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Trojans coach finds his niche

The man across the field on Tuesday night at Pro Player Stadium, coaching against him in the Orange Bowl, figures to one day be a candidate for an NFL job. The man whose team shared the national title with him last season has already made the leap.

Pete Carroll, coach of No. 1-ranked USC, has been there, done that _ and none too successfully. Twice, he was fired from NFL head coaching jobs, making the choice of him four years ago to lead the Trojans back to glory a controversial one.

But here he is, on the brink of another national championship, carrying a 21-game winning streak into the BCS title game against Oklahoma, his NFL "failures" a distant memory.

"None of this is a surprise to me," said Monte Kiffin, the Buccaneers defensive coordinator who was a mentor to Carroll all the way back in 1977, when both worked under Lou Holtz at Arkansas. "Then, I thought the guy was special. He picked stuff up quick. He was only 25 years old, but he was off and running. And still is."

There were plenty of hurdles along the way. Carroll had assistant coaching stops at Iowa State, Ohio State, North Carolina State (where he was Kiffin's defensive coordinator from 1980-82) and Pacific. He then spent 16 years in the NFL, including the two head coaching stints.

One, with the Jets, ended after just a single 6-10 season in 1994. Three years later, after a successful two-year run as the 49ers defensive coordinator, he got another head coaching shot with the Patriots. He went 27-21 but was fired after three seasons.

Makes you wonder why Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, his adversary in the Orange Bowl, would ever consider such a scenario, as he said he might. Or why Nick Saban, whose LSU Tigers shared the title with USC last season, would jump to the NFL's Dolphins.

Carroll has seen that side of the coaching world. After a year off, Carroll was the surprise choice of USC athletic director Mike Garrett. Some said he was the third choice.

"In hindsight, I don't think there could have been a better decision," said fifth-year senior tight end Alex Holmes, who played under previous coach Paul Hackett.

Carroll is 41-9, including 12-0 this season. His school has produced two of the past three Heisman Trophy winners in quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. And he has a group of players who cannot say enough good things about him.

"I just think college football is where he should have been for a long time," offensive lineman Sam Baker said. "He just relates so well with kids in the 18 to 24 age range. He does a great job of communicating to us."

"I think the college game and the NFL game are really different," Holmes said. "He's perfectly suited for the college game. I don't know about the NFL, but from Day 1, he formed a great relationship with the players. And that has continued throughout his tenure. I think that's why he's been successful."

Holmes remembers Carroll's first day. Carroll took the team to the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Trojans' home stadium, and had the players sit in the stands.

"It's about 10 at night, and it's pitch black. And he separated the offense and defense and had us play tug-of-war," Holmes said. "The point of the story was if you're going against each other, you're not going to be successful. That was really the turning point for the program.

"After spending a week with him, everyone knew that he was perfect for the college game and being at USC was just the perfect fit. I don't think anyone could be happier. He initiated a competitive spirit on the team, and our whole team is based on competition. From Day 1, guys started getting better."

Carroll lured offensive guru Norm Chow from North Carolina State, where he had spent one season coaching quarterback Philip Rivers and before that was a 27-year assistant at BYU. It is probably no coincidence that Palmer and Leinart thrived under Chow.

And Carroll recruited aggressively. Though he had been away from that part of coaching for nearly two decades, Carroll wasted no time making it a priority.

"Before (Carroll arrived), we'd go to play Oregon or Washington, and there'd be a guy out there making 10 or 12 tackles. And he was from downtown L.A.," said assistant coach Ed Orgeron, a holdover from Hackett's staff who will become the coach at Mississippi after the Orange Bowl.

"The key has been recruiting and evaluating talent."

Carroll also believes there is nothing wrong with playing youngsters. In fact, he promotes it. There are 10 first- or second-year players who start.

"The key with Pete is, he doesn't want our guys to redshirt," Orgeron said. "He wants them to play. He wants new blood."

So what's different about Carroll today from his time as a coach in the pros?

Kiffin said it's simple: nothing.

"His struggles were the owners," said Kiffin, whose son, Lane, is Carroll's receivers coach. "How do you hire a guy and fire him after one year? With the Patriots, he followed (Bill) Parcells after they (played in) the Super Bowl. Check his record, it's pretty good. He's a very good coach."

But Carroll said he used the time off to his advantage. Known as a fiery, excitable type who doesn't mind getting in the middle of a scrimmage to make his point, Carroll found his style, perhaps, was better suited to college players.

"I'm not coaching any different," Carroll said. "I'm just better at what I'm doing, and I'm more clear about my message. It was the same philosophy, same enthusiasm in the NFL, and I can't change that. That's who I am.

"I'm not tailoring anything that I am to the level I'm coaching at. But I'm better at it."