By Luke Cyphers
(Editor’s note: This story originally was published in Newsletter of Intent)
Movies tackling the unsavory side of college sports — from “Blue Chips” to “The Program” to “He Got Game” — are nothing new, and have often been lauded for exposing the dire costs and hypocrisy inherent in what the NCAA likes to call “the collegiate model.”
But a nearly forgotten 1933 film from the legendary Hollywood director William A. Wellman may be the most unflinching, sociopathic look at intercollegiate athletics ever produced—and the most instructive for would-be college sports reformers.
It’s called “College Coach,” and this raggedly executed examination of the dark, absurd heart of college football stands out because it could easily be remade today — by the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino or Ryan Coogler.
Though the picture is dated, when it comes to the game itself, there’s nothing in the 86-year-old film that feels anachronistic in 2019: academic fraud, on-field brutality, and supposedly august institutions captured by, and complicit in, abject hucksterism.
What is different? The film decides, in the end, there’s absolutely nothing to be done about it.
Nearly nine decades after it was made, “College Coach” still gets to the nub of why modern college football is so resistant to a revolution: Soul-destroying, bandit-capitalist nihilism sparks joy.
Though the film still appears occasionally on Turner Classic Movies, if it’s thought of at all these days, it’s little more than trivia fodder.
A young John Wayne, himself a former football player at USC, has an uncredited cameo.
Pat O’Brien inhabiting the title role is fascinating, given his professional arc. Just seven years after he played the shameless antihero in “College Coach,” O’Brien cemented the myth of big-time coaches as iconic molders of men in “Knute Rockne, All-American.”
Then there’s, of course, Wellman, a brawling, pioneering maverick who directed the first Oscar-winning Best Picture, “Wings,” and several other influential twentieth-century films, including “The Public Enemy,” “The Call of the Wild,” “Beau Geste” and the original version of “A Star Is Born.”
“College Coach” is worth a reconsideration now because, unlike its genre successors, it suffered no illusions about football, higher education or the coaching profession. “Right now, I’m the best football coach in the world,” says O’Brien, as Coach Gore, early in the film. “But it’s a racket. A racket where they catch up to ya awful quick. Let’s cash in on it while we can.”
Gore enriches himself with big-money merchandising agreements and media contracts, including a shoe deal, a radio show, and an autobiography, “My Life in Amateur Football.”
The coach isn’t the only one on the take. Academic institutions are willing to sell out any and all principles for the promise of gridiron glory and the dollars it brings. “Our big mistake was financing the new science lab,” says an administrator.
The players get paid under the table and don’t bother to pretend otherwise, though they do pretend to go to rigged classes. Even the dimwits, which is most of them. “Now there’s nothing in these courses that’s likely to keep them up nights, is there, professor?” Gore asks the team’s academic adviser.
The adviser assures him that’s not a problem, and tells the coach that Matthews, a backfield ace, will major in Aesthetics. To which Matthews replies, “OK, except I can’t spell what I’m majorin’ in.”
A bumbling lineman threatens to transfer: “Me goin’ Atlantic Eastern College. They make me fine big offer. Every week check I get 50 bucks. With besides automobile drive myself. Anyplace I want go … She got six cylinders.”
The canny Coach Gore makes a deal to keep the player on the roster: “I’ll get you one with seven cylinders.”
There are locker-room fistfights (encouraged by the coach), a star player who tries to sleep with the coach’s wife (not encouraged by the coach), and a scandalous insider real-estate deal centering on construction of a new stadium (instigated by the coach).
Nobody saw “College Coach” as among Wellman’s best work, certainly not the man himself. “It was not a film my father appreciated,” the director’s son, William Wellman Jr., tells NOI.
Wellman Jr. grew up among Hollywood royalty, and he went on to his own career as an actor, director and writer. He penned an entertaining biography of his father, and today, in his 80s, still gives lectures on Hollywood history.
The younger Wellman says his old man would have no problem with somebody remaking “College Coach,” or any of his movies. His dad once told him, “Bill, if it was good once, it can be good again.”
The success of all three reboots of “A Star is Born” is proof.
But at the time, few thought “College Coach” was good. The biggest issue was its casting, with Dick Powell in the role of Phil Sargent, the team’s conscientious star quarterback.
Powell was a heartthrob in early musicals, known for sappy ballads. “This was his first so-called dramatic role,” Wellman Jr. says, “and I thought it was ridiculous for him to be cast as a football player. There’s even a scene where he’s singing and tinkling the ivories.”
Almost any of the contract players for Warner Bros. would have worked better. Just two years earlier, Wellman directed James Cagney’s electrifying performance in “The Public Enemy,” and the director and actor were good friends. “Cagney could have played that role,” Wellman Jr. says. “You’d have bought it.”
But Wellman was stuck with Powell, and “College Coach” never became more than a puzzling product of its genre. And yes, college football films were a genre in the 1930s, a way to wring money from the sport’s rapidly growing fan base.
