If you haven't caught the Trojan War 30 For 30 on ESPN documenting the rise and fall of USC football under Peter Carroll, it's probably worth your time. If only for the trip down memory lane and watching the Longhorns play spoiler at the end.
In truth, the documentary isn't particularly well done. It doesn't offer any real insights, lazily peddles a lot of tired mythology and has a narrative structure clumsily driven by tangential LA fan boys, hacks and douchebags. So, in that respect, the perfect reflection of Hollywood's opportunistic USC fandom during the 2000s. There's an interesting story to tell of Carroll's time in Los Angeles, but this isn't it.
It's a C film student's vision powered by ESPN's substantial production capabilities. But it's fun to remember a time period of Trojan dominance that neatly coincided with our own. The program parallels are obvious - historical dominance, a long period of underachieving wandering in the wilderness, a dizzying revival and a collapse from the weight of our own hubris and self-deception.
One program driven by mercenary amorality, the other absentee laziness.
I was at the 2006 Rose Bowl (thank you Henry James, you mensch) and it's still the most extraordinary athletic event I've ever witnessed. The hype, scale and build-up for the contest were like nothing in college football history, even though I suspected at the time, and now know, that it's framing was basically false, the perfect exemplar of the vapidity of modern media. But my goosebumps were no less real and the quality of play was top notch. The two teams were fantastic and loaded with talent. It's still the best game I've ever seen and the sweetest, most gratifying result.
But Texas didn't beat the best college team of all time. They didn't even beat the best USC team of the Carroll era.
So, a few random observations from the documentary:
1. The 2005 USC team as GOAT was a real thing (ESPN crowned them as such in a historical elimination tournament before the game) and if you didn't experience it in real time, it's hard to convey how it felt. The idea that Texas could even hang them was met with pitying condescension. That truth was so widely accepted that any expressed doubt was treated as if you'd questioned the moon landing. When I informed my Californian work colleagues that I was going to the Rose Bowl they were legitimately shocked I'd spend money to see my team blown out and humiliated. Forget our game. They debated whether USC could win the Super Bowl. Yes, THAT Super Bowl. There were serious articles written that Leinart, Bush and White would be the first three picks of the NFL draft and that six or seven Trojans would be in the first fifteen picks of the first round. Could USC win 100 games in a row?
2. The greatest single USC team of the Pete Carroll era - at least one game on any one given night - played Oklahoma in the 2004 Orange Bowl. Though I hesitate to call that a game. Why? Defense. On that night, the peaking Trojan offense was the same one that would whipsaw through the 2005 schedule at 570+ yards per game (the Trojan offense was often more good than spectacular in 2003/2004, but the documentary avoid the Trojan D word because that would require nuance, an actual attempt to understand Pete Carroll's coaching acumen and some level of effort), and the 2004 Trojan team had a totally dominant defense - which featured four 1st Team All Americans, talent at every level and one of the best front 7s of the era. The USC Wild Boys (featured in the doc jumping around without their shirts, hat tip to Ed Orgeron) were arguably the real engine behind USC's rise and their gutting by the NFL draft meant that 2005's amazing offense didn't always have an answer for opponents who could match their output. As evidenced during the 2005 season, if one cared to notice. And in the 2006 Rose Bowl.
3. The documentary is predictably framed around Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Lendale White as the keys to the USC dynasty. Thunder and Lightning! Lionheart, the Ultimate Winner! Hollywood myth-making at its best. Go back and look at the holes they were running through. Watch how Leinart (more or less the same guy as his spiritual predecessors Steve Walsh and, when I'm feeling mean, Ken Dorsey) chills out for four seconds in a perfect pocket before flicking out an accurate strike. White and Bush were very good college players, but the 2005 USC OL featured five eventual NFL starters. That's the real story of the 2005 Trojans - OL play. Boooooooooring. The kind of OL play that enables good skill players to appear great. It's not that the average fan or Heisman voter can't tell the difference between OL play and skill player ability - apparently, most NFL GM's can't either.
The USC NFL skill player bust history was so definitive during that time period that you'd think GMs might have caught on a bit earlier. Maybe the average GM isn't that much different from a lazy documentarian - you need the courage to look past easy assumptions and eschew popular narratives.
Also, did you know USC had a defense?
4. Much is made of Carroll's energy, positive thinking and ability to foster competitiveness. He read Wooden's book! Those were legit assets, but the documentary seemed to leave out a pretty obvious fact - that Carroll is one of the best defensive minds in football. It's a little like doing a 30 for 30 on the Patriots dynasty and omitting Belichick's defensive background. Carroll's decision to become a hands-on coach guaranteed good to great USC defense every year. The most consistent aspects of USC's rise were 1) total talent across the roster 2) great OL play and 3) defense. But their skill players reaped all of the attention. When Pete ran from the NCAA posse to Seattle, it's not coincidence that the Seahawk calling card became dominant defense.
5. I love Petros Pappadakis. He's an acquired taste, but beneath the clowning, he has a great football mind and a penchant for truth-telling. On full display in the documentary. USC fans seem to have a complex relationship with him because of that. This is the guy that pointed out that UCLA's Maurice Jones Drew was a better football player than Reggie Bush at the height of Bush hype, which was, at the time, the most absurdly heretical contention possible for anyone living in Southern California, much less a former USC football player.
He was also right. Which makes people resent him even more.
6. I remembered Pete Carroll being an unpopular choice at USC. I'd forgotten how much. That hiring process was a debacle. He had a rough start and was written off quickly. Easy SoCal recruiting pickings, energy, coaching and inheriting Carson Palmer (his Ricky Williams) helped to get things rolling. Maybe before we go running for defining career narratives for Charlie Strong in Year 2, we can reflect on Carroll's start at USC.
Nobody knows anything.
7. The 2006 Rose Bowl is an OL clinic on both sides of the ball. On Vince's 4th and 5 run, USC brings six men. Their blitz is specifically designed to contain him and force a throw. No one breaks through and Justin Blalock seals the edge by chunking the USC blitzer like he's throwing a sack of grain. Lendale White's big runs feature Grand Canyon seams and a Texas DL full of studs getting steamrolled. Leinart isn't touched in the entire second half. The stunning thing about USC's late 4th down decision wasn't that Pete went for it (so obviously the correct call), it's that it failed.
8. Surreal moments. There's a young, vibrant VY. He's deft and self-assured. His face is placid during the final 2:00. He looks bored with his own mastery of the position. There's a young Sark, seemingly sober, calling the USC offense. I can see my section in the end zone as the camera pans over the crowd. There's Ross, Griffin, Kelson, Huff, Robison looking clean in their storm trooper whites - ecstatic when they hold on 4th down. What was Bush thinking on the lateral? Duane Jarrett didn't pan in the NFL? Oh man, Ramonce Taylor! Hey, is that a young Brian Cushing, pre PED starter kit?
9. The Heisman ceremony. VY is there as a courtesy to watch the pre-determined coronation (the poor sucker actually believed he was going to win). Leinart already has his Heisman, he's just there in support of Bush. Portions of the Texas hometown press so awash in USC Bush hype they vote for Bush over Young. My blood boils anew when the name is called out. It's an absolute landslide.
So #10 resigns to cast his ballot in the end zone, written in the ink of legend.