RITES OF AUTUMN #1 – 10: THE STORY OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL – DVD review

During the season of autumn, every Saturday afternoon finds millions of Americans watching a game of College Football. Stadiums are built to hold over a hundred thousand people, and the heritage and passion of its fans are unmatched by any other sport. College Football marked the beginning of American Football, as Walter Camp and Amos Stag transformed the game of rugby into the sport that takes up many Saturday and Sunday afternoons. College Football is where American Football began, and the heritage and history are deeper than the professional ranks that the players strive to achieve. It is as American as apple pie. Narrated by former Florida State running back and Hollywood legend Burt Reynolds, “Rites of Autumn: The Story of College Football” gives and exhaustive but highly entertaining look at the beginnings of College Football and those involved in its history.

I consider football to be my second favorite sport behind ice hockey. There is not close third. Growing up in Pennsylvania and near a Penn State campus, college football is part of life. Though I admittedly watch much more professional football than college, my knowledge of the college ranks was not as good as I would have liked, so sitting down and watching “Rites of Autumn: The Story of College Football” looked to be an interesting proposition. In the long run, I would gain a greater understanding and appreciation for College Football and for some of the teams that I curse year in and year out for winning a title that I feel should always go to Joe Paterno and Penn State. But what I learned did not stop there. I received an education on the entire institution known as American Rules Football. Had it not been for Yale and Harvard and college football, I would not have sat down last week and watched the Philadelphia Eagles nearly defeat the St. Louis Rams.

As I was growing up, I would visit my neighbor. He was an elderly gent and would tell me all kinds of great stories about baseball and what it was like when he was a child in the twenties and thirties. The manner in which some of the stories are presented reminds me of those times. Instead of Melvin C. Willman telling me about his experiences, I have Burt Reynolds showing me old videotape and telling me about great men who battled on the gridiron. The series does not work by forcing stats down your throat; it works its charm by giving the history of the game through the hearts and minds of those that played it. The entire series is a collection of stories of boys and men who gave their all to a game they loved. I’m sure more time could have been spent covering the numbers and facts behind the game, but then I would not have gotten the feeling that somebody was sharing with me the experiences of college football. I would have felt as if somebody was preaching or teaching.

The collection of films and photographs are amazing. Many familiar names that have now retired from the pro ranks are shown performing amazing feats for their college alma maters. Legends that I had previously only heard of are displayed in black and white, badly degraded footage that still has life with the story it tells. Faces can now be attached to some names. Red Grange is now more than a name, as is Knute Rockne. Moments I have forgotten years ago are now on DVD, in a state where I can cherish and remember them at will. I now have, in my possession, the highlights of the Penn State / Miami Orange Bowl that occurred when I was only 15. Now, I can watch them again and appreciate them more. Some of these films are visibly aged and some were perhaps nearly lost.

Technically speaking, the documentary is a mix between interview segments with coaches such as Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, players like Jim Brown and Doug Flutie, and writers and historians who know the game best, and film highlights and photographs that retrace the games history and highlights. Burt Reynolds narrates the entire series and is never seen. His familiar voice does not take away from the tales told, but does a good job of telling those tales. As different eras are depicted, the musical score is changed to reflect the times. Radio broadcasts are played over stills of their subjects. No restoration was done on the elements and everything old is certainly not new again, but it here to be newly seen. The aged look of the films adds to the mood created by the music and adds a touch of validity to what is being said.

About the only complaint I had with “Rites of Autumn” was the repetitious nature of some of the material. A few games and individual feats were repeated between episodes. This says something about the games and players featured in the documentary. They made such an impact, that the game was affected on different levels. Still, a few times I could almost predict what Burt Reynolds was going to say. To Burt’s credit (and the writers), every time something was rehashed, new information or a different twist was taken to try to do their best to keep the material fresh.

I thoroughly enjoyed what I consider to be a masterfully done documentary. The education and moments “Rites of Autumn: The Story of College Football” shared are all well worth the time that was invested to watch all ten episodes. My understanding and love of the game of football is stronger because I was able to watch it on DVD, as I tend not to watch anything containing commercials. I believe that anybody who considers football to be his or her favorite game and takes part in Fantasy Football or watches ESPN SportsCenter can do no wrong in picking up this collection. I’m raving about the series simply because it is something to be raved about.

