It’s the start of another football season, that glorious interim when life around here seems briefly renewed with possibility—right before it ends up benched with a shoulder injury. But at a time when Texas’s claim to football supremacy has never seemed more tenuous, we can reassure ourselves with this: on screen, at least, Texas will always be synonymous with football. There have been classic films about football set all over the country, from the Miami of Any Given Sunday to the Notre Dame of Rudy and Knute Rockne, All American. But the “Texas football” movie is so distinct that it practically qualifies as its own genre.
The best and most famous of these is undoubtedly Friday Night Lights (both the 2004 film and the TV series), followed closely by 1999’s Varsity Blues. They’re set in small Texas towns populated by folks whose fates all intertwine with that of the local football team, whose players and coaches must approach the game as the ultimate test of character and the sole means of deliverance from their stations. It’s a template that’s been copied several times since—in 2021 alone by Under the Stadium Lights, which is based on the true story of Abilene High School’s 2009 state championship, and 12 Mighty Orphans, about the determined waifs who pulled Fort Worth through the Great Depression. Football always attains its fullest dramatic scope in Texas, where it’s not just a way of life, but life itself.
That wasn’t always the case. Before Varsity Blues and Friday Night Lights came along, Texas football was, well, sort of a joke. The 1936 musical comedy Pigskin Parade may well be one of the first Texas football films ever made. (Very coincidentally, it also marked the screen feature debut of Judy Garland.) The movie’s Texas team is just a Podunk circus, led by a barefoot Arkansas hillbilly who honed his skills chucking watermelons. The NFL players in 1979’s Nick Nolte dramedy North Dallas Forty are a bit less cartoonish, but they’re still debauched, Budweiser-swilling brutes with names like “Joe Bob,” whose antics are, supposedly, only slight exaggerations of the things the Dallas Cowboys got up to in the late 1960s. For years, Texas footballers lacked nobility or even empathy, something the movies reserved for preppy Ivy Leaguers and the sons of Pennsylvania steel workers.
This caricaturization would reach an apex thirty years ago with 1991’s Necessary Roughness, a comedy that epitomizes how Texas footballers were portrayed on screen before we decided to take them so deathly seriously. It was also the most authentically Texan football story of its time—something that, admittedly, sounds a tad grandiose for a movie best known for a scene in which supermodel Kathy Ireland kicks some dude in the crotch. Yet unlike North Dallas Forty, filmed largely around Los Angeles, Necessary Roughness was shot primarily at Denton’s University of North Texas, and it prominently features Dallas–Fort Worth locales like Billy Bob’s indoor rodeo and bar. Texas is a genuine presence in the film, used for both comedic grist and dramatic ballast. Necessary Roughness was among the first movies to probe Texas’s unique, slightly unhealthy football obsession, even as it also mocked us as a bunch of redneck hicks.
The film even loosely builds on one of the most infamous scandals in Texas football history: the “death penalty” cancellation of Southern Methodist University’s entire 1987 season, after the NCAA discovered that SMU players were being paid off by overzealous boosters. As the movie begins, the fictional Texas State Armadillos have gone from revered national champions to pariahs over similar violations, losing their entire coaching staff and nearly all of their players in the aftermath. The school recruits the aptly named Ed “Straight Arrow” Gennero (Hector Elizondo) to lead a new team, one that will be recruited entirely from the existing student body, no ringers or athletic scholarships allowed.
Naturally, Necessary Roughness plays this setup for laughs. Gennero and his assistant coach, Wally Riggendorf (a perpetually screaming Robert Loggia), round up a ragtag crew of misfits to fill their ranks, each defined by a single, thinly sketched personality trait. There’s the center Manu (Peter Tuiasosopo), an enormous teddy bear of a Samoan. There’s a spoiled rich kid (played by a cherubic Jason Bateman). There’s even a gung-ho ex-soldier named “Sarge,” and a self-styled “samurai” lineman who dispatches receivers with kung-fu kicks. And at quarterback, there’s Scott Bakula’s Paul Blake, an ancient, decrepit, 34-year-old former high school star who missed his calling when he was forced to take over his late father’s ranch. Blake then recruits Sinbad’s Andre Krimm, a PhD-chasing teaching assistant who still has a year of eligibility left and, apparently, nothing better to do with his time. Finally, they poach Kathy Ireland’s Lucy—a woman!—from the school’s soccer team to be the kicker, citing the Air Bud argument that there’s nothing in the books explicitly forbidding it.
