Pete Carroll and The Harsh Reality of The USC Head Coaching Gig


Pete Carroll presumably crushed the of more than a few USC supporters who hoped the two-time national championship-winning coach of the Trojans would abandon his current post with the Seattle Seahawks to return to L.A.

Carroll told reporters Monday “that’s not happening,” which should close the book on this latest coaching fantasy.

USC tried the retread thing with another former national champion. After Ted Tollner and Larry Smith led USC through a run not entirely unlike the ill-fated Lane Kiffin/Steve Sarkisian era, university brass brought back John Robinson in 1993, coincidentally after a stint with another NFC West franchise, the then-Los Angeles Rams.

A disciple of USC legend John McKay, Robinson won three Rose Bowls and a national championship from 1976 through 1982. Like Carroll, Robinson was successful in the NFL, coaching the Rams to six playoff appearances and an NFC Championship Game in 1989.

Robinson’s NFL tenure fell victim to the same cyclical nature of the pros that eventually comes for everyone in the profession. By his two years with the Rams, Robinson went 8-24 and a return to the college game felt natural.

As for USC, it was desperate to get back to the heights of the McKay/Robinson era after a decade of missed expectations under Tollner and Smith.

Desperately chasing past glory only served to further prolong USC’s struggles, however. Robinson was a decade older upon his return, 60 years old — four years younger than Pete Carroll now — and not long for the rigors of coaching at the highest level.

He had two Rose Bowl teams right out of the chute, but the Trojans quickly went on a downturn thereafter that begat further struggles in the Paul Hackett era, despite Hackett’s ties to the glorious 1970s as an assistant.

Before Pete Carroll’s hire in 2001 and breakthrough season in 2002, which began seven years of Trojan reign, USC spent two full decades trying to regain the magic of the McKay era. It became a self-perpetuating cycle of frustration and failure to meet expectations.

Sure, there were high points sprinkled in. Both Tollner and Smith reached Rose Bowls in their time as head coaches. Likewise, Kiffin’s tenure included a 10-2 finish that would have landed USC in its first (and still only) Pac-12 Championship Game.

Occasional peaks aren’t what USC is striving for, however. Moreover, the collective improvement of other Pac-12 programs makes those breakout season all the more difficult. Recapturing past dominance — or, at least, as close to it as possible in this era of Pac-12 parity — can’t be done casting the narrow net USC’s limited itself to.

Go through the apparent criteria to be USC’s head coach, and the candidate pool is whittled down fast.

• Proven winner

• Experienced with either a major college program or NFL franchise

• Commitment to stifling defense and pro set-based, power offense

• Past USC ties

How many candidates check all these boxes? Jeff Fisher? Jack Del Rio? Would their style even translate to the current landscape of college football? That’s a question worth asking, because what worked for John Robinson at USC in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and later in the NFL, didn’t translate to the evolving college football scene of the late 1990s.

USC succeeded with Pete Carroll in part because two decades of frustration forced the university to cast a wider net. Carroll wasn’t a branch of the John McKay coaching tree, nor tied to the USC legacy in any real way.

Carroll knew how to utilize USC’s many resources, and he quickly learned and entrenched himself in the USC culture. He simply wasn’t rooted in it. The formula both in hiring Pete Carroll and his development of the program is what needs to be repeated, not attachment to the Carroll name.