COVID-19 continues to upend the world, and with movie theatres closed and organized sports in limbo, ‘To Touchstone and Beyond’ continues looking how we can get our sports fix through the movies. ESPN might be broadcasting classic sports matches to fill the void of cancelled seasons, but Touchstone Pictures has a great drama in 1993’s college football centered The Program.

The Movie

ESU college just had a disappointing end to their season. Losing out on a place in a bowl game, coach Sam Winters, played by James Caan, is told in no uncertain terms that the team must make it to a bowl game next season or he will lose his job. With his star quarterback, Joe Kane, played by Craig Sheffer, Winters spends the off season recruiting new players, including Darnell Jefferson, played by Omar Epps.

Jefferson is a promising recruit and could add a lot of much needed talent to the ESU roster. With Kane at his side, Winters convinces Jefferson to come to ESU, especially after Jefferson visits the campus and meets Autumn Hailey, played by Halle Berry. Four months after visiting, Jefferson arrives to no fanfare and is now just a rookie on the squad.

As the school year begins, the football program takes over the lives of the players. Jefferson finds it difficult to adapt, Kane is forced to contend with the hoopla of a possible Heisman Trophy win, Winters is constantly on watch for what is the best interest of his players, all because of the importance to The Program.

While the season starts with a win, the lives of all the football players start to unravel due to the stress of living up to the expectation of being on the team. Kane starts a relationship with a tennis athlete named Camille Shafer, played by Kristy Swanson, but his drinking gets out of control, and forces him to into rehab.

Alvin Mack, played by Duane Davis, has a future in the NFL. His hopes and dreams are tied to professional football. He reads at a fourth-grade level, but Mack doesn’t care because he knows where his future lies. The consequences of his last game are devastating. Mack’s teammate Steve Lattimer, played by Andrew Bryniarski, has his own issues to deal with. Spending the summer lifting weights and injecting steroids to build up muscle, Lattimer, plays well on the field but it is his off-field antics that draw too much attention and backlash.

Jefferson works hard to balance his role as athlete and successful student, while dealing with the trials and tribulations of being a rookie and navigating a relationship with Autumn. As the final game draws near, ESU must win this game to get into a college bowl game. The pressure is on, and while Winters navigates the game from the sidelines, it comes down to Kane, Jefferson, and the rest of the team to win the game.

The Best

The Program is a great sports film. From the locker room to the sidelines and on the field, viewers get to see the whole side of a game. The Program is all encompassing, much like the actual football program. It dominates every aspect of the players lives, and the movie looks at the trials and tribulations of being these football players.

James Caan has a tough act as Coach Winters. He must be the hard case, a typical coach that is on the players constantly. Winters is a blend of part teacher and parent to the players, but he is also the physical embodiment of what The Program is. Winters is the one who takes Kane’s motorcycle keys to prevent him from hurting himself. The coach also arranges the rehab stint for Kane after his DWI arrest. Winters is also the only one who visits Mack in the hospital. While he tries to stay distant from the athletes, Winters can’t ignore them and their needs. Caan is subtle throughout the movie. He is the invisible hand that guides the players through their highs and lows.

The movie itself explores the lives of the players in different ways. Kane is the successful quarterback who has a drinking problem and comes from a broken home. Jefferson struggles with the idea of playing football and getting his college degree. Mack’s single focus is using his time at ESU to help his draft status. He forgoes what college has to offer him in hopes of an NFL dream, and loses out. Lattimer is so desperate to be a starter on the team that he uses steroids to make it.

The Worst

The Program has some issues regarding the relationships between Joe and Camille and Darnell and Autumn. On their first date, Joe takes Camille on a motorcycle ride, and does multiple dangerous stunts on their drive that angers her. But only seconds after being upset with Joe, Camille is just too smitten with the quarterback.

When Darnell comes to tour ESU, Autumn is his tour guide. The tour goes well, and Darnell gets to the see the campus from the library to the football field. Autumn is professional and courteous and in no way gives any indication she is interested in Darnell. At the end of the tour Darnell tries to kiss her. These relationships would no doubt be written differently if The Program was being filmed today.

Film Facts

  • The movie originally had a scene where the football players show their courage by laying down in the middle of a busy street. This stunt was attempted in real life on two separate occasions where participants were either killed or seriously injured. The scene was edited out, and rumor has it, the negatives for the scene were burned.
  • The movie was filmed at the University of South Carolina.
  • Stars Duane Davis and Andrew Bryniarski costarred in another football centered film 1991’s Necessary Roughness.
  • Stars Omar Epps and Abraham Benrubi also costarred on the television show ER.
  • Joey Lauren Adams plays Coach Winters’ daughter.

See It/Skip It?

See It. The Program wasn’t a critical hit when it was released. Labelled as part soap opera and filled with clichés, the movie has a disappointing 43% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer. The film barely passed its budget with the domestic box office gross. Interestingly, The Program scores an 83% on the audience score.

Watching this film now during the global COVID-19 pandemic, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie. The football scenes are incredible, from the shots of the team in the huddle, to the one of Jefferson running at the sidelines with Winters in the background cheering him on, The Program is a well-done affair on multiple levels. Rather than just delivering straight up male stereotypes of the jocks who quest for greatness on the field, The Program shows well rounded characters that get developed so that we see the people beyond them just being players in a uniform. For some in the film they will have redemption for their misdeeds like Joe Kane. Darnell Jefferson struggles but does find the balance between success in class and on the field.

For Steve Lattimer and Alvin Mack, their own personal desire for greatness ultimately cost them. Lattimer will never play again at ESU because of steroids. The fact that the film shows us the abject poverty that Mack comes from, and how his talent will no doubt bring his family out of poverty, and then see that dream crash because of his injury is just one example of thousands of real life stories.  

My wife enjoyed it, I enjoyed it, and I recommend you see it. The Program will fill the void of the sport lover’s days with its cinematic football scenes and hold your attention throughout the entire narrative.

Next week, ‘To Touchstone and Beyond’ goes back to the gridiron for 1998’s The Waterboy.

Director: David S. Ward

Production Company: Touchstone Pictures

Principal Cast:

  • James Caan as Sam Winters
  • Halle Berry as Autumn Hailey
  • Craig Sheffer as Joe Kane
  • Kristy Swanson as Camille Shafer
  • Omar Epps as Darnell Jefferson
  • Duane Davis as Alvin Mack
  • Abraham Benrubi as Bud-Lite Kaminski
  • Andrew Bryniarski as Steve Lattimer

Release Date: September 26, 1993

Budget: $15 million

Box Office Gross Domestic = $23,032,565