What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called the “1st and Ten Blog-A-Thon” which is an event coinciding with the start of the American football season. This blog-a-thon is being hosted by Dubsism and The Midnite Drive-In dedicated to football films or movies in which American footballers appear. We’ll also accept Canadian footballers as well, but we don’t know of any movies featuring the CFL.
The film opens in the aftermath of the destruction of the once-mighty Texas State University Fightin’ Armadillos. The premise is they were the leviathans of college football, having just won consecutive national championships. But when it was found they broke pretty much every rule in the book, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) obliterated the program. The sanctions levied against the Armadillos included forfeiture of years’ worth of victories, the firing of the entire coaching staff, and the banishment of all but one player.
As part of the Armadillo “Phoenix” rising from the ashes, new head football coach Ed “Straight Arrow” Gennero (played by Hector Elizondo) is tasked with building a new big-time college football program without any of the usual resources…particularity he gets no scholarships. Not only does he have to try to build a team from public try-outs, Gennero must also contend with the hostile Dean Phillip Elias (played by Larry Miller), who wants nothing more than for the team to fail so he can get rid of it; believing football to be a huge waste of university resources.
As such, Elias red-pens many of the prospective new players as ineligible, leaving only a handful of players with which to form a team. Having nowhere near the number needed for a full squad, the Armadillos are forced to play “iron-man” football; the players have to play both offense, defense, and special teams. That coupled with the “walk-on” nature of this team means the new, honest Armadillos lack real talent throughout their roster.
This is when assistant coach Wally “Rig” Riggendorf (played by Robert Loggia) is forced into some decidedly unconventional options. One is he drives out into the Texas brush to a ramshackle ranch to recruit a 34-year-old high school star who never attended college due to his father’s death. Rig convinces Paul Blake (played by Scott Bakula), to enroll at Texas State and become the Armadillos’ quarterback. Once Blake arrives on campus, he immediately draws attention because of his age. He also draws the eye of Professor Suzanne Carter (played by Harley Jane Kozak). More on that in a bit.
Years before the recent “Carly Lloyd” stuff, Rig recruits a soccer player named Lucy Draper (played by Kathy Ireland) to be the team’s place-kicker. To complete this make-shift team, Blake recruits graduate-student teaching assistant Andre Krimm (played by Sinbad), who just so happens to have eligibility remaining. Blake convinces him to join the team to reprise his role as the star lineman he was years earlier.
As expected the team struggles, but has a unifying moment as Draper nails a field goal in a driving rainstorm to secure the team’s first non-loss in the form of a 3-3 tie.
However, the joy of non-defeat is short-lived as after this game, two things happen which cause Blake to quit the team.
First, Blake gets into a football argument with head coach Gennero, and he gets into an argument over Dean Elias with Professor Carter. Blake’s teammate Jarvis Edison (played by Jason Bateman) also quits, but as they are driving away from campus, Edison unintentionally convinces Blake to go back.
The reasons for the argument with Gennero are obvious; those for the clash between Blake and Carter are less clear, but not invisible. The confirmation of a burgeoning love interest between the two comes out when Carter tells Blake that she knew him years ago, when her then-boyfriend was a high school football star whose team got blown off the field by Blake and his squad. This left the future professor smitten with Blake. The problem is now that they are reunited , there’s complications to the budding romance. The first is now they are student and teacher, which Dean Elias uses as a wedge because not only does he hate the star quarterback of the football team he would love to flush, he has designs of his own on Carter.
It all comes together during the final game of the season against the #1 ranked Texas Colts. Not only are the ‘Dillos double-digit underdogs, Coach Gennero is hospitalized before the game with what is ostensibly a heart-attack. Coach Rig takes over the team, and delivers an inspirational speech as only he can.
Texas State lays an egg in the first half, but rallies in the second stanza after Coach Gennero, having only suffered a bout of indigestion. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say the ending borrows heavily from the original version of “The Longest Yard.” Roger Ebert* himself described “Neccessary Roughness” as “predictable, but does not pretend to be anything more than entertainment.”
* – Be sure to check out Dubsism’s contribution to the upcoming Siskel and Ebert at the Blog-a-Thon!
