Ivy On Celluloid: The Waterboy

The Waterboy

Today, I’m continuing my series of posts analyzing films for their portrayals of higher education by taking a deep dive into Adam Sandler’s college football comedy, The Waterboy.

The plot of The Waterboy is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A waterboy for a college football team discovers he has a unique tackling ability and becomes a member of the team.

The Waterboy was directed by Frank Coraci (The Ridiculous 6, Click, The Wedding Singer), who is primarily known for his numerous collaborations with comedy writer/actor Adam Sandler, The Waterboy among them. The screenplay was co-written by Sandler along with another one of his frequent collaborators, Tim Herlihy (The Wedding Singer, Mr. Deeds, Little Nicky, Saturday Night Live).

Beyond Sandler, the cast of the film includes Henry Winkler (Arrested Development, Happy Days, Night Shift), Kathy Bates (Misery, Fried Green Tomatoes), Fairuza Balk (The Craft, The Island of Doctor Moreau), Jerry Reed (Smokey & The Bandit), Clint Howard (Evilspeak, The Ice Cream Man, Apollo 13), and Rob Schneider (The Hot Chick, The Animal).

For the twentieth anniversary of the release of The Waterboy, Adidas produced a variety of SCLSU merchandise, including t-shirts, jerseys, and helmets that were designed to be film-accurate.

Co-writer of The Waterboy Tim Herlihy described in an interview the inspiration for the fictional institution name ‘South Central Louisiana State University’:

I always remember Southwest Missouri State… I just thought that was so funny. Not even South Missouri State. Like, Southwest Missouri State. They didn’t even have one direction. They had to share the South direction with Southeast Missouri State. So we definitely wanted to do that.

Interestingly, Southwest Missouri State University eventually changed its name to Missouri State University, likely in part due to perceptions like Herlihy’s.

Critically, The Waterboy didn’t fare terribly well, with critics labeling it as “trash,” “witless,” and “dumb.” However, it proved to be financially successful, taking in a worldwide theatrical gross of over $185 million on a production budget of $23 million, carving a place for itself in the public zeitgeist. It is now hailed by many as a cult classic, and generational favorite sports comedy.

To begin the higher education analysis, I want to take a look at the various schools portrayed in the film. As with Necessary Roughness, there is a mixture of fictitious and real institutions. Real colleges featured include Clemson University, the University of Michigan, the University of Louisville, and the University of Iowa, who are all shown in either montages or mentioned in passing. Another institution that I believe is featured is Vanderbilt University. Though it is not mentioned by name, a football team is shown with an almost identical star-shaped helmet insignia and color palette, which I have compared side-by-side below.

Still from The Waterboy
Vanderbilt University uniforms and helmets from 1980s and 1990s

The fictitious universities in the film include the two central institutions to the story – University of Louisiana, and South Central Louisiana State University. University of Louisiana is depicted as a large university with a recent history of national football success. For this reason, I think that it is clearly intended to be a parallel to Louisiana State University, despite how close the fictional name is to the University of Louisiana – Lafayette or University of Louisiana – Monroe. South Central Louisiana State University, on the other hand, is pretty clearly portrayed as a less successful “little brother” to the University of Louisiana. From what I can gather, however, it is still definitely a generally-focused public institution, which rules out a few real universities in the state as parallels (Tulane, LA Tech). A detail that is implied by Bobby Boucher’s commuter status is that both University of Louisiana and South Central Louisiana State University are within easy driving distance of each other, which helps narrow down real-life candidates. Based on this, I think it is immensely clear that the SCLSU Mud Dogs are a stand-in for the Ragin’ Cajuns from the University of Louisiana – Lafayette. Lafayette and Baton Rouge are merely an hour from each other, and separated by swampy terrain akin to how Bobby’s home is portrayed.

Aside from the University of Louisiana and SCLSU, a number of the other football teams from the film hail from fictitious institutions. One game is shown between SCLSU and the University of Central Kentucky. There isn’t actually a University of Central Kentucky – among the six Division I schools with football teams in the state, I believe the closest analogue is Western Kentucky University. Likewise, another game features the University of West Mississippi -an institution that doesn’t exist. As with Kentucky, there are six real Division I schools with football teams in Mississippi, of which I suspect University of Southern Mississippi is the real life parallel (mostly due to the direction-based naming).

The climactic championship game featured in the film is called the Bourbon Bowl, which follows the naming tradition of post-season games in Division I FBS college football. While there have been a number of oddly named bowl games due to various sponsorships, there has never been a Bourbon Bowl. Given the records of the teams invited – University of Louisiana is undefeated, and SCLSU is only shown to have one loss – it is fair to assume that the Bourbon Bowl is a bowl game with significant prestige, akin to the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl. However, the game is also clearly local to both University of Louisiana and SCLSU, as Bobby and his family are shown commuting to the game in a short period of time. The only bowl game of that significance within close range of Lafayette and Baton Rouge is the Sugar Bowl, which famously is held in New Orleans. Because the setting of the stadium is clearly not urban, I think it is fair to conclude that the Bourbon Bowl isn’t an exact stand-in for any one bowl game, but is a general amalgamation of the concept of a high-profile bowl game.

