This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of MemphiSport
Coach Bill Courtney has gone from local high school coach to nation wide star in a matter of months. The documentary Undefeated, about the Manassas Tigers 2009 football season, has gained nationwide attention thanks to its intimate portrayal of inner city athletics. Before Courtney arrived at Manassas, the program that had never won a football playoff game, and its’ players were more likely to go to jail than to college.
With so many great and memorable moments during your time at Manassas High School, which one makes you the proudest?
There were 19 seniors on the 2009 team and 19 of them went to college. That makes me the .proudest. And I do not mean that they went to play college football. I mean went to college. There was a scene where Aaron asked the kids how many of them had a mother and father who both went to college and nobody raised their hand out of 70 kids. And then he asked how many people have a family member incarcerated and every one of them raised their hand. We are talking about a zip code where kids are more likely to go to jail than to college, and 19 kids graduated off of that 2009 team and 19 went to college. So that has to be the thing I am most proud of.
When did you know or feel like Manassas had turned the corner from being a bad football team to a good or respectable team?
Going into the 2006 season. And it was not because I felt like I had more talent, but because that was a group of juniors and seniors that I had been with for three years. They had come up understanding that X’s and O’s was secondary to character, discipline, and commitment. So as upperclassmen they started tutoring the new freshmen and sophomores coming into the program on how to act. Not how to play football, but how to act. And I knew once I had that kind of leadership based in the right fundamentals that we were going to start getting good, and we did.
How did you stop the filming of the documentary from becoming a distraction for your team?
Dan (Lindsey), Rich, and TJ (Martin) were 30 year old guys with no credit to their name except a documentary on beer pong for God’s sake. There was no crew; it was just two guys carrying around camcorders. We did not think this was going to be a major production, but the opposite. We thought we might see this thing buried on channel 365 at three in the morning some random Wednesday. They went to graduation, prom, they taught a film class, they were at chalk talk playbook studies, they were at practice and games. So the truth is you were cognizant of the fact that two guys were running around with cameras, but because they were so consistent and always around that they blended into the team.
Did anything happen during the movie that you were not aware of while the movie was taking place?
Yep, the scene where I am walking away from my son’s football game carrying his equipment. I did not know they filmed that, and the first time I watched the movie, that scene about broke me down. Earlier in the movie I talked about my relationship with my father. Then I am watching the movie for the first time and that scene comes up. I did not know they were filming, I had no idea it was in the movie, and it was so intimate for me that the scene hit me in the face hard. It really showed how my life from 15 years old to 43 years old had come full circle.
Is there anything you would do differently?
Yeah, absolutely! I would not have called pro right trap left.
If there was one message you want a young person to take from the documentary what would it be?
Do right. Every human being who is born on this Earth knows right from wrong. It is just whether or not they choose to do right. If you do right you will be disciplined, committed, and people will be willing to give you an opportunity to get out of your circumstances. So do right, because if you do right you cannot do wrong. None of this has to be complicated. If you do right and realize that your foundation cannot be a football then you will do fine. If you get off track of that then you are going to end up falling on your butt.
Which actor should play you in the remake?
Man I don’t care. I leave that up to the artist. But Chris Farley is dead so I do not know what they will do.
Did you or Manassas get an Oscar?
No, that is for the producers and directors and stuff. It is enough that a documentary, made about our lives, is an Oscar winner. We do not need a 14 inch piece of metal to validate us. We did what we did and we are who we are. Our story has garnered attention from the entire country, and brought heart felt emotions from places we didn’t even know existed. That is what matters, not some stupid statue.
Was the most memorable thing about being at the Academy Awards?
I had just finished an interview with Ryan Seacrest and when I turned to go to the next reporter and I bumped into somebody. So when I turned around to apologize it was George Clooney. When I stuck my hand out to say, “Excuse me George, hi I am Bill Courtney,” he says, “Hey coach! How are you?” And I thought if George Clooney recognizes me this thing has gotten to be pretty big.
Which rags to riches story best exemplifies the documentary Mighty Ducks, Blind Side, or Bad News Bears?
Bad News Bears because it is a story about kids who were not doing anything with their life. Who turned it around and got better. And a very unlikely coach who led them.
What do you mean when you say football does not build character it reveals it?
You don’t have control over anything but your soul, your character, your worth and what goes on inside of you. So something as trivial as football game is not going to build character. What builds character is our recognition that the only thing you have control over at the end of the day is how you walk, how you handle yourself, your character, your discipline, your commitment, your courage, your honor. And then, the trials that are put in front of you throughout your life reveals the character that you built. I do not think football or working hard builds anything, what builds character is something of much greater depth than just football.