' ' Cinema Romantico: Pitch Meeting: Football Monastery

Monday, January 11, 2021

Pitch Meeting: Football Monastery

In a recent piece for the Omaha World-Herald, Dirk Chatelain did a deep dive on the grand college bowl game drama (stay with me!) that played out across New Year’s Day 1971, culminating in a mythical national championship for my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers. The story is heavy on anecdotes and joyful specifics, none more than the one Chatelain pulled from the Rose Bowl between Stanford and Ohio State, the latter coached by the legendarily disagreeable Woody Hayes. Chatelain sets the unlikely southern California scene: “Hayes could’ve cut his team some holiday slack. He did not. The old tyrant lodged the team at a California monastery.” STOP THE TAPE. During the 2017 Rose Bowl, the Oklahoma Sooners stayed at the JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. Live; the Georgia Bulldogs bunked down at the InterContinental Los Angele Downtown. The former claims to set “a new standard for luxury”; the latter “revel(s) in glamour and exhilaration that defines what it means to live the InterContinental life.” Hayes, to reiterate, lodged his team at a freaking monastery. And while it gave me a chuckle, it also gave me an idea. After all, I am a less than successful Hollywood producer, having brought you the likes of “The Sun Bowl Follies” and “Downtown Athletic Club — The Movie”, each one a quasi-uproarious college football comedy. No movie production company is more dedicated to quasi-uproarious college football comedies than mine. And here was another plot for one staring me straight in the face.

Chatelain’s teaser sent me Googling for more backstory. It did not take long to find a 2009 L.A. Times piece by longtime college football scribe Chris Dufresne (who sadly died last year) detailing Woody Hayes’s dedication to No Fun. “The Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, still operational, was established in 1924 on 83 acres in the foothills in Sierra Madre. The monastery, built in the 1930s, was torn down after the 1991 earthquake. The property was taken over by the Army in World War II and used as a weapons staging area and a place to quarter wounded soldiers.” Dufresne continued: “Hayes could not have found a better place for solitude -- never mind that the monastery scared the wits out of many of his players.”

Dufresne quotes a guard on Ohio State’s 1968 team, Phil Strickland, recounting the team flight to the 1969 Rose Bowl: “(Hayes) had the trainers tape everyone up on the plane. That meant we were going to go directly to the practice field.” And that is where we will begin our tale — “Football Monastery” (a play, you see, on the old expression Football Factory) — with a Hayes surrogate, Joe Melch (J.K. Simmons), coach of Hart Crane College, going up and down the aisle making sure his players are being taped up, banning the flight attendants from food and beverage service and literally throwing the The Columbus Dispatch reporter (Abbi Jacobson) off the plane in a nod to “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.”  Upon landing, the team will go straight to the practice field for a brief and brutal scene before being bussed to the remote monastery, passing Knot’s Berry Farm along the way, the bright lights and towering roller coasters calling to them like a forbidden beacon. 

The rest of the movie, save for an ending we will get to, takes place inside the monastery. The real-life Strickland deemed his team’s experience as being akin to a Lon Chaney movie, star of silent horror movies, a genre which we will merge with both philosophical drama and John Sturges’s “The Great Escape” (1963) into Cinema Romantico Productions’ patented blend of quasi-uproarious comedy as the mad and controlling Joe Melch runs amok before facing up to his feelings and fears while in monk-like isolation (helped by chats with an eccentric monk, played by Kevin Corrigan, over Trappist ale in the grotto) and the players scrupulously plan a breakout attempt. Finally, on New Year’s Eve, when they are all supposed to be in bed early for the next day’s big game, the team flees as Joe Melch wakes bright and early the following morning to discover the monastery only contains monks. Ten minutes before the Rose Bowl, Melch finally finds his team at Knot Berry Farm. 

The movie cuts to the Rose Bowl where the head referee looks at an empty sideline and then at his watch in confusion. 

The movie cuts back to Knot Berry’s Farm where Coach Melch rides the Xcelerator, hands in the air, with his whole team. End Credits. 

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