JERSEY CITY - Alone with his thoughts, forced into coaching exile after being fired for the second time as an NFL head coach, Pete Carroll knew he had to get this right. One more misstep, and he knew he might never get another chance.
This was during Carroll's 10-month hiatus from football, a time when he questioned whether his unorthodox techniques might not be good enough. Long after Dan Marino's "fake spike" led to the Jets' unraveling in 1994 and just after Carroll had been fired as the Patriots' coach following the 1999 season, he faced some tough decisions.
Was he too soft to be an effective head coach, as his critics suggested? Was his up-tempo, rah-rah approach that relied so much on positivity simply ill-suited to the NFL? Or should he try the college route and give up his dream of coaching at the highest level of the game?
"The biggest change happened after I was fired at New England," said Carroll, who coached the Patriots from 1997-99. "I was semi-retired for 10 months, and I had a chance to sit back. In that time, I think the competitiveness really elevated in me that I needed to get it right."
This was the crossroads for Carroll. He had a chance to accept one of several positions as an NFL defensive coordinator, but that's not what he wanted.
After four seasons as an NFL head coach, even though he was deemed a failure both times, he had a conviction that he would make this work as a head coach or not at all.
So he started calling around for head-coaching opportunities at the college level. And no one seemed to want him.
"I had schools that I called, and they didn't want to have anything to do with me," he said. "I didn't get called back."
Finally, USC athletic director Mike Garrett gave him a chance. It was a controversial move because Garrett had dropped hints that he wanted a more experienced college coach to replace Paul Hackett. But he gave Carroll a shot.
One more chance for Carroll to prove -- mostly to himself -- that his style could work.
"I was raised as a traditional coach, the people I was around, the ones that influenced me so much, all the way back to my high school days, my Pop Warner days," he said. "I found out over time that I saw things a little differently than other guys, and it was pointed out to me that I was off track by some of my over-traditional guys. I went with my [convictions] and didn't think I had to answer to that."
At USC, Carroll got to pick his own players. It led to a seismic career shift, one that ultimately would lead him to where he is this week: at the Super Bowl in his fourth season as Seahawks coach.
If he beats the Broncos on Sunday, he will be the first coach to win a Super Bowl after being fired twice as an NFL coach. Carroll hadn't realized he has a chance to make history, but he is intrigued by the possibility.
"You might be on to something there," he said Monday after his news conference at the Seahawks' team hotel.
He insisted that he harbors no ill will toward the two teams that fired him. This is not about vindication, he said. It's about affirmation.
"I feel like this has been an extraordinary opportunity to see if the way we have learned to do things, treating people the way we treated them, the expectations and the standards we set, would work at this level," he said. "[Vindication], I don't care about that. It doesn't bother me at all. I wanted to kick butt at USC for nine years, so I'm not worried about that."
Fitting, though, that Carroll's greatest moment might come on the same plot of land where his signature failure took place. Just a few hundred yards from where Marino fooled the Jets with his fake spike near the end of their season-changing 28-24 loss to the Dolphins, Carroll has the chance to earn pro football's greatest prize. And prove in undeniable terms that doing things his way is good enough after all.