Today, I’m kicking off a new segment for the blog: “Ivy On Celluloid.” This new series will spotlight movies about higher education, and delve into their inspirations and inaccuracies. To get things started, I’m going to take a look at the 1991 college football comedy, Necessary Roughness.
The plot of Necessary Roughness is summarized on IMDb as follows:
Due to NCAA sanctions, the Texas State University Fightin’ Armadillos must form a football team from their actual student body, with no scholarships to help, to play their football schedule. With fewer players than most teams, the makeshift team must overcome obstacles that the best teams in the country couldn’t deal with. Using a thirty-four-year-old quarterback, a female placekicker, and a gang of misfits, Ed “Straight Arrow” Genero must take his team to play the number one Texas Colts.
The director for Necessary Roughness was Stan Dragoti, who was also behind the movies Mr. Mom, Love At First Bite, and The Man With One Red Shoe. Interestingly, he has not directed another movie since making Necessary Roughness in 1991.
The screenwriting duo for the film was also responsible for the Sidney J. Furie movie The Taking of Beverly Hills, which also released in 1991. However, they have very few other credits between them.
The cast of Necessary Roughness includes the likes of Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap, Star Trek: Enterprise), Sinbad (Jingle All The Way, Houseguest), Jason Bateman (Ozark, Arrested Development, Teen Wolf Too), Robert Loggia (Big, Scarface, Independence Day, The Believers, Gladiator), Hector Elizondo (Pretty Woman, Taking Care of Business, Leviathan), Harley Jane Kozak (Arachnophobia, The House On Sorority Row, Santa Barbara), Kathy Ireland (The Player, Loaded Weapon 1, Alien From L.A., Mr. Destiny), Larry Miller (The Nutty Professor, Chairman of the Board, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Foodfight), Fred Dalton Thompson (The Hunt For Red October, No Way Out, Cape Fear), and Rob Schneider (Real Rob, The Animal, The Hot Chick, Judge Dredd, Demolition Man).
The cinematographer for Necessary Roughness was Peter Stein, whose other credits include Mr. Nanny, Pet Sematary, C.H.U.D., Ernest Saves Christmas, and Friday the 13th Part 2.
The cutting on Necessary Roughness is credited to two editors: Steve Mirkovich (Con Air, Big Trouble In Little China, 16 Blocks, Theodore Rex, Cool World, Prince of Darkness, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan), and John Wright (Heaven is For Real, The Passion of the Christ, Rollerball, X-Men, Apocalypto, Speed, Last Action Hero, Broken Arrow).
The music for the film was composed by Bill Conti, who is best known for his work on the Rocky franchise, as well as The Right Stuff, The Karate Kid, For Your Eyes Only, Bad Boys, and Masters of the Universe, among others.
The poster design for Necessary Roughness was meant to imitate the iconic one for 1989’s Major League, which was a significant success for Paramount just a couple of years previously.
Necessary Roughness features a number of high-profile cameos, primarily in a sequence featuring a scrimmage with a state prison’s football team. Among those appearing are noted football figures Jerry Rice and Dick Butkus.
The Texas State University featured in Necessary Roughness is fictitious. However, it is an amalgam of a number of real higher education institutions from throughout the state. For instance, the story is based loosely on the NCAA “death penalty” given to Southern Methodist University following the 1986 football season, after years of repeated infractions by the program. The school’s colors and setting, however, are that of the University of North Texas. The insignia featured on the team’s helmets (reading sTu), closely resembles the one traditionally worn by the Texas A&M University Aggies (which reads aTm). Likewise, the intense rivalry game depicted in the film’s climax, which features two large Texas universities with a long history of bad blood, bears a strong resemblance to the Texas – Texas A&M football rivalry, which met annually from 1915 to 2011.
Among the opponents featured in Necessary Roughness are a couple of real schools: the University of Kansas Jayhawks, and the Southwest Texas State University Bobcats. Interestingly, in 2003, Southwest Texas State University had its name changed to Texas State University: the name of the fictitious institution at the center of Necessary Roughness. However, they have yet to jettison their Bobcat mascot in favor of a revolver-toting armadillo.
