The ‘Coach Pete’ era: Seattle football fans may never have it this good again

When Pete Carroll took over the Seattle Seahawks, they were struggling. In his fourth season, they were Super Bowl champions. When Chris Petersen took over the University of Washington Huskies, they were underachieving. In his third season, they reached the NCAA playoffs.

The seasons from 2014, when Petersen arrived on the scene and the Seahawks went to a second Super Bowl, through 2019, when Petersen suddenly stepped down, rank collectively as the most successful period of football in Seattle history. Coach Pete and Coach Petersen — the two Coach Petes — got it done with similar philosophies but opposite styles and personalities. Here’s a tribute to two of the best in the Seattle sports pantheon.

“Don’t it always seem to be, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

— Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”

Seattle sports fans through the decades have been lucky witness to transcendent talent: Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Don James, Mike Holmgren, Russell Wilson, Walter Jones, Sue Bird, Gary Payton, Dave Niehaus. The past six years featured the overlapping tenures of two exquisite football coaches: Pete Carroll and Chris Petersen. The two Coach Petes.

They thrust Seattle into the national limelight, a rare city with both major college and NFL teams of championship caliber. Though one Pete has now retired, their remarkable similarities — and stark contrasts — still provide a fascinating glimpse of an historic decade in Seattle football.

First, both Coach Petes boast sparkling resumes. One is a lifelong college coach with a master’s degree in psychology. The other is a lifelong college/NFL coach who wrote a book detailing his life philosophy.

One is an ex-college quarterback from central California who won 92 games in eight seasons at Boise State University. The other is an ex-college safety from northern California who won 97 games (and two national titles) in nine seasons at USC. One guided the University of Washington Huskies to the NCAA playoffs and a pair of Pac-12 championships. The other guided the Seahawks within a yard of back-to-back Super Bowl wins.

Both Petes also share similar coaching philosophies. One preaches running the ball and playing stout defense with the fervor of a conspiracy theorist. His Seahawks teams finished first, first, second, and fifth in total defense between 2013 and 2016.

The other Pete likewise runs a conservative offense and relies on his D to win games. His final three Boise State teams finished first, first, and second in total defense in the Mountain West Conference. At Washington, his Huskies led the Pac-12 Conference in scoring defense an unprecedented four straight seasons — from 2015–2018 — and never finished lower than fourth in that category during his six-year stint.

For both Petes, a solid defense starts with the backfield. NFL Pete coached Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. College Pete coached Budda Baker, Kevin King, Stacey Jones, Tyler Rapp, Byron Murphy.

Pete C. and C. Petersen. The two Coach Petes. For all their on-field success, each is renowned as much — or more — for the cultures they built around their teams. One Coach Pete exhorts players to “always compete” so they can “win forever.” The other Coach Pete created a “Built For Life” campaign that will be his lasting legacy to the UW.

Each has made Seattle a desirable destination for football players, whether high school studs or NFL free agents. And both have become, to an outsized degree, the faces of football in the city. Players come and go, but for the past six football seasons — the past 10 for Pete C. — the Coach Petes were/are iconic symbols of their respective programs.

Whenever there was breaking Seahawk or Husky news, media outlets reached for a picture of a Coach Pete to accompany the story, often despite the fact the article was about one of their players. The two Coach Petes even look somewhat similar: fit and thin with full heads of gray hair. But that’s where the similarities end.

Watching the two perform their duties, evident contrasts soon emerged. Coach Carroll ran fast-paced, music-driven practices. At USC, they were open to the public and frequented by Hollywood celebrities. Coach Peterson’s practices were largely closed to fans and media. If any celebrities attended, it’s a well-kept secret.

Coach Carroll is tolerant of the media, self-depreciating, willing to engage in give-and-take and crack jokes as he spews rhetoric. Coach Peterson, taciturn and shy, made no secret of his distaste for media relations. He soldiered through interviews, but never seemed comfortable in front of a camera or behind a microphone. Toward the end, he could be downright snippy.

That reticence signaled the biggest, most salient difference between our iconic Coach Petes.

One Pete loves coaching football and embraces it as his profession. He bounces around the sidelines, chomping gum and exuding energy. He reportedly returns punts in practices and bangs into lockers to fire up players. He is 68.

The other Pete rarely loved coaching football and never considered it his true profession. Much of the time he stood still on the sidelines, arms crossed, wearing the look of an annoyed librarian. He is 55.

Both Petes created attractive, successful programs at two different coaching stops. Both rose through the ranks to the heights of their profession. One reached the top, and he may yet again.

It’s a shame Chris P. could no longer find enjoyment in the game in which he has invested so much of his life. There is nothing shameful, however, in honoring that insight by walking away. Coaching half-heartedly would be a disservice to Husky Nation, and more importantly, to himself. A lesser man would have fulfilled his contract.

So now we’re back down to one Coach Pete. He’s as energetic as ever, but the clock is louder. He has a contract through 2021. After that…? Tick tick tick

At UW the transition is already in process. It is, we hope, the start of an even greater chapter in Husky football: the Jimmy Lake era. The only sure thing is it will be different. Like the Coach Petes, Coach Lake will imprint his personality on his program; it won’t take long for 8-year-old boys to forget who Chris Petersen was.

Seahawk fans, on the flip side, won’t forget Pete Carroll any time soon. If NFL Pete were to quit this second, he would be the longest-tenured, winning-est coach in Seahawk history, and the only one to capture a Super Bowl title.

Incredibly, an irritating minority of fans on Seahawk message boards are calling for Carroll’s head after the Hawks’ 11–5 season and a road playoff win. Are they kidding?! Do they remember the 1970s, most of the ’80s and all of the ‘90s? Do they remember Ken Behring? Tom Flores? Dennis Erickson? Jim Mora? No, they do not. Ten-win seasons and a couple of Super Bowls per decade are no longer good enough for them. Blame it on the A.D.D.

As the singer warned, we should be careful what we wish for. One Coach Pete is gone. But man, it was sweet while he was here! One Coach Pete remains. Yeah, he should have brought home two Lombardi Trophies, but that’s nitpicking. Pete Carroll’s decade in Seattle has been as successful as any coach not named Bill Belichick.

The thing is, Carroll’s been here a long time. There are fans who don’t remember Charlie Whitehurst or Matt Flynn, and have never seen the Seahawks finish with a losing record. They take for granted that Seattle will reach the playoffs, and — every three seasons, by their calculus — the Super Bowl, as though it were a birthright.

I wonder how many of the “fire Pete” crowd are also Mariners fans. I suspect not many. Because Mariner fans know the agony of losing manager Lou Pinella, and general manager Pat Gillick, and how Seattle baseball since then has never been the same.

Nonetheless, tick tick tick…sooner than later the naysayers will have their wish: a Pete-less Seahawks squad. It’s impossible to predict what that will look like. Maybe Pete’s successor will maintain the ‘Hawks level for a decade; perhaps he’ll lead the team to multiple championships. History, however, argues otherwise.

And maybe Jimmy Lake will exceed Chris Pete’s excellence, and length of tenure, as he steers the Dawgs to one or more national titles. Savvy bettors would lay odds against it.

No, what’s more likely is that each team, post-Pete, will succumb to the vicissitudes of their sports. They will be occasionally special, occasionally awful, and most often somewhere in between. Rarely, though, will they be as good simultaneously as they were under the overlapping reigns of the two Coach Petes.

I have a hunch that years from now, when two Seattle football fans are having beers and reminiscing, and the talk turns to the 2010s, they will lock eyes for a moment, share a smile and raise their glasses, still amazed at how wonderful we had it.

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