Here’s another smart sports movie penned by Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump). It’s an incriminating look at major college recruiting in the days of secret payoffs, circa the early 1990s. Coach Pete Bell (Nick Nolte) seems to be the only honest man left in sports, and the pressure to win at his UCLA-like school soon takes its toll.
For action fans, the well-staged games are only at the bookends of the movie: the film is about scandalous recruiting and the passion of the coach. Shaquille O’Neal’s ballyhooed debut is short and sweet as a nearly mythical basketball warrior. The biggest acting surprise is Boston Celtic legend Bob Cousy’s deft debut as the school’s AD. The film is a little too preachy at times, but the sermon is worth listening to, especially with some solid laughs from Shelton’s stinging pen. Director William Friedkin’s change-of-pace film would only be half the movie without Nolte, who is instantly believable as the workaholic coach. In game situations where opposing coaches are the likes of Bobby Knight (one of many excellent cameos), Nolte comes off as the real thing.