Bill Courtney Interview: Former Manassas Tigers Football Coach On 'Undefeated,' Winning Players

When Bill Courtney patrolled the sidelines at Manassas High School in Memphis, Tenn., the team had a saying, “Let’s do what we do, and how we do it.”

The mantra may have prioritized process over prizes but soon enough success followed for a team that had long struggled to even fill the locker room let alone the scorebook. Having previously put his lifelong passion for coaching and education on hold to open his own lumber business, Courtney couldn't resist when offered the chance to help a struggling local team for a few weeks back in 2003.

“I went over there and that two weeks turned into six and a half years,” recalls Courtney.

At first glance, the story of the white, volunteer coach who helps a rag tag group of football players from an all-black school find success on and off the field seems scripted -- and riddled with cliches that would seem to necessitate a syrupy, southern-inflected Sandra Bullock voiceover. But the harsh realities of the Manassas students, the insistent mentorship of Courtney are, for worse and for better, all too genuine. The Tigers' distance from those first practices under Courtney and his fellow coaches to future success was not nearly as easy to traverse as the title of the eventual documentary might make it feel.

The Tigers’ 2009 season was chronicled by documentarians Dan Lindsay and T. J. Martin and captured in their film Undefeated. The team achieved a 9-2 record and reached the playoffs for the first time in school history. Appropriately against the odds, it won an Academy Award.

“The wins and losses are great, but at the end of the day I’d rather lose every game and have a kid grow up and graduate from college and have a job and be in his children's life than win every game and have a bunch of jackasses running around,” says Courtney. “Yeah, that’s what its all about.”

With Courtney as the film’s fulcrum, Undefeated tells the stories of the players who comprise an inner-city football team that succeeds against the odds in hardscrabble North Memphis. By the time that Undefeated was filmed in 2009, Courtney had been in business for eight years and on the coaching staff at Manassas for nearly as long.

“There are 500 hours of film and you got to see two of them,” Courtney said during a recent conversation with The Huffington Post. “There’s a story under every single helmet. There were 19 seniors that graduated off that team in 2009, and 19 of them went to college. That’s what the reward is, that’s the payoff.”

After leaving Manassas, Courtney has taken a coaching role at St. George's School, where his children go to school in the Memphis suburb of Collierville. Although the Gryphons have enjoyed some notable gridiron success since Courtney has left Manassas, he can't help but long for the impact he could have there.

“I really, really miss it. As sincere as I can be, I miss it,” Courtney concedes as the 2012 season is getting underway in Memphis. “I’m good because the coaches there now were coaches that were all with me. I know they’re doing a good job and I know they love the boys. I know that they're not just coaching football but they’re talking about the important stuff."

Amidst his frenetic schedule, Courtney made time for a pair of recent conversations with The Huffington Post and spoke about his time with the Tigers, his theory on coaching and the profound importance of extracurricular activities for students in poor communities.

HP Sports: What is the difference between coaching at St George’s versus Manassas?

Bill Courtney: The effect that I would be able to have on kids at a wealthy private school in the suburbs is going to be much less than the effects you can have on some kids at an inner-city school. To me, it’s not just about winning football games, it’s about that effect. It’s about sharing your own experiences with younger men who need to hear what those experiences are about and hopefully have growth potential beyond just a football team. And while that exists in any program and any atmosphere, it’s certainly not as important as it as at a school like Manassas.

Every coach gets excited about seeing a freshman become a junior, looking back on when he was a freshman when he couldn’t do half the things you wanted him to do. And then over the course of a couple years of practice and work and commitment, you see him evolve into a really good football player and you know that you had some effect on that. I mean, that’s awesome. But it pales in comparison to watching a kid who was in jail and in a gang, get out of a gang, drop the jail mentality and go to college. That’s a whole different level of mentoring and coaching and teaching, and that’s also a more lifelong, profound effect that you can have on a human being. I miss that. And one day I hope to return to it. But that cant take precedent over my own children and my own family anymore.

HP Sports: How important do you believe athletics can be in a low-income community?

