Reporting from Glendale, Ariz. — The ring was being fitted for his finger. The plaudits were being written for his resume. The skeptical football world had finally opened its arms and was prepared to embrace.
Then Pete Carroll was grabbed by ghosts.
The coach of the Seattle Seahawks had a second consecutive Super Bowl championship in his back-slapping hands Sunday night, one yard from victory, football's most bruising runner in his backfield, his fun bunch only 26 seconds from defeating the New England Patriots.
At which point Carroll's head swiveled, his eyes bulged, and he was suddenly transported from the University of Phoenix Stadium back to the Rose Bowl, back to the Bowl Championship Series national title game played in 2006, back into hell.
Back then, with Carroll's USC Trojans leading Texas and facing a fourth and two from the Texas 45 with 2 minutes 13 seconds remaining, he approved the ball being handed to LenDale White while Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush stood on the sidelines. White failed to gain a first down, Texas drove down for the winning touchdown, and Carroll was forever blamed for costing his team a third national title in a row in what was the biggest mistake of his coaching career.
Until now. Until Sunday night found him in a much deeper and darker place. With everyone in the western world expecting Carroll to order the ball handed to Marshawn Lynch in an effort to score the winning touchdown, Carroll instead approved Russell Wilson throwing a slant pass to Ricardo Lockette. The ball was promptly intercepted by a rookie free agent from West Alabama named Malcolm Butler.
The game was instantly over. The Seahawks had instantly lost, 28-24. The call was instantly dubbed the worst coaching decision in the history of American sports championships.
Fans stood and shrieked in disbelief. Writers pounded press box tables in shock. Even the Seahawks, who were so frustrated they tried to delay the Patriots' championship celebration by swinging at them with bare fists in an end-zone brawl, later screamed their disapproval while walking off the field.
You have three downs and one timeout to gain one yard. You have a guy in the backfield who is nicknamed Beast Mode and who has already gained 102 yards and scored a touchdown and basically carried half the desert on his back. And you pass the ball?
A mournful, regretful chant of "Beeeeast" wafted up from the large Seahawks cheering section as the Seahawks finally trudged off the field. Once the players entered the interview room, receiver Doug Baldwin haltingly tried a convoluted defense of the play before he finally threw up his hands and stopped trying.
"I don't know man, I'm just trying to make up an explanation," he said. "I really don't know."
The headlines of history will be that New England's Bill Belichick and Tom Brady each won their fourth Super Bowl championship, tying records for coaches and quarterbacks and perhaps cementing their legacy as the best such combo in NFL history.
But just under those headlines will be the bold-faced reminder that Carroll might have handed it to them, just as he handed that title to Texas, this decisively successful champion to be forever haunted by two bad decisions. Call them the Ghosts of Ego Present, Carroll always thinking that he is smarter and trickier than everyone else, always walking that fine line, setting himself up for the inevitable fall.
If the Seahawks had won, Carroll would have been the only coach in history to win two Super Bowl and two college football Associated Press national championship. Instead, he will be forever known as the only guy to give two titles away.
"I told the guys in the locker room ... they are on precipice of winning another championship and unfortunately, the play goes the other way," Carroll said in the interview room. "There's really nobody to blame but me, and I told them that clearly, and I don't want them to think any other than that."
For only the second time in his charmed life, the impossibly young Carroll looked old. His silver hair was gray and askew. His bright eyes were full.
"A very, very hard lesson," he said. "I hate to learn the hard way, but there's no other way to look at it right now.''
Carroll explained, again and again, that when the Seahawks took the field for the second-down play from the one-yard line with 26 seconds remaining, they were planning on giving the ball to Lynch, but the Patriots were in a goal-line defense. He said he agreed that they would throw a pass, then run on each of the next two plays in necessary to score and win.
"It's not the right matchup for us to run the football, so on second down we throw the ball really to kind of waste that play," Carroll said.
Waste a play? With a Super Bowl title on the line?
"If we score we do, if we don't, then we'll run it in on third and fourth down," he said. "Unfortunately, with the play that we tried to execute, the guy makes a great play and jumps in front of the route and makes an incredible play that nobody would ever think he could do."
Carroll maybe have been shocked that the pass didn't work, but it's clear, his players never thought the ball should have left the ground.
"I'm a little bit surprised," cornerback Richard Sherman said.
USC fans are sadly not surprised, given that Carroll's strength have always been more emotional than strategic. No, Carroll didn't make the actual pass call, that was offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, but Carroll could have overruled the call, as he was wearing headsets, which he tossed to the ground after their interception. As Wilson walked to the sideline, the coach and quarterback stared at each other in shock.
Said Carroll: "We looked at each other and tried to realized the gravity of what we just did.''
Said Wilson: "I put the blame on me, I'm the one who threw it.''
The interception ruined some moments that could have made this the most memorable of Seahawks victories. There was receiver Jermaine Kearse and the amazing catch he made on his back in the final two minutes to put the Seahawks in scoring position. There was receiver Chris Matthews, a Dorsey High graduate and journeyman pro who had never caught an NFL pass and wound up with four catches for 109 yards and a touchdown. There were two interceptions of Brady passes and the resilience of an injured defense.
None of which were a match for the ghosts who grabbed the coach.