LOS ANGELES — Pete Carroll loves challenges and the NFL game. The Seattle Seahawks offered both, and not even Southern California could compete.
Carroll ended his nine-year tenure with the Trojans on Monday, leaving behind a program facing multiple woes for a lucrative deal to coach the Seahawks.
"If you know anything about me, you know I can't pass up this challenge," Carroll said.
USC quarterback Matt Barkley also said quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates is leaving with Carroll after just one season, presumably to become the Seahawks' offensive coordinator.
Carroll won 97 games, seven Pac-10 titles and two national championships at USC, but the school is under a cloud of an NCAA investigation and other scandals after its worst season since Carroll's first year. Although the charismatic 58-year-old coach spoke glowingly of his "gorgeous" tenure in Los Angeles, he jumped at the best – and timeliest – of many offers he's received over the years to return to the NFL, which he reveres as "the highest level of competition."
"I do not expect to ever be able to top what we just did," Carroll said. "I think it's just been a beautiful time together. It hurts to separate right now ... but it can't keep on going, because I can't pass up this opportunity."
Carroll's departure ends one of the most successful runs in college football history – perhaps right when it was about to become much less fun, considering the just-completed 9-4 season which ended USC's run atop the Pac-10 and snapped its string of BCS bowl games.
Carroll insisted his decision had nothing to do with the NCAA's lengthy look into his program, denouncing rumors of a rift between him and athletic director Mike Garrett. Carroll said he thought he "would be here forever."
But Seahawks owner Paul Allen pried the 58-year-old coach out of a comfortable oceanside life as one of the most popular sports figures in the nation's second-largest media market, with numerous charity endeavors and a team that helped fill the area's NFL void.
Carroll is taking along Bates, a longtime NFL assistant who essentially replaced Steve Sarkisian last year as the leader of the Trojans' offense. Sarkisian recruited Barkley before jumping ship to the University of Washington last year.
"It's kind of disappointing to see them leave," Barkley said. "More than anything, it's a challenge to get better and just reach another level. I came to this school because I wanted to be a Trojan, and nothing about coaches leaving would change that for me."
Carroll's departure seeped out to his players through various unconfirmed reports in the media over the weekend. The Trojans who straggled into Heritage Hall for an afternoon meeting chose USC largely on the strength of Carroll's success and charisma, but they returned to classes Monday with no idea what was next.
"I kind of didn't want to come to the meeting today, but it's something you've got to do," said tailback Allen Bradford, who will be the Trojans' top returning rusher with Joe McKnight's early departure for the NFL. "How he got us training and competing, I don't think that's ever going to leave us. The new coach coming in is going to see this team is hungry and wants to win."
Bradford planned to hold a players-only meeting in the locker room after Carroll's farewell address.
Garrett brushed past dozens of reporters after Carroll's news conference, maintaining his largely silent public stance about his troubled department, which sanctioned its own men's basketball program recently in an attempt to assuage the NCAA.
"I'm working on the next step, and when I finish, you'll hear about it," Garrett said. "I don't talk about my search."
Garrett's search for a replacement is likely to be speedy, with national signing day looming Feb. 3 and several recruits already wondering about their tentative commitments to USC. Barkley and Bradford said they planned to be on the phone with every recruit, encouraging them to stick with the Trojans.
Oregon State coach Mike Riley, a former USC assistant and 2001 candidate for the top job, is staying in Corvallis with a new three-year contract extension. Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher is a former USC player and California native, but previously said he wasn't interested.
Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, another former USC star with no college coaching experience, might be the most interested target for Garrett, though Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver is thought to want Del Rio back for an eighth season. Weaver and Del Rio are expected to meet Tuesday.
As for the NCAA investigation into allegations former USC tailback Reggie Bush and his family received improper benefits from a marketing agent, Yahoo! Sports reported Monday – citing unidentified sources – that the NCAA has concluded its inquiry.
Yahoo! Sports reported the NCAA's Committee on Infractions will meet from Feb. 19-21 to address what investigators uncovered at USC.
Another potential NCAA problem arose last month when McKnight was forced to sit out the Emerald Bowl while the school investigated his use of an SUV that was not registered to him.
USC punished itself for recruiting violations involving former basketball player O.J. Mayo, including a ban on postseason play this season. Mayo allegedly received improper cash and gifts while at USC and playing for former coach Tim Floyd, who quit in June.
Carroll's hiring capped a busy weekend for Seahawks chief executive Tod Leiweke. Seattle fired coach Jim Mora on Friday after just one season, and Leiweke spent Sunday in Hermosa Beach completing a deal with Carroll.
"We are excited to add Pete as our coach. He brings a great passion for winning and a positive attitude that is contagious," Leiweke said.
Carroll and Bates aren't the only Trojans leaving town for the NFL. McKnight, leading receiver Damian Williams and defensive lineman Everson Griffen all have said they'll skip their senior seasons to enter the NFL draft, while offensive line coach Pat Ruel and linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. also are reportedly headed to Seattle.
"(Carroll) doesn't have to apologize," Trojans receiver Brice Butler said. "He made the decision that was best for him. You can't cry like a baby. Crying doesn't get you anywhere."