Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On College Football and "Credibility"

I could write that, even if he does leave, he’ll never go back to the NFL, where he was booed and labeled a failure. “There’s no way,” he says, and (Boomer) Esiason agrees. “I don’t know if there’s nirvana for Pete Carroll—but I know it’s not in the pros.” And yet. When I press Carroll, I can’t help feeling that he hedges. “There’s no franchise, there’s no ownership, there’s no philosophy,” he says. “The only thing it would give me would be credibility. That you’re the best in the world.”--J.R. Moehringer, on Pete Carroll

There's an intriguing scene at the start of Joe Paterno's autobiography, in which he discusses his deliberation, in the closing days of 1972, over whether to accept a gilded offer from the Boston Patriots to become coach and part-owner and all-around czar of New England. He imagines the cottage on Cape Cod, the "high-tone" lifestyle, the advancement into a higher tax bracket ... and then he thinks about college football, and the marching bands, and the mascots, and he comes to this conclusion: In the NFL, you play only to win. "No other reason to play," he says.

Now, I realize that Pete Carroll is nothing like Joe Paterno--in the same way Montgomery Clift is nothing like Mickey Rooney--and I realize that Pete Carroll is also coaching in an era where winning has subsumed all other concerns even in college football, and I would prefer not to stand in moral judgment when a man chooses to accept millions of dollars and an unprecedented amount of power. But Moehringer's profile* did sell me on Carroll's singularity, on the notion that perhaps he was a throwback to the coaches of old, a man who was truly satisfied with his place in the world. I bought into the Carroll mythos, and even if it was all true--even if Pete Carroll really did want to curb gang activity in Los Angeles out of some altruistic instinct, and not just promote his own brand--that hardly matters anymore, because Carroll will now be viewed as something completely different: He is just a football coach again. USC will most likely go on probation soon, and he will have bolted just in time, and even if he succeeds in Seattle--and I don't imagine it'll happen, because it just seems that playing for Pete Carroll is kind of like watching Dead Poets Society, in that the core message gets progessively sillier once you turn 19--he will still be seen as the guy who constructed an empire and then destroyed it and didn't have the cojones to stay around and rebuild it again. And maybe that's unfair, but this was Carroll's doing; he set himself up as a man, like Paterno, for whom college football was a destination. Now he sets himself up as nothing more than football coach.

That's the funny thing: Pete Carroll had credibility. And simply by changing his mind, he has to chase it all over again.

*And it's still a pretty incredible piece of writing, regardless of whether it is fundamentally accurate.


WarningTrack said...

"Alexander fell to his knees and wept, for there were no more lands to conquery."

We see this all the time with successful people who conquer their field: they need something else to pursue. Having to re-earn his credibility in the pros is exactly the point; it's not the downside, it's the entire purpose. Ambitious people do not stop being ambitious when they've achieved their ambition. I suspect this is why so many of them implode in various personal scandals at one point or another. Being a failure means you have nothing to lose, but in one sense, so does being a complete and total success. Both feel (and act as if they're) invincible for different reasons.

Two interesting comparisons. First: Barack Obama, who's so incredibly young that, even if he serves two terms, he'll have left himself almost nowhere to go after his Presidency is over. Really, what's left? Secretary General of the UN is the only position that could even kinda-sorta be perceived as "higher," really. He'll have something like thirty years left in his life with no more mountains left to climb. Unless his term ends in unmitigated PR disaster, in which case his ambitions could be funneled into fighting negative perceptions. But if he's anywhere from a huge success to merely a moderate failure, he'll have left himself with almost nowhere to go.

Second comparison: Jerry Seinfeld, a very notable exception to the rule. After "Seinfeld" went off the air, the man had, for all intents and purposes, conquered his profession, even transcended it. So what did he do? He did what you say Carroll should have: he started all over. To prove to himself that he still had talent, and was not just riding along on his own coattails, he retired all his previous comedy and started touring clubs to formulate a new act. He did it, and it was actually pretty good. It's all detailed in "Comedian," a fairly entertaining documentary.

Anyway, I always find it fascinating to see what successful people do after their success. Most of us will be distracted by our next goal until near the end of our lives, but a handful of people run out of goals BEFORE they run out of life, and when they do, the results can be as interesting as they are depressing.

WarningTrack said...

Typos, the bane of my existence. Apologies for however many were in that last post.

Michael Weinreb said...


Very good (and well-articulated) points.

On Obama: I cannot imagine, in this modern political climate/media environment, any president surviving eight years without some kind of scandal or PR disaster that engenders negative perceptions. I mean, it's been one year, and 40 percent of the country *already* considers him a failure, mostly for things that weren't his fault.

So I have to imagine it will happen with Obama--even if it's irrelevant or entirely unfair--in the same way it happened with Reagan, and the same way it happened with Bill Clinton, another man who obviously has no idea what to do with himself except sabotage his legacy.