BC: In all fairness, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. I’d be much more apt to be able to fight you with a guitar than play it, so my particular skill sets are that I’ve been able to build a business and I know football. But I don’t think it’s any more important than the arts. I don’t think it’s any more important than theater. I don’t think it’s any more important than a shop class, for God’s sake. I think all of it is equally important because there are so many lost kids out there that are looking for something to become interested in. What you can offer them extracurricularly -- whether it’s sports, the theater, art, music, shop class or something else that you can get them interested in – that’s the hook. And then it’s your job as the guy leading whatever that activity is to then use that hook to make them better at what they’re there for, but then use that opportunity to reach them at a much deeper level. What’s important to me is that you have all those other things available to kids so that there are positive alternatives for their life other than the streets.

HP Sports: How did you end up volunteering to coach football at Manassas?

BC: The way we got to Manassas was through a guy that works with me, who I went to college with, a good guy. He and some other friends of his -- actually from his Sunday school class at church -- were just doing some mentoring and cooking some free meals for some area high school football teams. He thought that was a nice way to give back and told me he was gonna do it. I said, “Great, good for you.” He said, “Man, they’ve only won one game in three years and only have about 17 kids on their football team. But they’ve got guys out there that look like they can play.” I said, “Sure, I’ll go over and work with them at spring practice for a couple of weeks.” So that’s when they talked to administration. I went over there and that two week turned into six and a half years.

HP Sports: Did you bring any particular coaching philosophy?

BC: I believe that players win football games. I believe coaches win players. I think coaches take themselves far too seriously. I think there are a lot of coaches in the world that think they can take any decent group of kids and coach them to victory because they’re such good coaches. Frankly, that’s crap. I think players win games and I think the way you get players to win games is you win those players’ hearts and minds. You surround yourself with good talent, and get them believing in something bigger than themselves, and get them to have some character, some discipline and some commitment.

HP Sports: Was it a struggle to win the players?

BC: By Game 5 of that first season, I kind of was into the hearts and minds of about half of these guys. But the other half, while being respectful, I knew there was a disconnect. I didn’t have the depth of a relationship that I wanted. I went to the kids I had the best relationship with and I asked, “What am I doing wrong? What do I got to do?” They'd say, “Coach, just do what you do.” And, I would say, “No. C’mon dude.” They said, "Coach, you’ve done so much for us. I don’t want to hurt your feelings.” And, I said "You ain’t gonna hurt my feelings. What?" They said, “Alright, you wanna talk? And I said, “Yeah, we'll talk.” He said, “You’re the type of guy that’s a turkey person.” And I turned my head sideways and looked at him and I’m sure I looked at him like he was from Mars. And I said, “What’s a turkey person, dude?” And he said, “Coach, every Thanksgiving and Christmas people from your side of the tracks show up in minivans and Suburbans and drop off turkeys and presents and stuff and we take them because we need them. And they seem to be nice people but they leave and we never see them again. It makes you wonder after a while if those people are doing this because they care about us or if they’re doing this so they can go tell everybody what nice things they did on Christmas or Thanksgiving. So they’re just wondering what you’re talking about at night, Coach.”

HP Sports: How did you react? How soon did you know that you wanted to be more than a “turkey person” in this community?

BC: It probably took some time to get my arms around. I mean I knew exactly what he meant when he said it. But there are a lot of things that you know exactly what they mean when you say them, but you don’t know what that means for you. I think it took me some time for me to decide what that meant for me. And when I say “time,” I mean a couple of days. But what ultimately that lead to was the realization that these kids are no different than any kids I’ve ever coached in the suburbs, no different from other children, no different from anyone else’s kids in the world. They simply want to be disciplined, they want to be taught, they want to be cared about. And if you give of yourself, they’ll give you everything they’ve got. This group of kids simply had never had that and I wanted to give it to them.

Look, I’m not this shining, freaking white knight, go-save-the-black-people, paternalistic guy. It was rewarding for me as it was for those kids. And as far me being an inspiration… I mean, every day after practice, I got to get in my $60,000 Denali to drive out to my very nice house in the suburbs and sleep with the windows open, the doors unlocked and the keys sitting in the ignition. Well, those same kids, when I left, they went back and half of them slept in their tubs so bullets didn’t fly through their windows and kill them during drive-by shootings at night. Despite that, every day they come to practice and they come to school with a smile on their face ready to get to work and get better. So maybe I was motivational but they were inspirational.

