The world of sports films is populated by a host of high school football movies that show what can happen when a group of young men comes together to achieve a goal. Whether it is Billy Bob Thornton‘s, Coach Gaines leading a football team in Friday Night Lights, or Denzel Washington‘s Coach Boone, bringing together a community in Remember the Titans, football, high school, and movies seem to go hand in hand.
College football sits in a weird space in the American sports landscape. Caught between two worlds, the true amateur, playing for the love of the game vs. a sports industry that uses amateur athletes to make millions of dollars for NCCA schools. The dramatic and thematic elements presented in college football movies allow filmmakers to explore the turbulent world between one’s teenage years and adulthood.
Here’s a look at some of the best movies about college football.
Knute Rockne, All American (1940)
Any list on the history of college football movies needs to include this American classic on the legendary Notre Dame player and coach, Knute Rockne. While Pat O’Brien plays the title character, former US President Ronald Reagan plays George Gipp that steals the movie. The classic “win just one for the Gipper” line comes from this movie and has remained a part of the sports lexicon for more than 80 years. The film is significant in that it adds to the lore the University of Notre Dame still has today, and would pave the way for another classic Notre Dam movie in the 1990s.
Everybody’s All-American (1988)
Everybody’s All-American isn’t just a college football movie, but a film that deals with the challenges of going out in the real world. Dennis Quaid, Jessica Lange, and John Goodman star in this football movie that doubles as an examination of a couple going through the ins and outs of fame and the effect that can have on a relationship. An interesting college football movie in the regard that it follows Quaid’s Gavin Grey, as he leaves college for the NFL and the pitfalls that come with professional sports. Part college football movie, part love story, the film is open and honest about its characters in a way that is distinctly 80s.
Necessary Roughness (1991)
Sports comedy is a staple of American films, and Necessary Roughness is the college football equivalent of baseball’s Major League. Scott Bakula plays a mid-30-year-old quarterback who returns to college to lead the fictional Texas State Armadillos. The film features the usual cast of unusual characters including Jason Bateman, Sinbad, and Kathy Ireland in roles as football players. The movie still focuses on the sports troupes audiences are familiar with, as it is your classic underdog story mixed with laughs.
The Program (1993)
Written and directed by David S. Ward, and starring the legendary James Caan, along with a host of 90s stars like Craig Sheffer, Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, and Halle Berry in one of her first film roles, The Program stands out for its realistic portrayal of a big money college football program and the pressures that face the coaches and student-athletes. The film has a grittiness that you don’t find in other college football movies. There is nothing clean about the way the film portrays football and the collection of players, media, and fans that the sport supports. The players are just as flawed as the sport itself.
The fact that Rudy came out in the same year The Program did, tells you all you need to know about the world of college football in the 90s. Rudy is the dream-like state of college football, while The Program is the reality. Hearkening back to the Knute Rockne days of Notre Dame football, Rudy is the quintessential football underdog story that takes everything film fans loved about Rocky Balboa and puts it in the body of Sean Astin. It’s impossible to leave this movie not feeling amazing about the world you live in. Rudy is the ultimate, if you dream it, you can do it, a movie.
The Waterboy (1998)
If you are a fan of the Adam Sandler comedy collection of the 1990s, his take on the world of college football in Louisiana is a must-watch. Sandler has a unique ability to play his ridiculous characters with an earnestness that makes them realistic, and this is the case with Bobby Boucher, waterboy turned All-American linebacker. Featuring Henry Winkler and Kathy Bates in supporting roles, the film uses the world of college football and films like Rudy that have come before it to create a comedic splash of a movie that closes up 90s college football movies in a charming way.
The Junction Boys (2002)
The 2000s were a time when college football movies shifted from inspirational and comedic to more realistic and dramatic. Produced by ESPN film, The Junction Boys tells the story of the greatest college football coach of all time, Paul “Bear” Bryan (Tom Berenger) before left Texas A&M and became the stand bearer for all coaches at Alabama. Given the current climate of player safety and health protocols, the film can be a bit jarring, but for anyone wanting some insight into the toughness it took to play football in 1950s Texas, this movie is eye-opening.
We Are Marshall (2006)
On November 14, 1970, Southern Airways Flight 932 crashed, killing all 75 passengers, including 37 members of the Thundering Herd of Marshall’s football team and head coach Rick Tolley. We Are Marshall tells the story of what happens after the tragic event. Matthew McConaughy plays head coach Jack Lengyel who has the task of not only picking up the pieces of the football team but the community as a whole. Featuring a deep cast of talented actors including Matthew Fox, Anthony Mackie, and Kate Mara, the film is an emotional vehicle for the importance college football plays in the very fabric of American life, and how hope can be found within even the biggest tragedies.
The Express (2008)
Part of the sports biopic film crazy that started taking off in the early 2000s, The Express tells the story of Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. Dealing with both on-campus discrimination and his personal health issues, the story of Davis is one of great triumph and tragedy. Rob Brown brings a subtle calmness to the role of Davis, and Dennis Quaid returns to his college football roots as Davis’ head coach. The Express doesn’t shy away from the realities of just how segregated college athletics was at the time, without losing focus on Davis and his inspirational story.
The U (2009)
This ESPN “30 for 30” documentary takes a look at the Miami Hurricanes college football program of the 1980s and 1990s that changed the landscape of the game. Featuring a cast of real-life football icons like Jimmy Johnson, Michael Irvin, and Warren Sapp, the film doesn’t pull any punches regarding the “Bad Boys” of college football and their impact on the cultural and social atmosphere of the time. The way the film juxtaposes Miami with the almost royal nature of Notre Dame makes it a great double watch with Rudy or Knute Rockne, All American.