The film’s Police Academy approach to characterization, and the mere presence of Sinbad, should tell you what kind of movie Necessary Roughness is—namely, an amiable, mildly wacky crowd-pleaser. (See also: Rob Schneider’s turn as Texas State’s radio announcer, which finds him digging into his Saturday Night Live “makin’ copies” shtick for jokes about the team’s many “fumble-layas.”) It hits all the middlebrow–college comedy and sports-film beats like it’s running a Statue of Liberty play. Of course there’s an uptight dean scheming to take the whole team down, played with Batman-villain gusto by comedian Larry Miller. Naturally there’s a blooper-filled training montage as well, plus a (tasteful) shower scene from Ireland. There’s also a subplot in which Bakula finds semi-forbidden love with his comely journalism professor (Harley Jane Kozak). And obviously, everything’s leading up to the climactic final game, where these scrappy underdogs will be pitted at last against their archnemesis, the number-one ranked University of Texas Colts.
“[Necessary Roughness] doesn’t doesn’t try to pump itself up into more than it is, a good-humored entertainment,” the late Roger Ebert argued in one of the film’s more-positive reviews. There’s definitely something to be said for a movie that aspires to little more than helping you waste a pleasant afternoon on HBO, where it spent most of the nineties in heavy rotation. Yet most critics found Necessary Roughness too formulaic, and were too confused over whether it wanted to be an Animal House–style farce or “icky-inspirational,” as the New York Times’s Stephen Holden put it. That lukewarm reception didn’t do much for director Stan Dragoti, the filmmaker behind the 1983 hit Mr. Mom, who never made another movie after Necessary Roughness. It also spelled a premature end to Bakula’s career as a movie lead (although you can probably blame the inescapable shadow of Quantum Leap for that). The film’s failure to create much of a lasting impact is evidenced by the fact that, in 2011, USA Network poached its title for a completely unrelated TV show, presuming no one would notice or care.
Despite being, at the time, one of the bigger movies to shoot here, Necessary Roughness didn’t leave much of a footprint in Texas either—except, perhaps, among the UNT students who were hired as extras and production assistants. The film also gave several local NFL pros—including Dallas Cowboys stars Tony Dorsett, Herschel Walker, and Ed “Too Tall” Jones—acting credits, through roles as members of a team of convicts hired to put the Armadillos through their paces. In 2003, Southwest Texas State University officially dropped the “Southwest” from its name, making the film’s fictional Texas State University a reality. But this had more to do with the school’s own ambitions than any desire to glom onto a movie. While Necessary Roughness hasn’t been forgotten, necessarily, thanks to its immortal runs on cable and now on streaming, it’s also rarely mentioned in that pantheon of venerable, more-serious Texas football movies.
That’s because, despite immersing itself in Texas, Necessary Roughness mostly just points and laughs at us. It’s a movie made by incurious outsiders, working from preconceived stereotypes. Before he became a filmmaker, Dragoti was a Manhattan adman who was best known for his “I Love New York” campaign. He paints the Texas of Necessary Roughness in similarly broad, TV-commercial strokes: Bakula spends most of the movie doing Marlboro Man cosplay, drenched in four to five layers of denim. Offensive guard Wyatt Beaudry (Andrew Bryniarski) is also a rodeo cowboy who never takes the field without a wad of chewing tobacco wedged in his cheek; Bryniarski says he auditioned wearing a gaudy belt with his character’s name on it, which he bought on Melrose Avenue. The movie’s Texanness is largely for color and comedy, summed up by a joke about the school marching band doing a halftime tribute to “gun racks and open beverage containers.”
Nevertheless, Necessary Roughness did touch on a few things that would become integral to the Texas football movie, particularly in depicting its outsized importance. After the Armadillos and the Colts engage in one of those beer-tossing, chair-smashing barroom brawls that only happen in the movies, for example, the local sheriff refuses to haul them in, knowing that, as Coach Gennaro puts it, “you don’t get elected sheriff by embarrassing the pride of Texas.” And the second the Armadillos finally begin to suck less, the local boosters swarm in, gifts at the ready, eager to get their hooks back into the program. Texas football is repeatedly presented as some gravitational force, its tendrils running deep within the state, with entire lives rising and falling according to the glories of their local team. Bakula’s character is meant to be a tragic figure only because he gave up on football. In the eyes of Texas, his only path to redemption is through the game.
Necessary Roughness is a silly movie without much on its mind, but it hit upon something honest about the life-or-death value Texas places on its favorite sport. Varsity Blues would cast a more cynical eye on this theme; Friday Night Lights a more philosophical one. But Necessary Roughness gave these stories a basic playbook that’s still being followed, some thirty years later. It’s an underdog story in that way, too.