There was so much information covered in “Rites of Autumn” that I decided it best to summarize the individual episodes instead of writing a standard Synopsis. The read is long, but hopefully, it will show you how much if contained in the series.

Episode Summary:
The first episode on disc one is “Game Day Heroes.” This disc features game winning performances that have stood as some of the best all time. Doug Flutie’s famous “Hail Mary” pass that had Boston College comeback against Miami is described in the first chapter. There are other important figures of college history that are described. Red Grange’s had an amazing day in the Illinois – Michigan game of 1924, where he ran for five touchdowns and threw for another and became the first bona fide college football superstar. The passing game was shown potency earliest by Slingin’ Sammy Baugh. Jim Brown was an amazing player who ran, passed and kicked his way into the annals of history. USC Trojans player Anthony Davis beat Notre Dame twice with six touchdown games. Joe Paterno’s #1 ranked Penn State faced off against Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant’s #2 ranked Alabama. That game, defensive player Barry Kraus made an amazing play to deny Paterno a national title. The disc ends with the story of a series of lateral plays that reminded the fans of football’s rugby beginnings and how even the trombone players were on the field to stop the run when John Elway and Stanford were defeated by California.

After “Game Day Heroes” have their moments of DVD glory, “Passion and Pageantry” famous rituals and traditions are explained and exhibited. If a college football team were to be named ‘America’s Team,” it would be Notre Dame. The reasoning for their mystique and things such as ‘Touchdown Jesus’ and the golden dome are presented and an understanding of Notre Dame football is nicely gained. In the South, football is a religion. It was once said that the East saw college football as a cultural exercise, the West a tourist attraction, the MidWest was cannibalism, but football was a religion in the South. Some key and longstanding traditions from Auburn’s bonfire to others are covered. Tailgating and the contrast between Baton Rouge’s near Mardi-Gras style and the limousines and martinis of Harvard also make for interesting viewing. Radio and announcers are included here and the ‘voice of College Football,’ Keith Jackson is focused on. Marching bands and how one Ohio youth achieved his dream of ‘dotting the I” for Ohio State and the importance of Grambling State to the halftime show offer insight to modern college and NFL celebrations. School fight songs, Wisconsin’s “Chicken Dance” and the Army/Navy rivalry are also topics covered in episode 2.

The second disc begins with “Bragging Rights.” The various sports always covet their rivalries, and College Football certainly has theirs. Coaches are fired for having losing records against rivals, despite incredible overall records. The rivalries help mold history and seven are covered in “Bragging Rights.” The first rivalry covered in the episode speaks of how the coach of Ohio would not even fill his empty car with gas in Michigan and how he pushed it over the Ohio state line and how his team had gone undefeated in two years, but rival Michigan snapped the streak. USC and Notre Dame took turns winning National Championships and formed a strong rivalry that saw Notre Dame wear different colored jerseys to mentally challenge USC. USC had a nasty inner-city rivalry with UCLA. Stanford saw their first game against California canceled because neither team brought a football. Oklahoma and Texas had a rivalry that was so bad that they accused each other of spying and took lie detector tests to prove they did nothing illegal against the other. Florida State, Miami and Florida had a three-way rivalry that resulted in five national titles in ten years. The Army / Navy rivalry was longstanding and important. JFK’s assassination saw the game canceled, but at the First Lady’s request, the game was rescheduled for Pearl Harbor day. My homestate teams of Lehigh and Lafayette hold the record for more duels than any other school and Tommy Lee Jones comments on the rivalry between elitists Harvard and Yale.

Not only rivalries see great victories. The fourth episode, aptly titled “Victories” describe some of the sweeter victories in College Football history. In 1905, Chicago’s president Harper was in a hospital bed, dying of cancer. He wanted to see Chicago beat Michigan, who had won 57 straight games. Chicago won the game and Harper died two months later. In the 1980s, Notre Dame and Miami had a heated rivalry. Miami had beaten Notre Dame for two championships. Notre Dame overcame the “Catholics versus Convicts” battle and claimed game three. Notre Dame also had a tremendous victory against Army and their famed “Four Horseman” beat Army at Yankee Stadium. They also had a fierce game against Michigan, where they lost their starting quarterback and saw a backup quarterback who had recently been diagnosed with diabetes come into a game and devour not only chocolates and orange juice to survive, but defeat Michigan. Other noteworthy victories in games between Ohio State / Michigan and Oklahoma / Nebraska are discussed. An interesting story in this episode involved the tiny school of Centre College in Kentucky and how these nicknamed “Praying Colonels” traveled to play the top team in 1920, Harvard. Harvard’s coach offered the game ball, but Centre vowed to return and earn the game ball with a victory. They did the next year in 1921 and broke Harvard’s unbeaten streak at 25.