HP Sports: Was there a particular moment when you realized that you had finally formed a meaningful bond with these kids?

BC: I can’t tell you the time that happened, but certainly over the course of the second season I felt that I got them bought in. That doesn’t come without having to cut a little bit of the fat off. That doesn’t come without a little bit of pain. And that doesn’t come without me having to check myself a couple of times. What I’m saying is that they had to learn, and so did I. In the suburbs when everyone’s doing just fine and somebody misses practice, they may not be able to play the next game or you may decide to run the hell out of them or whatever. But the answer to “Why did you miss practice?” in the suburbs is rarely “Because my momma drove off with a truck driver two weeks ago and I had to get my baby sister some food and almost got caught shoplifting at the store, and had to run from the police for about an hour. I’m sorry I’m late.”

If you want your kids to be disciplined and committed you can't make exceptions for bad behavior. But if the bad behavior has reasons behind it that aren’t just screwing around, being lazy, being stupid, just not wanting to do something then you take steps to remove those excuses. A lot of times, taking the steps to remove those excuses let the kids understand that we did love them and care about them and were gonna be there.

HP Sports: After getting the players to buy in to what you’re saying, how hard was it to convince the parents, school and community that you were doing this for the right reasons?

BC: There were some eyebrows raised because it was an all-black community and I’m this white guy. I’m sure there were a lot of people hesitant, wondering exactly what the hell my motivation was. But over the course of those two years, we had some parent meetings and tried to get to know as many of the moms and grandmothers and dads as we could. Frankly, the parent-coach relationship was better there than anywhere that I’ve ever coached ever. I really felt they made me feel part of their community, part of their family and part of their homes. I’m telling you, this is not some false humility stuff.. I’m telling you that I got accepted into their world a hell of a lot more graciously than they would have been accepted into mine.

HP Sports: How did the team’s outlook and expectations begin to change during your time at Manassas?

BC: We went from Year 1 just figuring each other out to Year 3 when everybody on that football team knew that they were expected to be something much greater than all the other inner-city school teams they were lined up against. And I don’t mean just winning football games. They were supposed to carry themselves differently. They were supposed to react to certain stimulus differently. They were not going to get out there and act like a bunch of assholes and if someone says something about your momma start a fight or be arguing on the sideline talking back to refs. That’s not who we are and that’s not who we’re going to be. And if you couldn’t get past that you cant play for us. It took us a couple of years to get that right, but once we got it right I didn't have to say it. If the freshmen showed up and acted like an ass, the juniors who played two years before, they straightened it out. They'd say "Hey Bubba, I don’t know where you come from and we don’t care but that isn’t how we do things here." There’s an old saying we always had, “let’s do what we do and how we do it.” And that meant let’s go win this ballgame if we can and let’s go about it the right way. And after a few years of ingraining that into freshmen and sophomores that are now juniors and seniors, that becomes a prevalent attitude on your whole team.

HP Sports: Was there a teacher or coach who changed your attitude, inspired you when you were growing up?

BC: I lettered in six sports in high school and my math teacher was named Dale Flickinger. I always thought he was the funniest guys on the face of the earth. In my 10th grade year I got to know him a little bit after I hurt my knee and didn’t play football. I was bored to tears and he coached the chess team. I always thought that was the geekiest, goofiest damn thing there ever was. But he also did the stats for the football team, so one day I asked coach Flickenger, when did you start doing stats for the football team. "I love football." And I asked, “You always liked to watch it?” I was, of course, thinking he’s a math teacher, chess coach, so he’s always watched football. And he said, "Well, in high school I played left guard and we won three state championships and I started my freshman year through my senior year" And I said, “Are you kidding me? and he said no, he said I love football. He said, "I was also a drummer. I had a rock band."

I just thought how amazing that this master in chess and math teacher was a three-time all-state athlete and was a cool drummer guy in a band. You know? That’s pretty cool. And he said, "You know, Bill, you can be smart and be an athlete and play chess and play football and be well-rounded." I joined the chess team, and I won the novice state championship in chess my first year. By my senior year, our little chess team was... I think we got 3rd in the nation in chess. I'm sitting there in a varsity jacket and six stripes down my shoulder, a 6'4" letterman playing chess with these other guys. It opened my mind to the possibilities of being something other than what you’re key-holed to be.

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