Football Film Study: The Best College Football Teams of the Big Screen


The inherent competition, relationship dynamics, effort to overcome obstacles, and violence that go into football make the sport easily adapted to the big screen.

Football’s relationship with Hollywood dates back to the silent film era. While I can’t point to one specific movie that launched the genre, former Illinois Fighting Illini star Red Grange’s successful transition into football-themed roles laid the foundation for the genre.

College football is routinely translated for movie-going audiences, though true-story adaptations like We Are Marshall and The Express are more common than original screenplays. But there are enough fictionalized football films, or college-themed movies with a football tangent, to provide The Open Man enough game tape to dive in for some scouting reports.


Movie: Revenge of the Nerds

Conference: Pac-12


Filmed on and around the BEAUTIFUL campus of the University of Arizona, Revenge of the Nerds was required viewing as an undergraduate and holds nostalgic charm as a result. It’s also rife with wildly problematic plot points that, when viewed from a contemporary perspective, paint the Tri-Lams as certifiable heels. 

Now, that’s not to deem the Alpha Betas — many of whom are members of the Adams Atoms football team — good guys. The Alpha Betas are bullies with a destructive streak. In fact, the Adams football program may have been the forerunner to the Miami Hurricanes. Just imagine the scandal that would ensue if a fraternity house that numerous football players 

Adams football wasn’t on the level institutionally, either. In his speech to the Atoms ahead of their Homecoming Week game, Coach Harris lays out the importance of winning not only for a bowl bid, but to attract the “laundry money” from boosters. 

Despite the scandalous atmosphere in and around Adams football, we can fairly deduce the Atoms are pretty damn good. Bowl games were typically reserved for conference champions and Top 25-ranked teams in the mid-1980s, so having one on the line come Homecoming (which most Pac-12 schools hold in late October or early November) suggests Harris had his team rolling. 

That the dean of the university would allow a star defensive lineman like Frederick “Ogre” Palowakski to disrespect him in front of the student body suggests Adams football holds particular clout. 

Fun fact! Actor Donald Gibb, who reprised the role of Ogre in the dreadful Revenge of the Nerds 2: Nerds in Paradise, played basketball at New Mexico before transferring to play football at San Diego. 

While Adams had obvious firepower on the field, its priorities were out of wack. Star quarterback Stan Gable being so heavily invested in Greek life and the Alpha Betas’ performance during Homecoming Week festivities suggest an arrogance that left the Atoms ripe for upset. The petty squabbling of fraternities could very well have derailed a potential Rose Bowl season. 

Forget the Tri-Lams: I want to see a 30 for 30 on the lost season of the Adams Atoms. 


Movie: The Program

Conference: Independent


With its myriad scandals and home in Williams-Brice Stadium, you might think ESU is an SEC program. Wrong! The focal point of the 1993 drama The Program is based on the Miami Hurricanes of the late 1980s/early 1990s, with uniforms patterned after the 1993 national champion Florida State Seminoles; ergo, ACC. Today, at least. 

What’s more, Williams-Brice tenants South Carolina should have been in the ACC, anyway. The SEC just had the foresight to attract the program a few years before The Program‘s release, when the Gamecocks played an independent schedule. Seriously, the Timberwolves are playing opponents from all corners of the country, up and down the docket. That’s not a slate conducive to making the College Football Playoff, but the strength-of-schedule is off-the-charts. 

More so than the Adams Atoms, the ESU Timberwolves really deserve the documentary treatment. Name an issue, and coach Sam Winters’ program had it. Latimer’s steroid-fueled rage, Joe Kane’s alcoholism, Darnell Jefferson and Alvin Mack’s academic struggles; ESU may have been the most scandal-plagued program in college football. 

A studio has yet to produce a fictional movie about college football that’s quite as unsettling and visceral as The Program. There’s certain prescience, too, that mirrors real life almost too much. Kane’s pursuit of the Heisman Trophy has elements reminiscent of Johnny Manziel’s downfall. The assault scene involving Latimer is *really* hard to watch, and Mack’s lack of academic progress hindering him after his torn ACL casts a harsh light on the reality that too many programs are negligent in helping athletes maximize their opportunities. 


