“You think football builds character. It does not. It reveals character.” — Coach Bill Courtney, in the documentary film Undefeated

Last weekend, celebrities gathered in Hollywood for their annual night of high fashion and tearful speeches – that’s right, the Oscars.

Among all the gowns and the glitter, we’re willing to bet there was only one football coach in the audience. And that coach walked out on Sunday night an even bigger winner than he was when he walked in.

That’s because Bill Courtney, a lumberyard owner and volunteer high school coach in Memphis, Tenn., was a central figure in the film that walked away with the Oscar for Best Documentary.

Undefeated, the film that stars the coach, is a story of the Manassas Tigers, a team in the poor, violent, and traumatized neighborhood of North Memphis.

When Coach Courtney came along, the team had not won a game in 14 years, and had not won a playoff game in its entire history. But most humiliating of all, when wealthy schools in the region wanted a surefire win for their Homecomings or other big games, they would hire Manassas to come be their punching bag. The other team got to look good for their fans, and Manassas got $3000, which was how they financed their season’s equipment and transportation.

Ending the practice of getting hired to lose was the first thing Courtney did when he took over as coach in 2003. Then, he began the process of teaching his players not just how to build strong football skills, but how to build strong character. His impact on his players and their families was nothing short of life-changing.

Undefeated follows the Manassas Tigers through the 2009 – 2010 school year. The filmmakers moved from Los Angeles to Memphis after they read a newspaper article about the team, and ended up living there for nine months, in the process spending thousands of hours with the high school students and their coaches, capturing emotional highs and lows of every kind.

How is the coach handling his new, higher profile since the movie got an Oscar?

“There’s three things I hope people get out of this movie,” he told the Memphis Daily News recently. “One, if you put race and preconceived notions aside … it’s amazing what we can accomplish if nobody cares who gets the credit. Two … the only way in my opinion to really kick abject poverty’s butt in this country is to not give a hand out but a hand up. Three, I hope people are inspired to get out of their comfort zone and go find something to do somewhere. If people get all that, then I’m glad.”

If you like inspiring sports movies, we think you’ll love Undefeated. Sometimes real life is even better than anything Hollywood could make up.

The film opened last week in limited release, and is expected to hit wider release nationwide sometime in March. If you want to be sure it comes to your community, consider making a request to your local cinema manager.

6 comments for ““You think football builds character. It does not. It reveals character.” — Coach Bill Courtney, in the documentary film Undefeated

  1. Donald Knight
    March 3, 2012 at 3:27 am

    Does anyone know if this will be available on DVD? I’d like to be able to show this to my students here in Taiwan.

    • editor
      March 4, 2012 at 11:51 am

      Hi Donald —
      I’m sure that it will be eventually be released on DVD, but probably not until after its theatrical run is finished. Since it only opened in theaters just recently here in the U.S., that may take a while.
      – Eliza, Josephson Institute editor

  2. Russell McConnell
    March 5, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    The next great class divide in America is the tendency of wealthy, high profile schools to siphon talent from poorer schools. Poor schools and poor students receive another lesson in the power of resources and exposure that the winners have over the losers. It is a lesson in inequity in the one place where a talented athlete could once rise above the problems of poverty and give hope to his neighborhood. Now those students magically find housing and assistance to move into wealthier neighborhoods for the benefit of wealthier schools. They are heroes until they can no longer play football or they cannot succeed academically. It is a privilege and opportunity for only a few, but a tragedy for many.

    One more thing: what happens to the poorer students in a sports program that caters to the elite?

  3. February 22, 2013 at 9:01 am

    First of all, undefeated was a phenomenal film. I think that it really illustrated that football is not so much about winning or losing but rather a tool to bring people together, to have fun and to learn lessons in life.

    I will say that whoever published this article should do a source check because Marv Levy – former Buffalo Bills coach is the first one to have said that “Football doesn’t build character, it reveals character” Bill Courtney simply repeated it.

    I do recommend this film to ANY youth football coach. I think that is should be MANDATORY that every youth coach on the planet watch this film—We’d see a new breed of football teams and young men that play on those teams.

    -Upper Cape Spartans

  4. Pamela Woods
    August 10, 2013 at 7:19 am

    Please contact me when this is available. I need to share this documentary with my son.

  5. October 24, 2014 at 10:24 pm

    We’ve been circulating copies of this movie within our organization since it was released. The movie really illustrates the benefits of coaches that care and the positive impact that football can have on a community and the players.

    I actually got in contact with Coach Courtney and his outlook on football was that the players come together over something to believe in.


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