John E. Hoover: Bill Courtney's story worth hearing
BY JOHN E. HOOVER World Sports Columnist
Sunday, March 03, 2013
3/03/13 at 7:35 AM
Go to John E. Hoover's blog.Original Print Headline: Coach's story worth hearing
George Halas, Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll, Tom Landry, Bill Walsh - none of their success compares to some of the work that Bill Courtney has done as a football coach.
If you've never heard of Courtney, or of the miracle he performed at downtrodden Manassas High School in North Memphis, Tenn., then you've never seen the film "Undefeated," which won the Academy Award in 2011 for Best Documentary.
"Undefeated" follows Courtney, a volunteer coach, and his team, the Tigers, which hasn't won a playoff game in more than 100 years of football.
It's the best sports movie since "Hoop Dreams."
One of the great disappointments with sports movies ripped from real-life headlines, from "Rudy" to "The Blind Side", is their disconnect from reality, their embellishment of the truth, their insistence on adding sugary sweetness or spicy drama to an already perfect recipe.
"Undefeated" is neither embellished nor fiction, and it is as good as a sports movie gets.
It is sacrifice, it is forgiveness, it is redemption, and it is at times overwhelmingly raw emotion.
"The first time I saw the film, was obviously surreal," Courtney said in a phone interview last week. "It's a weird experience watching something so emotionally tugging that is also your life."
Courtney is the featured speaker at Tuesday's FCA Champions Luncheon (11:30 a.m. at the downtown Hyatt Regency, 100 E. Second St.; tickets are $50, call 918-496-8322).
Courtney played football as a youth, but his trade is business: he owns a lumber company in Memphis. Still, he felt a calling to coach, and he did so for six years at Manassas.
After directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin and their crew tagged around with the Tigers during the 2009 season, and after they turned it into an Oscar-winning film, Courtney's life changed irrevocably.
Courtney now coaches his son's team at another school (he and his wife have four kids), and he still runs his lumber company every day. But from viewing parties with Hollywood A-listers to almost weekly speaking engagements around the nation to his decision to write a book to pitches he's received for reality TV shows (he's turned down two so far but is willing to listen), not a day goes by when he's not reminded of O.C., Chavis, Montrail and the rest of that unforgettable Manassas team.
The most fulfilling thing for Courtney, though, is the number of lives the film continues to touch, and the immutable lessons it teaches.
"You wouldn't believe how many coaches - from little league to middle school to high school and even a few college coaches - have reached out to me, and they are making their teams sit down and watch this film," Courtney said. "You can take the gold statue, you can take the book, you can take the TV shows, take it all. That, to me, is enough.
"That alone is enough to know that maybe my style or how I motivated my team or whatever has inspired other coaches to make sure they recognize that this thing is so much more than just X's and O's. That they're making their team watch it, that is the ultimate compliment. That warms me more than anything. It is phenomenal."
Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll even had Courtney attend one of his coaching clinics to share the message.
"I mean, Pete Carroll, for gosh sakes? Really?"
Among the multitude of lessons Courtney delivers in the film, he is faced with a troubled teen who begins the school year having just been released from a 15-month incarceration. He's athletically gifted, but he flouts authority and even inexplicably punches out a teammate in one scene. Courtney asks himself, "At what point do you quit trying?"
A key incident that wasn't in the film: Courtney's coaching staff showed up at his home one night and told him the player had become a cancer on the team and either he goes or they were going to quit.
"I mean, this kid epitomized what the urban areas of our inner cities are dealing with," Courtney said. "He just was that guy, period. There's no Hollywood additions to making him something he wasn't. That's who he was. Just the worst of the worst, and where he was in his life was a direct result of all those societal problems."
Courtney says his faith as a Christian guided him through the confrontation. Should he cut the player for the good of the team? Or should he sacrifice the team's needs to try to help that one player?
"My belief is that through Christ's sacrifice, I am given redemption and forgiveness," Courtney said. "I believe with everything I am, with every ounce of my soul, that I'm forgiven of the things I've done wrong by virtue of my Lord's forgiveness and the sacrifice of Christ.
"If you had to term up what my faith is in one word, it's forgiveness. It's repentance. It's a second chance every single day."
Now that player is a junior in college and a starting linebacker.
Other similarly poignant stories unfold throughout the film.
Courtney said the various narratives "restored my faith in humanity."
That's perfect. Because in turn, it is coaches like Courtney who restore ours.
Football - all sport, for that matter - is about so much more than winning and losing. That's why Courtney's stay at Manassas might be the greatest coaching job in the history of football.
"One of my mantras is, players win games and coaches win players," he said. "Too many times, coaches are so conceited that they think they can draw up some cool plays and X's and O's to attain the victory, but the truth is, surround yourself with talent and then win their hearts and win their minds.
"Convince them they can always come back and be better people and better teammates and then go let them do their thing."