“I guess that people are attracted, or whatever, to a no bullshit guy who tells people to shove it up their ass when he thinks it’s appropriate.” – Bobby Knight, March 1988
Love him or hate him, Robert Montgomery Knight is one of the most successful coaches in the history of college basketball. Some call him “The General,” others view the white haired coach as a god, and many consider the man nothing more than a chair-throwing-player-choking maniac. As the coach at Indana University from 1971-2000, Knight won three national championships, coached the last undefeated team in NCAA Division I history (1976 Hoosiers with Quinn Buckner) and attained the kind of media coverage most celebrities salivate for.
For the 1985-86 season (a year before winning another national title), coach Knight gave sportswriter John Feinstein unprecedented access to his team, from watching practice to attending staff meetings. After a tumultuous year observing every minute detail of the basketball operation, Feinstein culminated his experiences into what would become the best-selling sports books of all-time, “A Season on the Brink.” The in-depth look into one of college basketball’s premier programs revealed the militaristic nature of Knight behind the scenes and further fueled the growing legend of the coach. Critics and readers praised Feinstein’s work, while Knight referred to the author as “a turd.”
In its first made-for-television movie, ESPN brings Feinstein’s “A Season on the Brink” to the small screen this Sunday night amid heavy promotions and the onset of the NCAA Tournament. Unlike most of ESPN’s coverage of Knight (now at Texas Tech), he is portrayed in a positive fashion, as scenes highlight his humorous personality and his genuine affection for his players and their success, both on the basketball court and in the class room.
Hollywood veteran Brian Dennehy (“Cocoon,” “F/X”) stars as coach Knight in one of his most demanding roles. Dennehy is the perfect choice to adorn the famous red sweater, matching the physical and verbal appearance of the fiery coach. Dennehy is able to showcase the profanity proficient coach and loving family man simultaneously.
Supporting Emmy-Tony-Golden Globe winner Dennehy are a handful of newcomers. James Lafferty (“Emeril”) plays Indiana hot shot Steve Alford adequately, at times showing his lack of acting experience. Delray Brooks, a talented athlete who left Indiana after Knight’s criticism, is played by Al Thompson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) in a strong performance. Other notables include Michael James Johnson as Daryl Thomas, Duane Murray as Kohn Smith and Patrick Williams in his debut as Stew Robinson.
The superb acting of Dennehy helps shift the attention away from the inept filmmaking of director Robert Mandel (“Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story,” “The Substitute”). Camera movements are erratic and unorthodox, in the all-too-overused MTV style. Within “A Season on the Brink,” actual game footage from the 1985-86 season is inserted, but is visually inconsistent with the staged games, giving the TV movie an unprofessional appearance. Editing resembles a frantic Linkin Park video, in a pitiable attempt to be trendy.
“A Season on the Brink” is a well-acted poorly-made character driven adaptation of the best-selling book. The strength of Dennehy’s performance lifts the TV movie from mediocrity and could earn him another Emmy.