camp opens Friday, Seto will for the 15th straight year be opening a football season working with Pete Carroll. This season, Seto will work under a new title, assistant head coach/defense, a promotion from his previous title of defensive passing game coordinator. Seto will still spend plenty of time working with defensive backs, but in his new broader role, he'll help Kris Richard oversee the entire defense. Richard, another Carroll assistant who moved from USC to the Seahawks in 2010, was promoted to defensive coordinator this offseason to replace Dan Quinn, who is now the head coach in Atlanta.
A new job title is just the latest step in a career Seto once doubted would ever get off the ground. When he was still down about Hackett's firing back in 2000, Seto's then-girlfriend Sharla—the two are now married with four children—convinced him to go to a USC volleyball game. Seto wasn't eager to go, but "at the time the best thing I had going was my girlfriend, so I'm going to go with her."
Seated behind Seto at that volleyball match? None other than Carroll, who was on campus to interview for the head coaching job. Seto introduced himself, wished Carroll luck, and figured that was that. But not long after, Carroll was hired by USC, and Seto was tasked with what he called his first unofficial job under Carroll, going to the Los Angeles Airport Marriott to pick up Carroll's car and drive it back to campus. Since then Seto has held numerous titles working under Carroll, everything from graduate assistant to defensive coordinator to, just as importantly, being one of Carroll's closest confidants.
"Fifteen years later, here we are, so it's been amazing," Seto said.
While Seto is adept in the Xs and Os portion of the game, his greatest value is perhaps in his encyclopedic knowledge of Carroll's philosophies and his ability to teach them.
"He has been an integral part back in the SC days and here as well in translating what we do and how we do stuff to the new guys we've had come in—players and coaches," Carroll said. "He's always been kind of the foundation of all of the teaching. We can always go back to Rock, he's got all the background and the reasons why—he's really the keeper of records for us. He has been a really good factor in so many ways."
Perhaps what makes Seto such a good teacher is his ability to get a message across in unconventional ways. Seto, along with Carroll, has put together the "Hawk Tackle" videos that preach the use of a rugby-style tackle in football, and Seto has also been known to show his players video of animals fighting in the wild, or clips of old Bruce Lee movies to demonstrate what he is looking for on the field.
"I think his style of teaching is very, very different from anybody in that building," safety Earl Thomas said before Super Bowl XLIX. "I've never met a coach that shows examples from Animal Planet and tries to relate that to how we attack football. That's different.
"He always emphasizes a tackling plan or a judo punch. He would maybe have Bruce Lee up there showing a punch and a guy flying out of a chair. You see guys punching at the ball, Byron Maxwell stripping the ball, forcing a fumble or I am forcing a fumble, that's Rocky Seto's presentations."
Seto and Richard helped turn Seattle's secondary into the best in the NFL, leading to multiple All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors for the likes of Thomas, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Brandon Browner, and while both take on more responsibility this season, they'll continue to work together closely while trying to keep Seattle's defense on top.
"My role is basically to help the coaches and players in any way I can to help them be as good as they can be," Seto said. "The only thing is that with the new added responsibility, I basically get to make decisions to help out in concert with Kris Richard."
Adds Carroll: "This role is a really important role in supporting Kris and making sure he has the support he needs to make sure he can be effective. I'm really excited about the format right now."
Seto won't be the one shown on TV when the defense makes a big play on Sundays, nor will he get most of the media attention when somebody wants to hear about what makes the league's best defense tick, that will be Richard, but make no mistake about it, Seto is an integral part of the Seahawks defense.
"Rocky is the details," Sherman said. "He brings a very detailed approach and understanding of tackling plans, third-down efficiency, a lot of the plays that teams like to run. He gets real intricate with his understanding of the game, and it helps with our preparation throughout the week."
Yet for all the details, for all the unconventional teaching methods, what might be Seto's most unique attribute to the coaching staff is his background with Carroll. Because Seto has worked with Carroll longer than anyone else in the building, he knows his boss in a way few people do. Seto doesn't just help the football team be at its best; he's also able to notice if the head coach is a little "out of whack" and make an appropriate correction.
"He's a great advisor to me," Carroll said. "We've been through so much together, so when I get a little off base or out of whack, he's the first one to show up at my door, and I say, 'I know, I know, what is it this time? Here we go.' Which is great, I need it."
Not bad for a coach who 15 years ago thought Carroll's hiring would be the beginning of the end for his career.