If you like Roman Numerals and celebrity super coaches, then you're in for a treat: Sunday brings Super Bowl XLIX and the battle between Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick. These gurus of winning are more than just head coaches; they are moguls of control in a league that loves moguls and control.
Stylistically, they offer easy contrasts: The conspiracy theorist and the subject of conspiracy theories, the chummy fist-pumper and the lumpy grumpus. If Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock remade their 1988 hit single "Joy and Pain," they might consider squeezing "Pete and Bill" into the chorus beside "sunshine and rain" and the title duality.
For football fans, Belichick represents a familiar archetype: the salty helmsman who cares only about winning. It's a lineage that runs back through Mike Ditka and Vince Lombardi all the way to Captain Ahab himself. Carroll's lineage is more elusive; it likely includes revivalist preachers. Carroll's team culture, on the other hand—one of theatrics, defiant showmanship, and an emphasis on "fun"—has clearer forebears.
Jimmy Johnson exhorted his 1980s Miami Hurricanes to be as flamboyant and nasty as they wanted to be. For their amusement, he later mimicked their celebratory dances in the locker room. Johnson's mid-90s Cowboys had a similarly brash style—and even some roster overlap in the person of Michael Irvin. A few years later, in 2001, Vince McMahon started the XFL, a professional football league with professional wrestling flair. When McMahon encouraged players to wear nicknames on their jerseys, Las Vegas Outlaws running back Rod Smart famously chose "HE HATE ME". XFL, McMahon explained, stood for "eXtra Fun League," in contrast to the "No Fun" of its goliath competitor.
The XFL lasted only a year, but the dream lives on in Carroll's Seahawks. Richard Sherman barks and trolls like a wrestling heel, Bruce Irvin says he'll pray for overmatched opposing linemen, and every time Marshawn Lynch crosses a goal line holding his junk, a Vince McMahon gets its wings. While Carroll speaks disapprovingly of the most blatant taunting, he also joins plenty of celebrations. He conducts practice to a soundtrack of the players' choosing and constantly stresses the importance of letting his players be themselves. (That a coach's respect of his players' individuality is worth noting underscores just how authoritarian the NFL's culture is—as does the fact that this column focuses on two old white guys who won't make a single play on Sunday.)
Pete Carroll is a superfunguy who knows your cholesterol levels too! Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
But when we move past the smiles and celebrations, are Carroll and Belichick all that different? Panopticon dons, both are aware of and attend to every detail in their organization, no matter how small. And while Belichick has a reputation for discarding players, Carroll was ruthless enough to turn over 80 percent of the Seahawks' roster in his first year in charge, even releasing Lofa Tatupu, a Seahawk fan favorite who had also played for Carroll at USC, when Tatupu wouldn't take a big enough pay cut.
The groundwork for Carroll's chumminess has its unsettling aspects as well. Belichick has the rep as the spymaster, but in his book, Win Forever, Carroll talks of his organizational imperative at USC and Seattle to "learn your learner":
The competitive environment we operate in as coaches demands that we be extraordinary teachers. We have no choice but to uncover the most effective ways to get to know our players. One of the most obvious and productive methods is through consistent and watchful observation. We can glean a wealth of information by paying close attention to the actions, mannerisms, and traits of our players. By taking note of the clothes they wear, the hairstyles they choose, their personal interests, and the people they choose to hang out with, we get mountains of information.
Carroll goes on to explain how he and his staff created profiles of his players using "formal and informal diagnostics" from the academic support team and their own observations from, among other off-field events, an annual trip to the Manhattan Beach Volleyball Open.
In most lines of work, a boss who collects "mountains of information" on his employees would seem like a dystopian supervillain. High-level sports present a more permissive culture—biometric devices that track players' sleep habits are gaining popularity—but even here Carroll boasts of gaining a competitive advantage by knowing ever more about his players. That he is simultaneously seen as a players' coach is a testament to his charm and, one can assume, to his responsible and effective use of that information. But information collection seems benign only until we don't like the ones who wield it or the ways that they do. Say, for example, Bill Belichick. After all, wasn't Spygate just an act of information collection?
Really, the difference between these super coaches is more a matter of than substance. Pete Beatty once compared Carroll's vibe to Cialis commercial fan fiction. On the commercial fan fiction scale, Belichick probably falls somewhere between antacid and truck ads. If there's a lesson here, perhaps it's that the Cialis guy is simply more fun. And, with a game clocking in at just under four hours, that counts for something.