That said, there is another question worth asking about the Bourbon Bowl: is it a national championship game? The history of a “national championship” in college football is a bit odd and contentious – prior to the past few decades, it was often a very subjective title, awarded occasionally to different teams by different organizations in the absence of a decisive championship game. 1998, the year that The Waterboy was released, marked the first Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game, which arranged for the two highest-ranked teams to play in a decisive championship outing. The rankings, which were the subject of popular scrutiny and suspicion, utilized a handful of high-profile polls and computerized rankings to determine the contestants. A major downside to this system, however, is that there could easily be more than two teams with a strong case to participate in a national championship game – which ultimately gave rise to the playoff system that exists today.

We know that both the University of Louisiana and SCLSU had very strong records going into the Bourbon Bowl – U of L was undefeated, and SCLSU only had one loss. However, undefeated teams have been left out of national championships games – in 1998, for instance, an undefeated Tulane University football team was not selected for the game. Considering this fact in conjunction with the lack of national championship branding or discussion around the Bourbon Bowl indicates to me that University of Louisiana was passed over for the formal national championship game, which put them in position to claim a co-championship if they defeated SCLSU in the Bourbon Bowl. This exact scenario played out in the 2003 season, when an undefeated and widely-acclaimed University of Southern California squad was passed over for the championship game, and claimed co-champion status after subsequently winning their bowl game. However, a more apt comparison for the SCLSU – U of L Bourbon Bowl is the 1997 Rose Bowl match played between Arizona State University and Ohio State University. Going into the game, Arizona State was undefeated, and in position to claim a co-championship with a win over the one-loss Ohio State (as USC would do in 2004 with its Rose Bowl win over Michigan). However, Arizona State lost their game, just as University of Louisiana is shown losing to SCLSU, squandering their chance to claim a national championship. So, in effect, the Bourbon Bowl both was and was not a national championship game, depending on how you look at it.

At one point in the film, it is revealed that Bobby Boucher set a new NCAA record for sacks in a single game with 16. The actual record for sacks in a single game in NCAA Division I FBS is 6, which is co-held by Ameer Ismail of Western Michigan University and Elvis Dumervil of the University of Louisville. The idea of 16 sacks per game, considering the current NCAA record, may seem ludicrous. However, I decided to look into how many offensive plays occur per team in a typical DI college football game, which can be found here.

This graph was actually broken in 2016, when the University of California ran 118 offensive plays against the University of Oregon. However, the average offensive plays per team in a game has easily stayed between 60 and 80 over the past ten years. For the sake of calculation, let’s assume Bobby Boucher’s SCLSU opponents run 70 plays per game – this means roughly a quarter of their plays (22.85%) would need to conclude with Bobby Boucher sacks. However, that also assumes that Bobby earns all of his sacks on his own – sacks are also recorded in increments of .5 when multiple individuals contribute to the tackle. However, Bobby is never shown co-sacking a quarterback on screen, and it is frequently stated that he is the only capable athlete on the team, so it is safe to assume that Bobby is only accruing full sacks.

Another piece of dialogue states that Bobby’s sack rate actually increases after he sets the single game sack record at 16 – a team-mate mentions that he averages “20 sacks a game.” In order to reach that rate, we need to consider the length of a college football season. While this has changed over the years, most recently with the implementation of the playoff system in FBS, let’s say that a successful, bowl-appearance season has 13 games. Given his 16 sack performance in game one of the season, in order to reach the 20 sack/game average, Bobby would need to exceed 20 sacks at least once while maintaining a steady 20 sack/game rate throughout the season – a single 24 sack game would suffice to make the grade. Assuming this is how he reached his average sacks/game rate, this means that in at least one game of average offensive play quantity for the opposing team (70, for the sake of argument), Bobby would have sacked the quarterback on 34.3% of plays. While this seems incredibly unlikely, I don’t think it is anywhere near an impossibility – given a sufficiently incompetent offensive line and quarterback, there’s no reason to consider this feat technically impossible.

One of the most potent and vividly revolting illustrations in the film is the dichotomy between the amenities and conditions for the SCLSU and University of Louisiana football teams and athletics departments. SCLSU students are shown drinking out of a clearly unsafe water container, whereas U of L has a (assumedly) fully-funded water hydration station. Likewise, SCLSU football players frequently are shown sharing equipment – everything from helmets to sweaty cups.

While these disparities are definitely dramatized, there is certainly some truth to the portrayal. I recently spoke to an Associate Athletics Director at a small Division I football school, who told me about how different his current experience is to his previous role at an athletically-prestigious flagship institution – which included differences in pay, staffing, general amenities for students and staff, and, of course, the state-of-the-art facilities. The depiction in The Waterboy of the flagship institution having far more funds than a smaller, in-state competitor is, from what I have gathered, a fact of life in college athletics.