One of the issues brought up in the film is if women have a place playing in competitive college football. Early in the film, the team’s coaches recruit a member of the women’s soccer team to be their kicker. In the context of the film, this decision is initially treated as complete lunacy, and a number of her teammates and opponents alike are shown to be dumbfounded and shocked. While she proves to hold her own, and is crucial in the team’s ultimate success, the sexism portrayed is notable.
In reality, a number of women have since found success in college football, particularly as kickers. In 1997, Liz Heaston of the NAIA’s Willamette Bearcats was the first woman to play and score in a college football game. Since then, many others have followed suit: Katharine Hnida of the University of New Mexico, Ashley Martin of Jacksonville State University, and Tonya Butler of the University of West Alabama, just to name a few. In 2017, Becca Longo became the first woman to receive an NCAA football scholarship, which prompted significant media coverage, and brought the conversation about opportunities for women in college football back to the forefront.
Another interesting issue that is central to the plot of Necessary Roughness is whether there is a place for non-traditional students in university sports, or in university culture as a whole. The protagonist, played by Scott Bakula, is a 34 year old student who is recruited to be the football team’s star quarterback. On top of dealing with the physical challenges of playing with an older body than his competitors, the character also has to confront the cultural challenges of being older than his peers, which is a very real issue facing nontraditional students in higher education today.
Nontraditional students are far less likely to complete their college degrees than their younger counterparts, not only because of the cultural challenges, but because of their responsibilities outside of school. Necessary Roughness interestingly evades the latter issue: we never see Bakula balancing his schoolwork and athletics with his responsibilities to his farm. In truth, a student in Bakula’s position would almost certainly have to drop something major from his schedule: likely football, or school in its entirety. It is worth noting, however, that many schools are making an effort to provide more support to nontraditional students, and the potential methods for doing so are a hot-button issue du jour in higher education circles.
In regards to nontraditional students in athletics, I wasn’t able to find any similar cases of nontraditional undergraduate students finding success in college football, like Bakula’s character in the film. However, there is the interesting case of Christie Cazzolla: a nontraditional student who attended the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, and successfully won numerous accolades in track & field.
All of that said, there is another nontraditional student on the Texas State Armadillos that does have precedent in reality: Sinbad’s early-graduating, PhD candidate offensive lineman. In 2016, Jarrod Barnes, a PhD student at Ohio State University, played as a Special Teams Safety for the Buckeyes, after previously graduating early from undergrad at the University of Louisville, and finishing his Masters at Ohio State University in 2015. While students are limited to four years of eligibility to play in the NCAA, between red-shirting (effectively adding a fifth year of eligibility by forfeiting playing during Freshman year) and graduating early, it isn’t impossible for a PhD student to play NCAA football, as is done by Sinbad in the film. However, in the words of the NCAA, there are “certain criteria” that must be met, or the student must “obtain an NCAA waiver” to do so.
Yet another interesting issue in Necessary Roughness is the ethical concerns surrounding an intimate relationship between a nontraditional student and a professor, as portrayed by Bakula and Kozak. While the pair face no serious repercussions in the movie beyond veiled threats, the reality of such a situation would have been far different. Here is an excerpt from a Cornell University document, which specifically outlines that romantic relationships are prohibited between faculty and students at that institution, and why:
The relationships between students and their faculty…should be conducted in a manner that avoids potential conflicts of interest…a conflict of interest arises when an individual evaluates the work or performance of a person with whom he or she is pursuing or engaged in a romantic or sexual relationship. Romantic or sexual relationships between students and persons in positions of academic authority may compromise the relationship between students and the university.
Specifically in regards to relationships between nontraditional students and faculty, the document outlines the following:
No faculty member shall engage in romantic or sexual relationships with undergraduate students. Unusual situations, such as…a relationship between a member of the faculty and an undergraduate student of non-traditional age, must be disclosed and remedies sought to avoid real or apparent conflict of interest.