Many of these movies were credulous tales inspired by Grantland Rice and the other the sycophantic, “Gee Whiz” sports writers of the day.
As the invaluable sports historian Murry Sperber pointed out in his 1998 book, “Onward to Victory: The Crises that Shaped College Sports”:
‘Gee Whiz’ sports journalism connected directly to athlete-hero juvenile fiction—some writers worked in both fields—and its product, in its simplest form, was the journalistic equivalent of Hollywood’s primitive college football films.
For a while, there was a counter-narrative, the “Aw Nuts” school of sports writing. A 1929 Carnegie Foundation report on corruption in college athletics proved a boon to the “Aw Nuts” view, as Sperber writes:
The report confirmed with hundreds of pages of data what the “Aw-Nuts” skeptics had long argued: College football was a huge commercial enterprise and its famous coaches, including Knute Rockne, were among the greatest self-promoters and buccaneers of the 1920s. The Aw-Nuts writers kept the issue of commercialism and corruption in intercollegiate athletics alive during the 1930s, preparing the public for further Carnegie “Bulletins” as well as Hollywood depictions of their criticisms of college sports.
While gee-whizzing flicks like “The Spirit of Notre Dame” and “Navy Blue and Gold” pumped out propaganda, Sperber points out that “Aw-Nuts” football stories also made it to the big screen. “Touchdown” in 1931 features a vile coach who lures players to campus with big payments and forces them to play injured, endangering their careers and lives.
Then there was the brutal satire of the Marx Brothers’ 1932 “Horse Feathers,” in which university leaders decide to tear down the college, including the dorms, to pay for a football stadium. When the faculty asks where the students will sleep, the college president played by Groucho Marx responds: “Where they always sleep. In the classroom.”
“College Coach” couldn’t seem to figure out where it was on the Whiz/Nuts spectrum, and with a final act that can only be described as bonkers, the movie winds up falling into an utterly cynical gray area, one today’s kids might call “Deze Nuts.”
Which is why it’s so relevant now.
Just like the fedora-topped reporters in “College Coach,” who normalize or ignore the systematic corruption of higher education because a winning team is “good copy,” the modern media band plays on, accompanied by a chorus of victory-hungry fans.
Wellman plays some of this corruption for laughs, and effectively, with a spicy Pre-Code Hollywood script.
“How’d ya like to sick a finger in her coffee?” says a lascivious player.
“They’re making me an honorary Woodpecker,” a booster tells Coach Gore at a speaking engagement for a Boy Scouts-like organization, and then points to his friend. “He’s a ‘pecker, too.”
But throughout much of its uneven 75 minutes, the film shakes its head and frowns on scandal, setting itself up as a formulaic Aw Nuts morality play about sportsmen gone bad.
The coach wins the conference championship and fills the stands thanks to his rampant cheating, but the coaching racket catches up to him awful quick. In his second season, with his roster depleted by his prior bad acts, Gore’s team struggles. The season finale becomes a true must-win game; a loss would blow up the financing of the coach’s stadium scheme and send him to “the poor house.”
Gore seems headed for a deserved comeuppance. Except that’s not what happens.
At the film’s climax, Phil Sargent, Powell’s miscast quarterback, who had quit the team because football was getting in the way of his chemistry classes, is coaxed into rejoining the squad for the dying moments of the final game. So too is the character who’d been expelled for trying to shag the coach’s wife. Thanks to the prodigal players, the team comes from behind for the victory, and …
The team erupts in celebration. So does the coach. So does his long-suffering wife. So does a chemistry professor who had previously been disgusted with the university swapping its integrity for football.
It’s an ending rendered even happier when Coach and Mrs. Gore, who’d vowed to slow down and work on their troubled marriage, abruptly decide to leave for a better-paying job at a bigger school.
In the 1993 James Caan film, “The Program,” victory in the climactic big game is a temporary triumph for the beleaguered players and coaches over a crushing system. In contrast, “College Coach” glories in the victory of the corrupt system itself: a cleat stamping on a human face—forever.
Intentionally or not, Wellman throws down a gauntlet for anybody who believes the games we watch can uphold quaint notions like sportsmanship and fairness, or that they can be reformed in any meaningful way.
In his final pre-game speech, Gore extols the most salient value in this world, then and still. “There’s a crazy, daffy crowd out there screaming for a hundred thousand dollars worth a ball game,” he says. “Now go on out and deliver.”
Flawed and dated though it is, this little relic of a movie casts light on why today’s NCAA reformers have such a Sisyphean task. For more than a century, there’s been a rabid audience for the spectacle of college football, a crazy, daffy crowd that doesn’t care about hypocrisy, overlooks scandal, ignores player safety, and worships flimflam men posing as coaches—so long as they put people on the field who go out and deliver.