' ' Cinema Romantico: The Best College Football Movie Is Not Rudy Dammit

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Best College Football Movie Is Not Rudy Dammit

Apologies for the click-bait-ish headline, which we try to avoid here, but the subject of college football movies, given my adoration of the sport despite its infinite foibles, is a sore one at this blog. The subject of college football movies was raised yet again last week when a reader asked Stewart Mandel, senior college football columnist at FoxSports, to name his favorite movie related to the sport. I quote Mr. Mandel in full:

So, I’ve noticed something recently with these “greatest sports movie” arguments. People tend to fall into two camps. You’re either partial to the campy Hollywood ones with a feel-good ending, or, you’re partial to the “edgy” Hollywood ones that aren’t particularly good but aren’t as overtly cheesy. 
“The Program” falls into the latter category. It’s full of lazy clich├ęs about seediness in college football, but it’s undeniably entertaining. And it’s hard to argue with a film that includes both Halle Berry AND consummate ‘90s babe Kristy Swanson. It’s no “Blue Chips” as far as the “exposing the shocking underbelly of mid-‘90s college sports” genre, but it’s pretty good IF this is your preferred type of sports movie. 
Me? I’m campy. I love “Hoosiers.” I cried the first time I saw “Field of Dreams.” If “Remember the Titans” comes on TV, I’m not turning it off. 
And to that end, the greatest college football movie is … “Rudy,” of course. It gets me every time. They’re not really going to put him in the game, are they? No way! And he gets the sack! Unbelievable! Ru-dy! Ru-dy! 
Also, highly underrated college football recruiting parody: “Johnny Be Good.” Anthony Michael Hall as the hot-shot quarterback, Uma Thurman as his girlfriend, Robert Downey Jr. as the best friend. Find it. Late-‘80s gold.

Ugh. It is not simply that “Rudy” is, as the esteemed Charlie Pierce once poetially put it, “a passel of unreconstructed mythopoeic bullpucky even by the standards of the university in question, which are considerable”, though it absolutely is. And it is not simply that even to I, an avowed Uma-ite, and adorer of much 80s brie, “Johnny Be Good” is just a bridge too far, though this is most assuredly true. And it is not that I necessarily dislike “The Program”, which Mr. Mandel’s writer cited as his own favorite college football movie, though I would not necessarily deem it any great shakes. It’s just that, well, c’mon, man.

Perhaps it is asking too much for a college football columnist to spend his free time seeking out classic film, but nearly every Best College Football Movie listicle you come across, even those assembeled by people who, in theory, should have a historical grasp of the game they cover, seems to have no concept of a pre-1980s movie era. Like, college football was much more popular pre-WWII, and just after, than it is now. Back then, before the real rise of professional football, before the advent of the NBA, college football, was probably America’s second favorite sport after baseball. This means that the Golden Age of cinema is rife with college football movies, from The Marx Brothers’ “Horse Feathers” (1932) to “The Spirit of West Point” (1947) which starred Army Football’s fabled Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard as themselves. But the best of the bunch, and the best college football movie I have ever seen, is 1933’s “College Coach.”

Centering on a fictional university that is going broke and hires a win-at-all-costs Coach (Pat O’Brien) to field the best college football team in the country to put fannies in the seats to bolster business, with players getting preferential treatment and noble professors who object to athletics superseding academics essentially being instructed to go along or get out, “College Coach” echoes the incredibly faulty moral line on which college football runs. That sounds edgy, and it is, even including the death of a football player, a problem that still plagued the sport in the 30s, though director William Wellman, despite working in the pre-code era, when he could have been as dark as he wanted to be, brilliantly opted to dress the whole thing up in the pomp & pageantry emblematic of the sport’s gaudy surface.

There is rampant rah-rah music, even a few musical numbers, a lot of coachspeak blarney, and a narrative hinging, as it must, on One Big Game. In other words, Wellman filters his edginess through camp, an illustration of how the former is so often obscured, then and now, because of the latter, shattering the barrier that Mr. Mandel attempts to erect between the two categories, proving that a great sports movie does not have to be one or the other; it can be both. You just have to be, like, you know, willing to watch a movie in black & white where people talk in those pesky Mid-Atlantic accents.

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