The SCLSU football coach, portrayed by Henry Winkler, is eventually revealed to have had a sort of burnout and breakdown after losing out on a coveted head coaching position to his rival on the University of Louisiana coaching staff. It is well-known that stress is part of the job of a college football coach – it isn’t even unheard of for coaches to suffer health issues associated with the job. So, the portrayal of a coach burning out certainly has some grounding in truth. Likewise, rivalries between coaches aren’t uncommon – many coaches serve on staffs together over the course of their careers, and later become opponents (like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, for instance). The idea of a rivalry formed between coaches from a common history on a given staff certainly seems to hold water as a plausible scenario.

The first time Bobby is shown tackling a quarterback in practice, the aftermath is framed comedically, with the quarterback having apparently lost his immediate memory and general awareness. In truth, these are clear, immediate symptoms of a concussion. In 1998, when the film was released,  research had not yet come out about the long-term dangers of concussions as a form of traumatic brain-injury, particularly for athletes in contact sports. Now, this is a major issue for both college football and most professional sports, and is speculated to be a potential existential threat to status quo of competitive athletics.

At one point towards the beginning of the film, it is revealed in an ESPN segment that SCLSU football is on a record-setting 41 game losing streak. The longest actual losing streak at the NCAA Division I FBS level is held by the Northwestern University Wildcats, which dropped 34 consecutive games from 1979 to 1982. However, that pales in comparison to the Division I FCS record held by Prairie View A&M, which dropped an unenviable 80 straight games over almost an entire decade of failure – 1989 to 1998.

Program from the midst of Northwestern University’s record-setting losing streak

Throughout the events of The Waterboy, a number of off-color, homophobic comments are made by characters. While this is certainly in part due to the nature of this genre of crass comedy and the context of the film’s release, the truth is that this is probably an accurate portrayal of a college football team at this point in time. There is a wealth of literature and research on homophobia within athletics, and particularly collegiate athletics.  College football, as a homogenously-male sport, is statistically even more likely to be more homophobic than women’s sports teams. So, it is certainly not a stretch for causally homophobic dialogue to fly around a college football locker room or practice field.

Though it is never specifically stated, it is highly suggested that Bobby Boucher is a first generation college student – meaning that he is the first member of his family to attend college. This is hinted through a number of sequences – for instance, he picks his classes solely based on the view of campus from the classrooms, as opposed to course difficulty or fit with his major. First generation college students often have difficultly navigating universities, due to a lack of institutional knowledge that is typically passed down from college graduates to their children.

Speaking of picking classes, it is an interesting detail that Bobby Boucher is not shown to be given guidance on what courses to sign up for. At many universities, there are academic advisors who operate as part of the Athletics Department specifically to help student-athletes with issues like class scheduling. However, these sorts of advisors have also landed in hot water on occasion – they were integral to the longstanding “paper classes” at University of North Carolina, where student-athletes were given entirely fake classes to remain academically eligible under NCAA guidelines.

At one point in the film, it is revealed that Bobby Boucher did not complete high school, or receive an equivalent degree. In order to be eligible for football, his coach provided a fake high school transcript. This kind of scandal is not unheard of – in 2013, a 22-year old faked a high school transcript in order to play high school basketball.  In 2014, a number of college basketball players were investigated over forged community college transcripts. The New York Times even reported on forged student-athlete high school transcripts back in 1973. However, I have not seen any records of a coach performing such a forgery themselves.

Connected to the forgery revelation is a level of malicious espionage – the staff of the University of Louisiana expose the misdeed of SCLSU’s coach to the NCAA, in an attempt to harm the on-field production of the school’s football team in the upcoming Bourbon Bowl. The use of NCAA reporting as a means of attacking a sporting rival was recently a subject in the SBnation documentary series Foul Play: Paid in Mississippi, which features a member of the Mississippi State University football team testifying to recruiting violations at the rival University of Mississippi.

At one point in the film, an event is portrayed that appears to be a conventional fraternity house party, rife with debauchery. However, the attendees of this party include a professor and a number of athletics coaches from the school.  To say that this is a bit odd and unbelievable would be an understatement. Coaches and university employees in general are expected to abide by certain codes of conduct or ethics, which would almost assuredly prohibit them from attending such events. However, college basketball coach Larry Eustachy once infamously resigned from his position at Iowa State University after it was revealed that he would frequent fraternity parties and generally fraternize with college students. In 2018, Eustachy once again resigned from a different college basketball coaching position due to another conduct investigation.

There are certainly plenty more higher education topics that can be discussed through The Waterboy – the physical assault of a professor by a student, the discipline exceptions offered to star student-athletes, and the parental pressures placed on many top-grade student-athletes to turn professional as early as possible are among them. However, I’m going to see if I can swing back to those topics in future reviews – I suspect I’ll be back to the realm of college football before too long.

Overall, The Waterboy is every bit the sophomoric, shallow comedy the world has come to expect from Adam Sandler. However, it is also an interesting, comedically-contorted portrayal of college football culture, which is integral to many institutions of higher education in the United States. There isn’t anything novel, witty, or innovative about the humor or story, and there is certainly much about the film that has become dated, but it is an interesting film to peruse for folks interested in college athletics and higher education as fields of study. Alternatively, those who find uproarious comedic value in a chorus of Henry Winklers tauntingly singing about the comparative benefits of Gatorade over water as a means of hydration will find something pleasing here.

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