RENTON — In the narrative of Pete Carroll’s bipolar coaching career, there is the time when he had to choose which blessing to accept.
Go to Denver to be the defensive coordinator for Mike Shanahan, who was about to turn the Broncos into a two-time Super Bowl champion. Or go home to the Bay Area and lead the defense of the defending champion San Francisco 49ers.
This was 1995, and Carroll, then 43, was coming off an odd one-year failure with the New York Jets as a rookie head coach. He knew he needed to return to his coordinator roots before pursuing other head-coaching vacancies, and as the best defensive guru available, he was a coveted free agent.
Shanahan offered first, and Carroll was close to taking that job. But then 49ers coach George Seifert called, setting up a difficult decision that, in some ways, still helps define the influential leader that Carroll has become in the second half of a career that had a few early lows.
It’s also a tale from the past that Carroll and Shanahan can reminisce about this week, as their teams prepare to meet in the playoffs Sunday. Carroll, now the 61-year-old coach of the Seahawks, chose San Francisco back then. Shanahan, now the Washington coach, was disappointed 18 years ago. But Shanahan hired a Carroll protege Greg Robinson, to guide the defense, and he went on to build a championship team with quarterback John Elway.
For Carroll, the cost of missing out on that dominant Broncos’ run wasn’t much. Instead, he spent two seasons in San Francisco learning how the 49ers became one of the NFL’s great franchises. And though he was later fired in New England during his second stint as a head coach, the lessons Carroll learned during his time with the Niners eventually contributed to his transformation at USC and with the Seahawks.
Carroll was asked if he ever wonders how things might’ve been different if he had gone with Shanahan, a likely Hall of Famer, instead.
“How would I have changed? I don’t know,” said Carroll. “They won a lot of games there. But we did well in San Francisco, too, and I needed to go to San Francisco because I needed to learn where they were with their system. Coach (Bill) Walsh came back my second year there as a consultant, and I had the access to George and to Bill, and that’s been extraordinarily meaningful to all of the things that we do today.”
Carroll has one of the most intriguing success stories in sports, mostly because his start was so rocky. Rarely does a coach fail twice and then turn his career around so dramatically. Carroll is always ready to explain how it happened, hoping to create a wall between his rough past and his remarkable present. His book “Win Forever” is, among other things, an exploration of how he evolved into a successful coach, and he included the Denver/San Francisco decision in it.
Why the 49ers? In the book, Carroll describes the Broncos’ job as the more logical choice for a coach trying to rebuild after a firing. In Denver, he could have turned around a bad defense, and it would have been easier to make a grand impression. In San Francisco, the 49ers already had a championship squad, and their defense was an established, veteran unit that Ray Rhodes, who left to be the Philadelphia head coach, did a good job polishing during his one season as defensive coordinator. How could Carroll come in and be considered more than just the play-caller of a ready-made defense?
But after talking with his wife, Glena, Carroll realized why the 49ers’ job was better for him.
“Are you afraid the expectations are too high in San Francisco?” Glenda asked Carroll, a story he relayed in “Win Forever.”
That inspired Carroll to accept the challenge. Shanahan, who remembers driving Carroll around the Denver area to look at neighborhoods during their interview, wouldn’t get his man. No bitter feelings, though. Both men wound up succeeding.
“At that time, Pete was running a lot of zone schemes — zone blitzes,” Shanahan said when asked why he wanted Carroll so badly. “Not a lot of people were doing it at that time. Back then, he was ahead of the curve, at least from my perspective.”
It wound taking the New England failure for Carroll to figure it all out, but soon, he would be ahead of the curve as a head coach, too. He had a dominant run at USC. Now, he and general manager John Schneider are building a championship-caliber team in Seattle.
“I think you’ve got to be yourself,” Shanahan told Washington reporters when asked about Carroll. “That’s what Pete’s done. He’s himself. Everyone knows the job he did at Southern Cal. He’s a guy that’s very enthusiastic in everything he’s done. A good friend.”
He’s a good friend who was almost an incredible co-worker. Of course, the way it turned out, you won’t find Carroll and Shanahan lamenting much about what could have been.