’30 for 30: Trojan War’: Stars and Scandals at USC

It's easy to draw the connections between Hollywood "production" of Pete Carroll's Trojans and the ways that other aspects of coaching, including mentorship and moral guidance, went wrong.

“I’ll be there to support him. I know him before, and there’s a lot to offer the world.”

Pete Carroll, commenting on USC’s firing of Trojans Coach Steve Sarkisian, October 11, 2015

“I think we were so far out there, the way we were doing things, we were so different from everybody else they couldn’t understand it.” And with this, Pete Carroll sums up his tenure at USC with just the sort of flourish you’d expect.

Renowned for his energetic displays on the sidelines, the man who’s currently coaching the Seattle Seahawks is decidedly quiet as he looks back on his time in Los Angeles for Trojan War, the first film in ESPN’s third volume of 30 for 30 series. Unlike other interview subjects, he’s seated before an indefinable gray background, no office setting, no trophies, no signs of who he was or is. Others, for instance the irrepressible Petros Papadakis, former Trojans tailback or quarterback Matt Leinart appear in more particular places, backed by windows or furniture. Carroll remains visually suspended, as if removed from both his present and his past.

This ostensibly low-key presentation both fits and contradicts the premise of Aaron Rahsaan Thomas’ smart documentary, which is to say, that Carroll’s “way” of doing things was showtime. When he arrived at USC in 2001, the team had lost the winners’ luster it enjoyed under previous coaches like John McKay (1960-1975) and John Robinson (1976-1982). The film recalls that Carroll was an unexpected choice, young and brash and recently let go by the NFL (after defensive coaching stints with the Bills, the Vikings, and the Jets). “He was doubted when he first arrived,” says narrator Michael B. Jordan, “but he carried a sense of the moment with him,” Jordan goes on, “a sense of the show, like a true Hollywood producer.”

And with that, the film introduces Larry Turman, Hollywood producer (he drops the name of his most famous success, The Graduate, more than once). “One reason to be a producer is that it’s a damn exciting life,” Turman asserts. “I guarantee you’ll never be bored, but you’ll also never be relaxed.” Moreover, he says, “You have to be a coach, you have to be a therapist, you have to be a general, you have to be a million things because you’re dealing with lots of moving parts.”

The film doesn’t detail the “million things” that Carroll might have been at USC. Instead, it looks at the many slick and beautiful surfaces in play during his tenure. “The school has built stars,” says USC alum John Singleton, “The place has such a connection with the Hollywood community. The city is “the center of the entertainment universe,” adds Professor of Critical Studies in the USC School of Cinematic Arts Todd Boyd. Sports agent Josh Luchs sums up, Carroll was able to “bring those two worlds together. Snoop on sideline is one of the greatest recruiting tools he could have.”

Just so, as Will Ferrell and Puffy helped to amplify fans’ excitement, the team’s attitude and record improved. Players recall great plays, coaches, like quarterbacks coach Steve Clarkson, remember new structures. Carroll, he says, “made the practice environment very much like a game.” Once again, the Trojans roster included Heisman Trophy winners — Carson Palmer, Leinart, and Bush — and once again, they were part of high profile rivalries (say, with the Texas Longhorns, winning the Rose Bowl two years in a row, and winning record 34 straight games from 2003 to 2005.

The film looks back on “The Birth of Thunder and Lightning,” the tandem of brilliant running backs LenDale White and Reggie Bush. White speaks enthusiastically of his time on the team, even if, as he puts it, “There was definitely parts and times when I thought I should be starting and the only starter.” White’s mini-profile here notes is humble beginnings, his childhood in the projects in Denver, his salvation by football. He recounts his affection for Carroll: “I fell in love with him, man,” White says, remembering his coach as “kind of like a father away from home.” Papadakis remembers the effects of “police escorts everywhere you go,” the desire to see players “superstars or movie stars.”

And oh yes, the scandal.

After all the victories and stardom, the scandal. Trojan War does eventually get to what became know as the Reggie Bush scandal,” wherein he was accused of receiving gifts from sports marketers. The film goes on to cite the sanctions against the team, especially the vacating of titles and Bush’s Heisman Trophy. If Carroll has little to say about it, as he has since he left for Seattle, other interviewees defend Bush and observe complications the NCAA missed. White notes that Carroll didn’t live with these sanctions: “He bailed as fast as he possibly could.” Keyshawn Johnson (USC alumnus and co-producer on this film), insists that Bush “did everything he was supposed to do on the football field,” suggesting that off the field choices might hold less weight. And Lance Armstrong, who happens to be a USC grad, remarks, “I know what it’s like.” This little bit of cryptic interview holds a peculiar weight.

Bush, it turns out, declined to be interviewed for the film.

It’s easy to draw the connections between Hollywood “production” of Carroll’s Trojans and the ways that other aspects of coaching, including mentorship and moral guidance, went wrong. The story continues, as former running backs coach Todd McNair is bringing a defamation lawsuit against the NCAA and, sadly, coaching drama persists at the school. Papadakis says outright that Carroll “created a monster. What you had was too much star worship when it came to Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush.” As the film has it, you might make a case to include Pete Carroll on this list.

RATING 8 / 10