Friday Follies

I have never been a proponent of the pre-game or halftime speech. The rousing speech that wins the day is largely the creation of Hollywood myth-making and fawning local sportswriters. Most football coaches realize that the best motivation takes place during the week, and that long-winded game day speeches typically fall on deaf ears.

One of the persistent myths of football is that the coach's speech is often the key to victory. If your knowledge of football comes primarily from the local multiplex, you'll believe that eloquence and emotion are the difference makers between defeat and victory. There are certain unwritten rules about football movies. The team is required to come from behind to win at the last second (ideally in slow motion); there needs to be a fallen hero player cheering them on from the sidelines (or perhaps a hospital bed); a previous goat will make a big play; a selfish player becomes selfless; and the coach simply must give an amazing speech at halftime.

In real life, most speeches are, at best, forgettable. Sometimes they are unintentionally funny. When I have asked old-timers about supposed-famous speeches by great coaches, I usually get a reply something like, "It never happened." Usually a brief remark was re-cast as a profound oratory, but more often the great speech was fabricated wholesale. I once asked former Packer halfback Donnie Anderson about Vince Lombardi's famed speeches. Donnie said, "The press had to make them up because you can't print what he actually said."

The most lauded speech in college football lore actually took place, but it was based on a lie.

Knute Rockne gave his "Win One for the Gipper" speech to the Notre Dame players at halftime of the 1928 Army game. The Irish, in the midst of a 5-4 campaign, were playing a pretty good West Point team in the Bronx. To inspire the players, Rockne related the emotional story of the death, years before, of Notre Dame's first All-American, George Gipp. The story of Gipp's life and times has been polished, edited and altered so often that it is hard to get at the truth. Expelled once from Notre Dame for frequently attending a local house of ill-repute (or for merely missing class, says one source), Gipp had well-earned reputations both as an excellent player and as a wild partier. The specifics are debated, but it is known that he came in ill one winter night after an evening of girls, whiskey and poker. He died from a progressive streptococcal tonsillitis that led to pneumonia.

The Gipp story and the halftime speech found their way into popular culture after the 1940 movie, Knute Rockne - All American. The phrase "Win one for the Gipper" stuck with the young actor who played Gipp, Ronald Reagan. Down at halftime in the 1928 Army game, Rockne gathers his team to tell them of his final visit with Gipp. Rockne says that he was there as Gipp was dying and that George Gipp said:

I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock. But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy.

A rousing speech that supposedly led his team to victory. Problem is that the message from the Gipper never happened. Gipp was too ill to speak during his final hospitalization, doctors had performed an emergency tracheostomy, and there is no record that Rockne, frustrated with his former star's behavior, ever went to see him. Even if he did, the quote was out of character for Gipp and it is curious that Rockne had never mentioned it before that Army game several years later. Rockne never let facts get in the way of a good speech and Notre Dame did rally to win the game 12-6. Army finished the year 8-2.

There is a less-famous Gipp story that may allow better insight into motivation of young football players. In a game in which Notre Dame was down 17-14 at halftime to Northwestern, Rockne was screaming at the players in the locker room when he noticed Gipp, leaned back in his chair, apparently napping. The coach sarcastically addressed Gipp, saying that it appeared he didn't have much interest in the game. Gipp replied that since he had $500 wagered on Notre Dame, he had more interest than Rockne did, and that he was very intent on winning the game.

We've all heard tales of famous speeches and motivational ploys by our favorite coaches. Woody Hayes used to secretly snip the stitches in his Ohio State ballcap, just so he could rip it up at halftime if things weren't going well. Jim Donnan drove a steamroller across the Georgia practice field, itinerant coach Jackie Sherrill once castrated a bull for his Mississippi State players' "benefit", and Kentucky's Guy Morriss once broke his hand by slamming it into a locker at halftime. (It is believed that the broken bone part was unintentional.)

