Director – Jim Podhoretz
Length – 120 minutes with commercial (102 minutes without)
Installment – #77 of 30 for 30/ESPN Films series
Most Similar To – The U, The Fab Five
Grade/Ranking – Top 25
Review – In the minutes leading up to Monday Night Football, I saw a commercial for tonight’s 30 for 30. This is what followed:
“Shit that’s tomorrow?”
“How long is it?” (hoped for 1 hour, sees it’s two hours).
“Do I have a DVD in the mail that I missed or do I have to watch on computer or Ipad” (ended up being the latter).
“What’s it about again?” (description from ESPN below):
“A look at how Bill McCartney mixed two religions — college football and evangelical Christianity — while serving as head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes in the 1990s, a tenure that included a national championship.”
I was not looking forward to this review. I’m a huge CFB fan, but didn’t recognize Bill McCartney’s name. Although I latched onto the NFL as a six year old in 1988, I can’t really recall tracking much college football until 1993. McCartney was still coaching but would soon be on his way out and somehow despite the excessive amount I read, watch, and engaged about college football, my mental file on McCartney was empty. The description of the film, the two hour run time, and the audio not being synched by a few seconds on my Ipad (#firstworldproblems) had me not overly excited for ‘The Gospel According to Mac’, but the film overexceded my expectations by a LARGE margin.
While the description does it no justice, ‘The Gospel According to Mac‘ is to me one of the best kind of 30 for 30’s in that it’s a very compelling story that’s told well, but more importantly a story that was totally new to me. Without this film, I don’t know if I’d never know much about this story and that would be a loss because it’s just so rich with twists and turns that rarely exist in reality, let alone sports.
Through the first twenty minutes into the film I was wondering how were we going to get two hours out of this story as we learned about McCartney and his early recruiting efforts at Colorado.
The film gained some momentum as it begins to focus on on the cultural assimilation of minority athletes at predominantly white colleges and towns. At one point I wondered if the film was initially conceived to have some type of editorial tie with The Undefeated.
And then things get pretty damn crazy from there. I don’t want to have too many spoilers but some of the things that unfolded at Colorado are on the same level of many of the more unbelievable plots in the Friday Night Lights series. Even now as I retrace the narrative, I think if you explained it to someone else who was unaware of the story they’d shake their head that it seemed too ridiculous and they would have heard about it if this indeed did happen. I know nothing about this Texas football movie that is going to be in theaters soon, but would lay 100:1 odds it would have a more crazy story than the handful of developments that led up to Colorado’s National Championship.
This crazy story happened before my time, before the era of cable and the internet, and social media. The string of news stories, narratives, and football games that occurred under McCartney’s regime today would DOMINATE the news-cycle. There is a good 30-40 minutes of the film where you feel as if this true story is being scripted and the story just keeps developing. I’d be VERY surprised if this hasn’t been attempted to be adapted to a movie at some point already.
The amazing thing to me is just the football element of McCartney’s Colorado teams alone could be a 30 for 30. For the last five years of his career (before unexpectedly retiring at age 54), the Buffaloes were never unranked. They won one national title, finished in the top four three times, and played Notre Dame in three out of those five years in bowl games with National Championship implications.
Even just looking at their National Championship season which included the memorable and controversial 5th down win against Missouri, Colorado’s run for glory started with a loss, a tie, and wins by 2, 4, 6, and 7 points in the first six games and was bookended by a memorable last minute bowl win again Notre Dame.
An option team winning a championship? Ties? The Big Eight? Nebraska being relevant in football? A coach getting a contract extension after just going 1-10 in his third year and drawing controversy to the program? It seems like ages ago but for me and others around my age, it was just many of the somewhat forgotten or at least faded pre-BCS era that only comes to life when a documentary of this caliber revives them in our collective memories.
I found myself yearning to know more about these Colorado teams. More game footage, more info about the players, more context on their seasons. One thing I made note of is that there is no major college football media personality who helps guide the story. Similar installments often have a Chris Fowler, Brent Musburer, or Keith Jackson to help provide the proper context of just what the lay of the land was for certain points in time and historic games. I found myself wanting to know how these teams were viewed at the time and what the buzz was for some of these larger moments. Instead more of the retracing of these seasons relies on players and coaches and hence it’s a bit unclear what the national reaction and perception was to many of these events.
But this documentary is only 1/3 football. It’s only 1/3 McCartney and his religious convictions. The rest is 1/3 of everything a screenwriter could offer in terms of off the field storylines. Suffice to say if you’re a college football fan or just appreciate a good and yes long story, you’ll be rewarded here.
Director Jim Podhoretz does a fine job telling it. It doesn’t stick out as one of the more artful 30 for 30’s. I wouldn’t say it seemed low budget, but I got the sense the budget for this film might have been a bit thinner than others. But with that said, there weren’t any obvious creative choices that didn’t sit well with me.
One thing I think that works against the film is that Colorado and McCartney really didn’t stick out much in either direction as a scrappy underdog who warranted your rooting interest or a towering rogue football factory oozing attitude and confidence. They’re stuck somewhere between Jim Valvano’s NC State team and THE U on the college athletics scale. There are obviously some strong reasons why’d you root for them (a terrible tragedy the team endured and rallied around) but culturally they lacked flair in any direction which has typically been a staple of some of the college 30 for 30’s.
To be fair, that’s honest storytelling but I wouldn’t have minded being a little more invested in the program’s success or having more of a connection with the players and coaches presented on the team.
It’s doubtful someone like Bill McCartney could find a fit in today’s college football world but regardless of your opinions on his various philosophies, it’s very hard to argue that McCartney and his football teams didn’t deliver a level of entertainment, success, and dramatic narratives that wouldn’t be engrossing today.
Although it flew under the radar for me and I suspect many others, ‘The Gospel According to Mac‘ delivers a pretty potent story that fills the two hour time-slot and may find many wanting to know more about McCartney and his pretty amazing run. Although some somber moments and the longer runtime may turn some off, I think most will be surprised with how good of an installment ‘The Gospel According to Mac‘ truly is.