Last night, the SEC Network aired The Believer, and hour-long documentary on Steve Spurrier. It was passable because the thing was about one of the most interesting men in college football. If you're going to chronicle his life—three-sport star in high school, Heisman winner in college, legendary coach—it's hard to screw it up entirely.
The film was a total missed opportunity, though.
The biggest problem with it was Kenny Chesney. I'm not talking about about Chesney the music act. He's irrelevant. Chesney the filmmaker is in question here, and he's a hack.
He was executive producer and made the film with director Shaun Silva, who's largely a music video director with few credits to his name outside the music world. They made the terrible decision to include Chesney in the film, both on screen in an interview-like setting and as the narrator.
It made the film feel like Chesney was trying to inject himself into the story, which is a bad idea. He's boring compared to Spurrier. Everyone is boring compared to Spurrier. We never should have seen him. Or heard him, really. His narration was stilted and uneven. They didn't need to drop millions to get Morgan Freeman, but an established voiceover talent would have helped.
I think Chesney put himself in there, and got the project in the first place, because he's friends with Spurrier. That fact created more problems. It was almost entirely a glowingly positive look at the Head Ball Coach. It didn't discuss his flaws really at all. He holds grudges, sometimes feuds with his own players, and left Florida in part because he felt the school didn't support him enough in his vindictive prosecution of Darnell Dockett. None of that was in the film, probably because Chesney didn't want to speak ill of his friend. You'd also come away thinking his failure in the NFL was entirely the fault of prima donna players and meddling executives. You'd never know that his lack of dedication to NFL-style film study basically got him blitzed out of the league. No, he was just born to coach in college. That's all.
Beyond that, it just wasn't a good movie. The pacing wasn't great. The music choices were puzzling and frequently bland. It conspicuously reused some of its footage of Spurrier and fans. It just wasn't a good film technically. A documentary on Spurrier should be fantastic, but to get one, you need experienced filmmakers. Chesney and Silva are not that.
Another glaring problem was the near-absence of Georgia. It's hard to believe it, but the film spent no time on Spurrier and his well-known hate against UGA. It comes from his senior season at UF, when a loss to the Bulldogs was the only thing preventing him from winning Florida's first ever SEC championship. He famously went 11-1 against Georgia while coach at UF and talked enormous amounts of trash along the way. He kept throwing late in a successful attempt to become the first visitor ever to hang half a hundred in Athens in 1995 (the Cocktail Party went to the campuses in 1994-95 as Jacksonville renovated the Gator Bowl for the advent of the Jaguars).
You can't fully tell Spurrier's story without mentioning his relationship with Georgia, but The Believer left it out. It did, however, have a segment on the Florida-Tennessee series. It was an important series for sure, but it's not as elemental to Spurrier's essence as his rivalry with Georgia was. Chesney is a Tennessee fan, though. It's not hard to guess why the Vols got priority.
Finally, it was easy to tell that this film did not have a serious football consultant.
For one thing, the film didn't say anything about what made his offensive scheme distinctive in the '80s and '90s. Other passing attacks came around at the time such as the Run and Shoot, but the Fun 'n Gun was its own thing. It would have taken less than a minute to show how one of his signature plays like Ralph/Lonnie or Mills works and then show footage of his Duke, Florida, Washington, and South Carolina teams all running it. But no. All we learned was that Spurrier liked to throw the ball around. How enlightening.
Even worse—perhaps the greatest sin of the whole thing—was that it spent almost no time on his tenure at South Carolina. To hear The Believer tell it, it was just a period of waiting for inevitable success. He arrived in 2005, something something something, 44-33 through six years, and boom, 11 wins each of the last three seasons. Of course he was going to win big in Columbia! He's Steve Spurrier!
To whatever extent Spurrier's success was inevitable—and it's really not for anyone—it was the least assured at South Carolina. It's not just because he had to instill a culture of winning that had never existed before. It was also because even the college world caught up to him by 2005, and he struggled for quite a while with that.
After five years of winning between six and eight games a year, he finally gave in. He hired Shawn Elliott from Appalachian State as his offensive line coach in January of 2010 and had him install a modern shotgun/read-option scheme that the team has run ever since. There are still plenty of classic Spurrier elements, but the Gamecocks have been running stuff since 2010 that 1990s Spurrier would never have thought he'd ever run. The leopard changed his spots, a true rarity in coaching.
The film did discuss a more minor change, when Spurrier embraced the shotgun for the 1996 season's national title game as a way to deal with FSU's incessant late hitting of Danny Wuerffel. That modification didn't fundamentally change his offense, though. He just had the quarterback start a few feet back from previously and ran the same stuff. That change made the film, probably because the players who the filmmakers interviewed brought it up. The far more drastic change that happened at South Carolina never once got a mention, though.
The Believer had some good parts and mostly was enjoyable, but again, it's only because it was about Spurrier. His story is so fascinating and he's such a compelling personality that you would have to work at making a truly bad film about his life.
It missed a lot of important things, spent too much time on some others, and just wasn't very good on a technical level. Some day I hope Spurrier and his family and former players open up again for another documentary, and I hope a competent film crew makes that one.