Following probably the most prolific era ever in terms of baseball movies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was time for the movies to try other sports instead. The big football movie was The Program, which arrived in September of 1993, 30 years ago this month.
It looked at a big-time college football program and all the usual controversies at play with it, providing a relatively shallow look at all of them. The Program doesn’t have a great deal to say about college football that wasn’t conventional wisdom at the time.
Blue Chips, the 1994 William Friedkin film about college basketball, was essentially the same movie, except with a bit more humor. I still love that running bit where Nick Nolte’s head coach keeps fibbing to their different recruits’ moms about what religion he is. And that film actually applied stakes to Nolte’s character having a reputation for running a claim program, and selling out his principles in order to win.
The Program, directed by David S. Ward, was about all of the “controversial” elements of college sports at the time: Steroids, secret payments, academic fraud, sexual assault, and extremely creative in-game trash-talk. Of all those things, though, the trash-talk part was the only one that was truly surprising, or at least not typically part of this sort of movie.
The film follows a season in the life of the Timberwolves of Eastern State University. It’s supposed to be a big time football school, and they play top schools like Michigan and LSU, but the name “Eastern State University” implies that it’s more regional ― a “directional school,” as an old economics professor of mine used to call such places.
James Caan is the coach, and his presence is welcome, even if his character arc isn’t especially compelling compared to Nolte’s in Blue Chips. We know he has to have a winning season or risk being fired; but has he always looked the other way on violations, and disguised suspensions as injuries?
Craig Sheffer plays the quarterback, Joe Kane, a Heisman Trophy contender starting to crack under the pressure and develops a drinking program. He’s introduced as the son of redneck alcoholics, which we see when we glimpse his home life: Between the working TV set on top of a broken one and the empty beer cans on the Christmas tree, is like a Jeff Foxworthy routine come to life. Sheffer, an alleged undergraduate, was 33 years old at the time of the movie’s release. (Kristy Swanson, then fresh off the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, played his girlfriend.)
Omar Epps, a much more believable 23 at the time, plays Darnell, a freshman running back who’s in love with his tutor (Halle Berry), whose boyfriend, a rival running back, is a future doctor.
Meanwhile, exactly one guy on the team (Andrew Bryniarski) takes an entire team’s worth of steroids, while the leading trash talker is Duane Davis, a college student in this film, but a grizzled veteran baseball player in Little Big League, which came out just a year later.
A few other familiar faces pop up, including a very young Joey Lauren Adams, as the coach’s daughter.
David S. Ward also directed Major League, and wrote The Sting and Sleepless in Seattle.
The film wasn’t a big box office success, and likely made more news for a scene ― in which the players lie down on a road and nearly get hit by cars ― that was ultimately removed from the film after its release, after kids started imitating it.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.