Fans of the University of Southern California Trojans are still reeling from the sudden dismissal of head football coach Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian, a former member of the USC coaching staff, had moved on to head the football program at the University of Washington, where his team scored some dramatic wins over longtime rivals. He was lured back to USC in 2014, and had hopes of another stellar season this year. Then it became all too clear that the coach was fighting a drinking problem. A divorce that was announced in April probably contributed, but there were rumblings about alcoholic lapses back in his Seattle days. At USC this fall, Sarkisian missed practices and behaved bizarrely at a major booster event; several players admitted to smelling liquor on his breath. A brief leave of absence hardly solved matters, and his USC contract was terminated on October 12, 2015, with the football season barely underway.
This is not the way things happen at the movies. On-screen football coaches tend to be paragons of virtue. The movie that most sticks in my mind in this regard is an oldie, 1940’s Knute Rockne, All American. Today the movie is best remembered for Ronald Reagan’s portrayal of a real-life Notre Dame halfback, George Gipp, who – before dying young of a streptococcal throat infection -- makes an inspirational speech urging his teammates to “win one for the Gipper.” But the movie’s true star is Pat O’Brien, who plays the title character, a Notre Dame chemistry instructor who transforms the game of football with his inventiveness and his leadership skills. He invents the forward past, and inspires his Fighting Irish teams (composed of good men and true) to glory before dying at the age of 43, in 1931. Ironically, he was en route to serve as a technical advisor for a feature film called The Spirit of Notre Dame when his plane went down in a Kansas field.
Pat O’Brien’s Knute Rockne is a totally good guy (as in real life he apparently was). A much more recent true football story also boasts a good-guy hero. I’m talking about Remember the Titans, released in 2000, but chronicling a memorable series of events from 1971. The place was Alexandria, Virginia, then in the throes of desegregation. African-American Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) is hired to replace a legendary white coach at the head of a newly integrated high school team. Predictably, there are clashes between black and white members of the squad, complicated by the fact that the original coach has reluctantly agreed to serve as Washington’s assistant. But, happily, everyone learns to work together, despite the bad behavior of biased officials, for the greater glory of T.C. Williams High School,
USC has enjoyed a great deal of football glory, but the Steve Sarkisian era will not be on its highlights reel. Despite the real-life drama involved, a movie about a football coach with a drinking problem will probably not be on a studio’s roster anytime soon. This is especially true because USC has long had a cozy relationship with Hollywood. Its fabulous film school buildings are financed by some of the industry’s finest (Lucas, Spielberg, Ron Howard), and I doubt they’d smile on a story that cast university personnel in a negative light. I’ve discovered there WAS at least one Hollywood movie that focused on a football coach from hell. But College Coach, starring Dick Powell as a conniver who’ll do anything to win games, was made all the way back in 1933. I don’t see it being updated anytime soon.