Trouble Along the Way in College Football

Here’s my latest piece in the Stay Thirsty Winter magazine.

Something to think about as the nation tries to crown a national college football champion.

By Mark Yost

Before you get into your next argument over whether or not college athletics is really corrupt, and how long it has been that way, you might want to watch Trouble Along the Way. This little-known, film masterpiece from 1953 is usually shown about the same time as the college bowl games, and is a cautionary tale about the conflict – then as much as now – between big-time college sports, academic integrity, and an all-mighty dollar that has been made even mightier thanks to lucrative television contracts. One viewing and you’ll realize that there never was a golden age of college football when it was all about team spirit.

TroubleThe movie stars Johns Wayne in one of his least-known roles as Steve Williams, a disgraced college football coach who was fired for doctoring too many high school transcripts and recruiting too many lumberjacks from Saskatchewan. The film opens with the Duke hustling quarters (“75 cents a ball”) in a New York City pool hall when Father Burke, played by likable character actor Charles Coburn, walks in. Burke is the headmaster at tiny St. Anthony’s College, a thinly veiled carbon copy of St. Peter’s in Jersey City. He’s just been told by the diocese that the Catholic college has to close due to financial problems. Father Burke’s solution is to hire Williams to resurrect the school’s football program and get the college the money it needs.

“I’ve been kicked out of the Big 10, the Ivy League and the Southern Conference,” Wayne says. “They wouldn’t let me coach at Alcatraz.”

But Father Burke knows he’s found his man when Wayne gives him a quick history of football that’s also a bit of clever foreshadowing.

“It’s a fine game, football,” Wayne says. “A noble game. Originated in England in 1823 when an enterprising young man named William Webb Ellis, who studied for the ministry by the way, found his team behind in a soccer game. So he picked up the ball and ran through the amazed opponents for a thoroughly illegal touchdown. And that’s how football was born: illegitimately.”

Wayne, one eye on the pool table, goes on to explain how football came to America and the NCAA came to be: “Someone invented a little formation called the Flying Wedge. So many young men we’re maimed and killed by this clever maneuver that President Roosevelt – Theodore Roosevelt – had to call the colleges together and ask them to make the game less brutal. He was, of course, defeated in the next election.”

And then there’s Wayne’s soliloquy on the economics of college football, as relevant today as it was then: “Football became an industry. The price of a good running back often surpassed the salary of a professor. And when some righteous committee unearthed this well-known fact, it was always the coach who took it on the chin.”

That, of course, isn’t the case anymore. Just ask any number of college coaches – Pete Carroll, John Calipari – who have had the amazingly good timing to leave their schools just ahead of the always-late NCAA posse.

Of course, Wayne agrees to coach St. Anthony’s, but only after Father Burke assures him of “an absolutely free hand” to make the team his own. This Faustian bargain sets up the tale – well-told by director Michael Curtiz  – of a small, private Catholic college and its sometimes comedic, but ultimately tragic foray into what was already by the 1950s big-time, corrupt college football.

DukeSome of the best dialogue comes when Wayne rounds up his old coaching staff, including a young Chuck Connors before he became more well known as “The Rifleman.” When Wayne asks how many of the best high school recruits are still available, Connors says they’re already committed to other schools.

“They’ll get lose when they hear my offer,” Wayne quips with the kind of oversized hubris that portends a big fall.

When pressed for details, Wayne tells his old cronies, “At my new alma mater, they don’t even know what time it is. All they’re after are gate receipts.”

“So?” Connors asks.

“So, we’re going to cut up all the side angles for ourselves,” Wayne says. “Parking, programs, advertising, pennants, and the paid washrooms. Everybody’s gonna be a member of the firm. This’ll be the first cooperative football team in history.”

Of course, there is no cooperative college football today (unless you count conference revenue-sharing). The schools keep all the money and those players that stay for four years – a minority – get a free education in no-show classes in Geography, Graphic Arts and African-American Studies.

Looking at recruiting film, Connors says of one prospect: “All state tackle. Of course, he didn’t graduate.”

“We’ll print him a diploma,” Wayne says.

That business is a little more sophisticated today; instead of forging transcripts, players go to so-called “prep academies,” which are often nothing more than strip-mall “school” that specializes in math for dummies and lots of practice time.

When Wayne asks, “What happened to that kid from Scranton?” Connors says he was recruited by a school in California. “I think they made his old man vice president of a bank.”

That bit of dialogue was 50 years ahead of its time. In 2006, USC’s Reggie Bush became the only player in NCAA history to return his Heisman Trophy after it was learned that his agent – he wasn’t even supposed to have an agent by NCAA rules – had bought a house for Bush’s parents in Southern California.

Once he has the team he wants, Wayne says they’ll have to win big and early if they’re going to pull in the kind of money that Father Burke needs to save St. Anthony’s. Wayne’s answer: “Summer school.”

“Our own brand. Eight classes a day, all football. Santa Carla, Notre Dame and Holy Cross can’t practice in summer time; conference rules. That gives us a three-month jump. By September, we oughta be able to take on the Chicago Bears, even if they use real bears.”

While there are still rules dictating how much a team can practice, including in the offseason, literally every school has spring football and summer school now. And violations are self-reported.

“What happens if our fellas don’t want to give up their summer for training?” Connors asks.

“They’ll train all right,” Wayne says. “Remember, their stockholders, not college boys.”

Wayne does rack up that first big win, but because this tight, entertaining movie runs a quick hour and 10 minutes, the glory fades fast.

“The day of reckoning has arrived?” Wayne asks all too knowingly when he’s called into Father Burke’s office. Turns out Wayne’s ex-wife, the classic shrew from central casting, called the school and clued the priests in on his winning ways.

“What made you believe that you could save Saint Anthony’s by destroying the very things it stands for?” says Father Burke, asking a question not heard on a college campus in 30 years. And Wayne’s retort makes it clear that the fix was in long before training tables, tutors and ESPN.

“What’s the difference if the kids make the money for the hamburgers and the parking, or some alumnus gets the concession?” Wayne asks. “Father, I’ve been through this so many times that it’s like old home week.”

Yes, we have.

And while all of this is old news to anyone who’s paid attention to college athletics the past 30 years, it begs the question, “Why isn’t this film a part of the standard Wayne classics?”

I asked Scott Eyman, author of John Wayne: The Life and Legend. “It’s OK,” he says. “Not on anybody’s list of Wayne’s best or most memorable, but a stab at a pretty commonplace part. His audience liked to see him in larger than life parts, and Trouble Along the Way is just life-sized.”

Maybe that’s because it was too much like real life college sports, even in 1953. Toward the end, as Wayne’s leaving Father Burke’s office, dismissed in disgrace yet again, he turns and says as only the Duke can, “I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done.”

That was true for Wayne’s fictitious Steve Williams, and of almost every college coach caught cheating today.