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Dan Shaughnessy

For Carroll, they are winning ways

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 26, 2009

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He is the man who bridged the gap between the Tuna and the Hoodie. He is the first head coach hired by Bob Kraft, forever known around New England as Mr. Pumped-and-Jacked, and tonight he’ll be coaching USC against Boston College in the Emerald Bowl.

Pete Carroll still follows the Patriots and says he has fond memories of his three seasons as their head coach.

“I watch what the Patriots are doing and keep track of their success,’’ Carroll says. “I’m really impressed at what a great job Billy’s done over the years. And the job that Robert’s done to let him command the direction of the program. It’s been fun watching them. I didn’t mind the fact that they went 4-12 [it was actually 5-11] the year I left - I didn’t mind that one bit - but it’s fun to watch them.’’

There’s a sound bite you’d never get out of Bill Belichick. And yes, Pete Carroll really did call Belichick “Billy.’’

It was never hard to get colorful comments from Pete. And contrary to popular opinion, Carroll was a winner here. His Patriots teams won 10, nine, and eight regular-season games, respectively, making the playoffs twice before he was fired to make room for Belichick. Carroll’s overall winning percentage with the Patriots (.549) says he’s the third-most successful coach in franchise history.

Carroll took a year off from football after he was dismissed, then landed in a place that suits him perfectly. USC brings out the best in Pete. He’s all about positivity, slapping his guys on the back, catching the occasional wave. Boola-boola works much better on the 20-year-olds than it does on cynical NFL veterans.

The Trojans are a legitimate NFL prospect factory and annually contend for the national championship, which means they are surprised to find themselves with four losses and playing in the vaunted Emerald Bowl. USC identifies success by playing in the Rose Bowl. The Trojans have played in a BCS bowl the previous seven seasons, including five Rose Bowls. This year, they’ve dropped out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in eight seasons.

“We had, by our standards a very difficult year,’’ admits Carroll. “We started out OK, got rolling a little bit, but were unable to handle the rigors of getting through the conference and got beat around some in two games. It took all of the opportunity out of our season by getting beat by Oregon and Stanford. Two really good teams, but on those days we stunk it up on defense and couldn’t stop ’em. Uncharacteristically we took losses that we have never had to endure like that. So it’s been hard.’’

The Trojans were ranked third in the nation after beating Ohio State, 18-15, in Columbus Sept. 12. Freshman quarterback Matt Barkley was all the rage and it looked like it might be another national title quest. USC’s loss in its third game at Washington (16-13) was a shocker, but the Trojans bounced back with four straight wins before enduring a stunning beatdown (47-20) at Oregon.

“The first loss against Washington took a lot of punch out of us,’’ says Carroll. “We didn’t have Barkley that game and got beat in a close game. That was really the one that was disturbing - that we didn’t find a way to win. We turned it over three times on the road. That was disturbing, but maybe that was going to be the one that we would have that season. When we got to Oregon and got thumped badly, that was really the one that made us say, ‘We’re missing a whole element of what we had.’ We hadn’t been knocked around like that.’’

The Oregon game took the purpose out of USC’s season. The Trojans edged Arizona State, then got pummeled (55-21) by Stanford. The conference finale, a 21-17 loss to Arizona, erased USC’s shot at an eighth consecutive 10-win season. The Trojans haven’t been this ordinary since Carroll’s first season (6-6) in 2001.

“We tried to hang on the whole time and see if we could pull it back together,’’ explains Carroll. “As it wound down, we couldn’t. As I look back now, it’s clear to see the transitions that we’ve always been able to overcome in other years, I think we’ve lost 21 or 22 guys who got drafted in the last two years. Forty-three guys in the last five years. We weren’t able to bounce back. It really hit us up front. We weren’t able to get as strong and competitive as we’ve been. So we took some losses.’’

They clearly missed quarterback Mark Sanchez, who stunned Carroll last year when he opted for the NFL.

There’s a perception that USC can get any player it wants and runs three or four deep at every position. This leads to lofty expectations every year.

Carroll’s not complaining. “We expect it, too,’’ he says. “We’ve come to embrace and understand that’s part of it. I’m not looking for anyone to give us a break. At all. We played like garbage this year when it came down to it and we need to get better. The good thing is we have the potential to get better. We’ve got a lot of young kids and an extraordinarily gifted young quarterback.’’

Ask him about Boston College and he sounds like Belichick artificially inflating the upcoming tomato can.

“They [BC] are a very strong, tough team,’’ says Carroll, shifting into classic, generic coachspeak. “Spaz [coach Frank Spaziani] has done a good job to maintain the mentality and approach that everybody who watched BC over the years expects. They play you tough. They play good football, they know what they’re doing. They have a blue-collar approach to defense. Tough, hard-nosed stuff. They try to run the football with authority and throw the ball off that. It’s a good solid formula and they’ve been doing it forever.’’

Pete’s working overtime to convince his players to take BC seriously.

“The thing I’ve tried to convey to our guys is that this is a winning program that knows that they’re winners. They’ve got the great record in bowls [BC is 8-1 in bowls in this decade]. That’s a very successful program. That’s all those guys know and that’s all they’ve come to live up to, so it’s going to be a tough, hard team to beat.’’

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.