Movie: Back to School

Conference: Big Ten


Rodney Dangerfield’s mega-hit Back to School doubles as a biting commentary on 1980s excess, if you are a complete psychopath. Like Revenge of the Nerds, Back to School isn’t a football-themed movie. In fact, football plays a much less significant role in the movie’s plot, functioning only as a the setup for a single action beat. But in that one action beat, we can glean much about the state of Grand Lakes University Hooters football. 

Filmed on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Grand Lakes is a quintessential Big Ten university. The Hooters are not a quintessential Big Ten team, however. Consider Clark, the leader of the football players seeking out Derek Lutz, is built like a quarterback…but wearing a number in the 60s. That means he would have played on the line. In the smash-mouth Big Ten, the Hooters would be gobbled up at the line of scrimmage, even by 1980s standards. 

That a single limo driver ran roughshod over several member of the Hooters doesn’t bode well for the team’s chances in Big Ten play, either. Hence Grand Lakes diving meets drawing so well; the student body has to get behind some sport, right? 


Conference: Sun Belt


The underdogs of 1998’s The Waterboy add an unlikely star in Bobby Boucher before going on a tear, setting up a bowl-game showdown with an apparent SEC opponent, the University of Louisiana. That South Central Louisiana State plays a powerhouse in the postseason means the Mud Dogs are Div. I members, but obviously not in the same conference as UL. Because of the close proximity, it’s fair to deduce they’re in the Sun Belt. 

And Bobby Boucher ran roughshod over both conference foes and a powerhouse opponent in a fashion not seen from a Sun Belt program since Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards (yes, I know App State was in the SoCon at the time of the Michigan win. But if we’re talking Adam Sandler football movies, we have to address Appalachian State). 

The Waterboy is pretty standard Sandler fare. The lead’s an awkward man-child with a horrible manner of speaking, yet he defies the odds to win the affection of an unlikely romantic interest. However, USC football mega-fan Henry Winkler plays an outstanding supporting lead, and the football sequences have enough material fans would actually appreciate to make it worthwhile — the interactions between Dan Fouts and Brent Musburger, in particular. 

Plus, who doesn’t like the idea of a Sun Belt team thrashing an SEC opponent? 


Conference: Big 12


Not only does this make a second film with Rob Schneider in it to appear on this breakdown, but it’s also the second featuring a play-by-play announcer to act like an ass on Twitter. I also realized this is the second column at The Open Man in the past month to reference Rob Schneider. His appearance in Necessary Roughness is noteworthy because he doesn’t don brownface or yellowface.

Rob Schneider sucks, is what I’m getting at. 

Before he was notable for being a social media nimrod and Sandler lacky, Schneider played a small albeit funny role in the criminally under-appreciated Necessary Roughness. This was the last film directed by Stan Dragoti, who also worked on the underrated The Man with One Red Shoe starring a young Tom Hanks, and Mr. Mom with Michael Keaton. Considering that pretty impressive string of successes in just six years, I’m surprised Dragoti, who died last July, didn’t direct more comedies. 

Before I veer too much into the filmmaking of Necessary Roughness, Texas State has arguably the best cinematic team ever assembled. Yes, ESU was stacked, but Texas State lacked the off-field volatility. What’s more, two of the actors in The Program also appear in Necessary Roughness. 

Paul Blake is living the dream, returning to college as an adult for one last shot at glory. The unorthodox team around him, including lineman Andre Krimm, gives the Armadillos veteran savvy. Texas State was also well ahead of its time in the recruitment of a woman, kicker Lucy Draper. Her presence on the team helped solidify the Armadillos team bond. 


Long before universally accessible internet and recruiting services, Ridgemont High product Charles Jefferson was the prototype 5-star prospect. A one-man wrecking crew on defense, every program around the country would have sent scouts to visit San Diego and pitch the future superstar. 

The only question mark surrounding the recruitment of Charles Jefferson? The NCAA would assuredly come calling about the Camaro his younger brother and Jeff Spicoli wreck shortly before the Homecoming game against Lincoln. 

That loose-lipped punk Mike DeMone already dropped the dime that Jefferson got the car from Ridgemont boosters.