It is notable that, in the film, not only is the relationship not disclosed (a point of great conflict between the two participants), but the professor is in a clear position of authority over the student she is engaged with, as she is teaching one of his courses. This creates an inarguable conflict of interest, which would have made for dire consequences for both participants. The fact that the Dean discovers the relationship and doesn’t use it against the pair is a bit perplexing, however: apart from a brief threatening moment, he doesn’t have either the student or the professor punished, as he could easily have done, which makes little sense for his conniving and malicious character. In reality, the student’s grades for the class would have almost certainly been forfeited, and the professor would have likely been shamed, disciplined, and possibly dismissed for her surreptitious and unethical actions.
Watching Necessary Roughness today, it is impossible not to note the trivial treatment of injuries to the characters. Since the mid-2000s, the issue of traumatic brain injuries among athletes has become widely discussed, particularly Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). In the wake of extensive research testifying to the impact of head injuries in contact sports with shortened lifespans, it is hard to find any kind of comedy in the physical humor surrounding injuries on the football field, particularly those with concussion symptoms. In this way, Necessary Roughness feels particularly dated: hard hits are played for laughs, and injuries are comically juxtaposed with cartoonish sound effects. By today’s standards, these portrayals are at the very least unfunny, if not completely unacceptable.
Necessary Roughness brought in $26.2 million in its lifetime theatrical run. This take was hardly earth-shattering, but I wasn’t able to dig up a production budget, so it could have easily been a significant success with that number. The critical reception, on the other hand, was mixed at best. It currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 31% critics and 46% from audiences, alongside a 6.1/10 IMDb user rating.
Noted film critic Roger Ebert was one of the film’s more vocal supporters, giving it 3/4 stars in his review, remarking that “as the Armadillos creep toward greatness, ‘Necessary Roughness’ generates a genuine charm,” despite the fact that that plot is “in almost every other movie ever made about an underdog sports team.” On the other hand, Jay Boyar of The Orlando Sentinel panned the movie, noting that “it’s presented with all the bone-crunching hilarity of a staged blooper reel. The whole movie, in fact, is one big blooper.”
I fall somewhere between Boyar and Ebert on this movie. On one hand, the characters are far too cartoonish, often pushing into the realm of caricature, and the humor is dated in its off-color sexism and tone-deaf racial portrayals. On the other hand, Ebert is right to note that there is a “genuine charm” to this film: unlike a lot of underdog sports movies, the team here is exceptionally sympathetic. Personally, I think this is because the members are fully cognizant of how terrible the team is, from the head coach down. There is also the fact that they have no expectations: everyone assumes they will lose out, so no one is particularly disappointed or shocked by their successive losses. That makes their eventual triumph all the more potent.
The biggest positive of Necessary Roughness is, without a doubt, the supporting cast. Without the performances of Robert Loggia and Hector Elizondo, there is a chance that this movie would have been completely unwatchable and devoid of genuine comedy. As it stands, the two character actors carry the highlighting comedic moments of the film, such as Loggia’s halftime speech. However, even they struggle with some of the unpolished and uneven dialogue that runs throughout the screenplay.
Speaking of which, Necessary Roughness debatably has all the makings of being a great sports comedy, but it is severely hampered by what feels like an unfinished and unedited screenplay. Comedic moments often fall flat, and numerous lines of dialogue sound clunky and forced, as if the screenplay was never read through or tuned up after the initial draft. Had there been a little more work put into the screenplay, Necessary Roughness could have been exponentially more entertaining.
Overall, Necessary Roughness is an uneven and mostly unremarkable sports movie, though it does have some brief moments of brilliance. The supporting cast make it worth sitting through on their own (Loggia is a blast), if you can swallow the bad physical and off-color humor peppered throughout that should have been left in the 1980s.
For folks who specifically like sports movies, this one is worth digging up, particularly because it has been somewhat lost to the ages. For anyone else, it is a bit of a toss-up. Personally, I found that it made for an interesting time capsule to look back on in regards to higher education and college athletics, but as a piece of entertainment, it was just ok.
For more interesting reading on Necessary Roughness, check out “The Oral History of Necessary Roughness” on Outkick The Coverage, the 25th anniversary coverage of the film on UPROXX, and the overview written by the University of North Texas Special Collections Librarian.