Pete Carroll's Trojans were college football's big show. They nearly won three consecutive national titles under him. They won 34 consecutive games, finished ranked in the AP top four seven times and won six of seven BCS bowl games. Carroll produced 14 first-round NFL draft picks during his eight-year tenure.
But as discussed in Tuesday's release of ESPN Films' 30 for 30: "Trojan War," a documentary about the rise and fall of Pete Carroll's USC dynasty (9 p.m., ESPN), USC has stayed in the headlines, except for the wrong reasons. Start with the NCAA sanctions handed down shortly after Carroll left for the Seattle Seahawks. Then go through the roller-coaster ride that was Lane Kiffin's tenure. And, now, Kiffin's replacement, Steve Sarkisian brings the program its second midseason firing in two years -- a shocking turn for a team that expected to be competing for Pac-12 and national titles this year.
Yet, as rightfully chaffed as USC fans are about another seemingly lost season, one that began with such optimism, this documentary offers up more sweet than bitter. Sure, it wraps the epic 2005 national championship game against Texas around its 76 minutes, and that classic game is no fond memory from a Trojans perspective. Sure, it covers the Reggie Bush scandal, though Bush, as usual, is a no-show.
But there's also plenty of celebration. And defiance. The documentary doesn't shy away from viewing the run under Carroll in historically great terms. It rightly touches on the widely held notion that USC was taken down so harshly by NCAA sanctions not because of anything it did wrong but because of a USC-ness that no program could match -- as in a coolness of national reach that included, say, Will Ferrell and Snoop Dogg hanging around practice.
Carroll was hired because no one wanted the job after the program mostly meandered through the 1980s and 1990s, at least according to high standards set by John McKay and John Robinson. His hiring was widely panned (cough). He went 6-6 his first season and started 3-2 his second year. Then, poof: magic.
"We don't know how to lose -- it's not in our nature," quarterback Matt Leinart said as he walked off the field after the "Bush Push" at Notre Dame.
That rings true. Carroll installed a system of "always compete" and "every game is a championship." It worked.
While jealous rivals often throw out the notion that USC was somehow cheating during this run, there is no evidence of that. While investigating USC football for four years, the NCAA uncovered no major recruiting violations, no pay-for-play schemes, no academic fraud, none of the truly scandalous shenanigans that came to light in major investigations before (Alabama) and after (Miami and North Carolina) USC.
That doesn't mean a false perception doesn't endure, propped up more by spite than anything. Just last week, as I sat with other ESPN college football reporters and personalities going through a mock-up of the College Football Playoff selection committee process, a member of the committee made a crack about USC "cheating." It was mostly a joke, but as I sat in USC athletic director Pat Haden's chair, I doubted he would have laughed.
There is still residual pain about how the USC dynasty collapsed, and the present mess won't make recalling how things went down any easier.
Yet this documentary does offer escape. It offers a reminder of what was. And hints at what can be again.
The narrator said, "No matter what anyone thinks, the Pete Carroll era at USC will never be forgotten." That's true.
And when Snoop Dogg, at the very end, chants into the camera, "SC, Wild Bunch! SC, Wild Bunch!" and then follows with a "Fight On!" memories of better days will roll over USC fans.