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
The hidden sports analogy in this movie really isn’t all that hidden. The Texas State Fightin’ Armadillos in reality are the Hollywood dramatization of the Southern Methodist University Mustangs. The sanctions leveled against Texas State in the movie are for all intents and purposes what happened to SMU in the late 1980s. Chronicling this story, “Pony Exce$$” might be might be the best ESPN “30 for 30” ever made (although the one about the guy who tried to buy a hockey team with no money is pretty damn good too).
In the parlance of the game, what happened to SMU is known as the “death penalty.” In short, SMU was essentially forced to dismantle its football program after years of being the classic example of the “repeat offender.”
In order to best understand how the fictional Texas State Armadillos exemplify the very real post-“death penalty” SMU Mustangs, let me set the story from the beginning. SMU was one of the most storied programs in all of college football. SMU Mustang football history boasted a Heisman Trophy winner, a national championship, and ten Southwest Conference titles. During the period which brought down the wrath of the NCAA, SMU was arguably the most dynamic team in all the the game, posting a 52–19–1 record from 1980 to 1986.
The peak came in 1982 when the legendary “Pony Express” backfield consisting of future Pro Football Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson and long-time NFL stalwart Craig James led the Mustangs to a 10-0-1 season; the tie coming against Arkansas. That draw cost SMU a shot at the national championship despite being the only undefeated team in the nation.
Another national championship was the ultimate goal at SMU, and getting that close to the peak and coming up just that much short turbo-charged the corruption in the program. Everything around Mustang football became all about old, rich, and corrupt guys flinging around those bank-robber-style bags of cash while gutturally grunting “GIMMEH!”
The poster child for this was Bill Clements, who was an old-school oil bazillionaire, two-time governor of Texas, and chairman of SMU’s board of governors.
By 1985, SMU’s football program has already been handed three years probation for recruiting violations. This marked the seventh time the Mustangs had been in the NCAA “penalty box” in their history, and specifically the fifth time since 1974. In other words, SMU already had one foot in the grave when in 1986, two players blew the whistle that players were still being paid. This presented a massive problem as Clements had been steadfastly denying any illegal payments were still happening, all while he and the board of governors engineered a secret plan to honor previous commitments made to players while the school quietly would phase out the slush fund being used to pay players once all previous commitments had been fulfilled.
Naturally, the two players who dropped the dime on everything were two guys who were getting cut off from the cash trough. In any event, the subsequent investigation revealed that not only were payments still happening in 1986 after SMU had promised they had stopped, but that a slush fund for making such illegal payments had been in existence since the mid-1970s. In 1986 alone, it was determined that at least 21 players were being paid as much as $750 a month (don’t forget that was a hell of a lot more money than it is today). The money for the slush fund was provided by boosters and distributions were made by athletic department staff members.
Once it became clear that SMU not only fostered a complete disregard for the rules before they got caught, they completely disregarded the punishments, and lied about doing it, the NCAA had no choice but to drop the hammer on SMU. The sanctions involved in the “death penalty” included the following:
The end result of all this was when 1989 rolled around, SMU legend and Hall-of-Famer Forrest Gregg was brought in to play to the role of Ed “Straight Arrow” Gennero and restore some semblance of dignity to the Mustangs. But like the Texas State Armadillos, the combination of the loss of scholarships and the fact players were reluctant to attend a school being punished for major recruiting violations meant SMU was left with a severely undersized roster composed mostly of freshmen. In fact it wouldn’t be until 1992 that the Mustangs would field a team with a full complement of scholarship players.
But the damage has lingered. Since 1989, SMU has defeated only 2 ranked teams, has had only 3 winning seasons, and has only won about a third of their total games. The Mustangs did not return to a bowl game until 2009 when they defeated Nevada in the 2009 Hawaii Bowl.
The Moral of The Story:
The old saying is winners never cheat, and cheaters never win…except they do all the time. The sanctions against SMU put the screws to a lot of innocent people, but come 1989 Bill “GIMMEH!” Clement was still a bazillionaire, the boosters that were pumping in the money in still had plenty to pump, SMU head coach Ron Meyer went on to a lucrative NFL career, as did Eric Dickerson and Craig James; lots of people profited from “Pony Exce$$.” But Forrest Gregg got to spend a good part of his autumn years coaching clumsy accounting majors and the like, and lot of vendors, administrative staff and other whose livelihoods depended on SMU football lost two years out of their lives.
At least in the movie, Paul Blake got the girl.
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