Comparing Pete Carroll’s championship-winning run as the coach of USC’s football program to a Hollywood production is an amusing idea (hey, it’s L.A., right?), but one that director Aaron Rahsaan Thomas overplays in this flawed yet illuminating ESPN documentary. Built around the Trojans’ 2006 title showdown with Texas, “Trojan War” is a Hollywood tale — chronicling the team’s fall, rise and fall — well suited to the “30 for 30” franchise, exploring as it does how the thrill of victory in college football is often followed by the agony of NCAA sanctions.
Carroll possessed a relatively undistinguished coaching resume when USC hired him in 2000, after a number of higher-profile candidates passed on the gig. Yet the new coach’s relentless positivity and embrace of show-business values not only wowed recruits but brought star power to the team, which collected Heisman Trophy wins for marquee stars (Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush) while dominating opponents during a 34-game winning streak.
That built toward the game against Texas, a one-for-the-ages Rose Bowl shootout. But the good times were about to end, with the illegal benefits taken by Bush’s family bringing harsh NCAA penalties, while Carroll took off for the NFL, winning a Super Bowl in Seattle.
Carroll and an assortment of former Trojan and Texas players are interviewed, with star USC running back LenDale White dinging his former coach, saying that when the sanctions hit, “He bailed as fast as he possibly could.” (For his part, Carroll — who has been reluctant to speak about the matter — said he was “shocked and disappointed” by the NCAA’s punishment.)
The general assessment is that Carroll filled an appetite for showbiz flair in Los Angeles — which had lost its pro football teams — but “created a monster,” as USC player-turned-broadcaster Petros Papadakis puts it, in terms of turning his players into stars and surrounding them with the trappings of celebrity, with sideline stalwarts like Will Ferrell and Snoop Dogg.
Thomas frames all of this, far too cutely, by having Hollywood veteran Larry Turman discuss the attributes that make a good producer, an obvious analogy to how Carroll presided over the program. The narration (by Michael B. Jordan) echoes this theme, intended to be cheeky and fun, but which comes perilously close to obnoxious and cliched.
More successfully, Thomas periodically takes detours to provide mini-profiles of key figures, such as Bush and Leinart. Those add depth and color to the bountiful game action.
Produced by former USC star Keyshawn Johnson, “Trojan War” kicks off a new run of “30 for 30” docs, which have become a bastion of sobriety on the network. And as with so many of these projects, the story ultimately reinforces how unbridled success in sports often exposes a vulnerability that figured into that other Trojan War — namely, an Achilles heel.