New York Jets coach Rex Ryan loves to curse, looks like an offensive lineman, and owns a lucky pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars. He spends the season premiere of Hard Knocks—HBO's Wednesday night NFL reality show that has averaged 841,000 viewers per episode in its first two weeks—blowing up his profession's uptight stereotype. "Last year, hey we were under the radar," he tells his players in a team meeting. "That's a good place to be. Fuck that. The best place to be is when expectations are high."
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His is the kind of casual bravado that makes grown men swoon—and that's exactly what happens when a group of fans at training camp start a "Sexy Rexy!" chant. "That's when you know you're handsome," Ryan says. "When guys talk about you." Clearly, Ryan, who had lap-band surgery in March, isn't afraid to publicly poke holes in his ego. He may stomp around with Chris Farley's manic energy, but he doesn't take himself or his job too seriously.
It's why Ryan is more entertaining than any other coach to ever appear on television or film—including the host of coaches featured in slick Hollywood productions like Any Given Sunday and Varsity Blues. Ryan is so endearing because his outbursts are real. It's why boxing documentary When We Were Kings is better than Ali. Will Smith's impression is excellent, but I'd rather watch the real Muhammad Ali. The same goes for football. Real coaches are generally more interesting than their fictional counterparts. Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips wore a Cowboy hat, ostrich-skin boots and was often seen spitting a steady stream of tobacco juice. The dyspeptic Bill Parcells, who coached the New York Giants, New England Patriots, and Dallas Cowboys, once referred to receiver Terry Glenn as "she" as a motivational ploy. And Oakland Raiders coach John Madden, of whom Ryan is a stylistic descendant, was as emotional as his players. The man always looked disheveled, even when he was wearing a suit.
Coaches in movies and on scripted TV are dull by comparison. In Any Given Sunday, there's Al Pacino's cartoonish megalomaniac Tony D'Amato. In Varsity Blues, there's Jon Voight's Bud Kilmer, a good ol' boy who spends the movie spouting clichés like, "This game is 48 minutes for the next 48 years of your life," and "Never show weakness, the only pain that matters is the pain you inflict." In Remember the Titans, Denzel Washington's Herman Boone (who is based on a real person) is admirable; but the character has too much to bear—undoing entrenched racial inequality in 113 minutes isn't exactly an easy task—and doesn't reveal much beneath his earnest exterior. In 1983's All The Right Moves, Craig T. Nelson's coach Nickerson seems only capable of making Tom Cruise's protagonist miserable. Later, Nelson appeared in the '90s sitcom Coach, playing the titular character as a straight man to his zany assistants, Luther and Dauber. Knute Rockne, All American is in the National Film Registry, and I can almost picture Ryan making a "Win just one for the (fuckin') Gipper" speech, but the movie was released in 1940. It's a classic, but an antiquated one.
Before Tim Riggins-channeling Friday Night Lights obsessives run roughshod over me, I'll give the show its due. Kyle Chandler is excellent as coach Eric Taylor, a truly three-dimensional character. (Billy Bob Thornton was also decent as coach Gary Gaines in the fact-based movie version of FNL.) But Taylor, by no fault of his own, is limited by the medium in which he exists. Unlike Chandler, Ryan doesn't have to stick to a script. If he wants to deliver an expletive-laced monologue, he doesn't need to clear it with anybody. (It'd be easy to dismiss Ryan's love of profanity as pure shtick, but if you notice, he swears throughout practices and team meetings, but never in any of Hard Knocks' taped interviews.)
Yet despite the clear superiority of programs like Hard Knocks, Hollywood keeps churning out football movies that feature uninspiring coaches. Next up is a biopic on the legendary Vince Lombardi, reportedly starring Robert DeNiro. "There are few actors who could accurately portray the fire, passion and grit of Lombardi," NFL vice president of programming Charles Coplin told ESPN, whose film division is making the movie, "and we're thrilled to have Robert DeNiro on our team."
I doubt any actor could accurately portray the fire, passion and grit of Lombardi. But two weeks into Hard Knocks, I'm more concerned with who could possibly star in a Ryan biopic. Sadly, there appears to be a dearth of candidates. Inexplicably, Jonah Hill is busy playing stat whiz Paul DePodesta in the Moneyball movie and Chris Farley has been dead for almost 13 years. For now, I'll get my Ryan fix on HBO. When it comes to football coaches, the truth is better than fiction anyway.