An old Big 8 legend says that Oklahoma's Barry Switzer once came into the Sooner locker room mid-way through a Red River Shootout match with Texas. Realizing his players were overhyped, nervous, and committing mental mistakes, he merely said, "I've been coaching college football for more than twenty years and I've never seen the band play at halftime." He took his players out to the edge of the tunnel where they watched the Pride of Oklahoma march, then proceeded to whip the Longhorns. An often-told SEC story, apparently true, says that Paul "Bear" Bryant prepared his Alabama team for a game against heavily-favored Tennessee with a two-word pre-game speech: "Be strong". Coach Bryant once told a reporter, "Mama wanted me to be a preacher. I told her coachin' and preachin' were a lot alike." I think he was right.

The best halftime speech I ever heard was when my coach grabbed me by the neck and said, "If you don't figure out a way to block that %*&@$# middle linebacker, I am going to kick your (butt) all the way back home."

Movie coaches have the opportunity to be much more eloquent than that guy, though they could hardly be more effective. The screenwriters have all the time in the world to craft speeches, add a musical score, and set up the cameras for perfect cinematic effect. Real coaches have things like X's and O's to worry about, such that many of them have taken to using video clips from the movies as their form of motivation. No one is pulling out Knute Rockne - All American, but many recent films have found currency with coaches seeking a motivational edge.

In Friday Night Lights, Billy Bob Thornton plays real-life Odessa Permian coach Gary Gaines. His speech before the "big game" goes like this….

"Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn't let them down, because you told them the truth. And that truth is you did everything you could. There wasn't one more thing you could've done. Can you live in that moment as best you can, with clear eyes, and love in your heart, with joy in your heart? If you can do that gentleman -- you're perfect!"

In Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino gives his "Game of Inches" speech before the team plays for the Pantheon Cup.

I don't know what to say really. Three minutes to the biggest battle of our professional lives all comes down to today.
Either we heal as a team or we are going to crumble.
Inch by inch
play by play
till we're finished.
We are in hell right now, gentlemen believe me
and we can stay here and get the s--- kicked out of us
or we can fight our way back into the light.
We can climb out of hell. One inch, at a time.

Now I can't do it for you.
I'm too old.
I look around and I see these young faces and I think
I mean, I made every wrong choice a middle age man could make.
I uh....
I p---ed away all my money
believe it or not.
I chased off anyone who has ever loved me.
And lately, I can't even stand the face I see in the mirror.

You know when you get old in life things get taken from you.
That's, that's part of life.
But, you only learn that when you start losing stuff.
You find out that life is just a game of inches.
So is football.
Because in either game
life or football
the margin for error is so small.
I mean
one half step too late or to early
you don't quite make it.
One half second too slow or too fast
and you don't quite catch it.
The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They are in ever break of the game
every minute, every second.

On this team, we fight for that inch
On this team, we tear ourselves, and everyone around us
to pieces for that inch.
We CLAW with our finger nails for that inch.
Cause we know when we add up all those inches
that's going to make the -------- difference
between WINNING and LOSING
between LIVING and DYING.

I'll tell you this
in any fight it is the guy who is willing to die
who is going to win that inch.
And I know if I am going to have any life anymore
it is because, I am still willing to fight, and die for that inch
because that is what LIVING is.
The six inches in front of your face.

Now I can't make you do it.
You gotta look at the guy next to you.
Look into his eyes.
Now I think you are going to see a guy who will go that inch with you.
You are going to see a guy
who will sacrifice himself for this team
because he knows when it comes down to it,
you are gonna do the same thing for him.
That's a team, gentlemen
and either we heal now, as a team, or we will die as individuals.
That's football guys.
That's all it is.
Now, whattaya gonna do?

Great speech, I guess, but it is much too long for reality. A young man's attention span is approximately 30 seconds, unless boobs or food or both are involved.

At some point, though, it doesn't matter if it's Braveheart or Patton or Gladiator. A coach can try Remember the Titans or Miracle or Animal House. The big speech or the perfect movie clip can't make a small player big and it can't make a slow player fast. Chuck Mills, who had three one-win seasons when he was coach at Wake Forest in the 1970s, said "I just give the same halftime speech over and over. It works best when my players are better than the other coach's players."

After all, half of all pre-game speeches are given by losing coaches. Maybe even the best ones were given by the guys who lost the game. Nobody ever seems to write those down.


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