The most coveted trophy in sports for individual achievement is the Heisman Trophy and disc three begins with a history of the trophy and some of its notable winners in the episode “The Nation’s Best.” The trophy was named for legendary Georgia Tech coach John Heisman. Heisman was merciless man who once defeated the small school of Cumberland 222-0. He was also an innovator who invented the center snap. Of the winner’s described, Ernie Davis is noteworthy, as he was the first African-American to win the Heisman. He was recruited by Jim Brown, who should have won it years ago but lost it in controversy to Notre Dame’s “Golden Boy,” Paul Hornung. Both stories are told. Archie Griffin stood only five feet seven inches, but managed to win two Heisman trophies as an Ohio State player. The Army running backs known as “Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside” won back-to-back Heisman’s. University of Chicago’s Jay Berwanger and Yale’s Larry Keller played at the same time, but were both very different people. Berwanger was more thrilled about his first plane ride than he was his destination of receiving the Heisman. Keller turned down NFL offers, a chance to play with the St. Louis Cardinals and a Hollywood acting career. Berwanger went on to be a hugely successful millionaire, while Keller coached at his prep school and eventually committed suicide.

The second half of the series begins with a look at the “Dynasties” of College Football. One of the greatest dynasties was led by one of the greatest coaches of all time. Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant was named the second most popular Southerner after Robert E. Lee. As a player, Bryant led Alabama to a Rose Bowl victory, their third. When he returned as a coach, he led the team to six titles and opened up the South to integration when he began to use African-American players. The second dynasty focuses on “Taliback U,” a nickname given to USC who had the incredible talents of OJ Simpson, Anthony Davis, Marcus Allen and others. They have had more than a handful of both Heisman winners and National Titles. The coaching legacy started by Bernie Beirman and influencing Bud Wilkinson and Darrel Royal saw incredible streaks and more than a few titles for Oklahoma and Texas. One of the more notorious and recent Dynasties involved the Miami Hurricanes and their recruiting of local talent that was superior but known for their horrid conduct. In less than a decade, Miami won four titles and made even more headlines. Tom Osbourne’s Nebraska saw three titles in four years. An older dynasty, Yale lost only 14 times in the 33 years between 1876 and 1909. Of course, the dynasty episode must include Notre Dame who saw Frank Lahey lead the team to six undefeated seasons, four Heisman trophies and four championships.

The seventh episode discusses the history of the sport and how it evolved from a highly brutal variant of rugby to the sport it is today. The motivation for the sport began when two years after the Civil War, Princeton and Rutgers played a game of baseball. Rutgers lost horribly, but challenged a rematch at English Football. Yale and Harvard looked down at the soccer variant because it was a lower class game in England. They decided to play a version of rugby, which marked the beginnings of college football. Walter Camp was an early player for Yale. He is considered the “Father of American Football,” and is responsible for the scrimmage, the concepts of offence and defense and yardage and downs. He originally intended to be a doctor, but kept to football upon the discovery he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. In the 1890s, Yale and football grew very rapidly. Amos Stag and Walter Camp also staged the first game at the Tournament of Roses and started the notion of a Bowl Game. Football was very violent and the significance of the passing game to alleviate the number of deaths is explained and quite interesting. The importance of football to the Depression and some of the early stars are also touched on in this chapter.

“Conflict and Change” deals almost entirely with the emergence of the African-American athlete in College Football and their role in the sport’s history. The first chapter of this episode deals with the influence of World War II on the game of college football and how military schools dominated. It also explains how the GI Bill brought a lot more players to the game. The rest of the episode deals with Black athletes. The great Jackie Robinson was not just a baseball player, but excelled as a running back. William Henry Lewis was an All-American at Harvard in 1892 and 1893, but the team gave him oversized uniforms to ridicule him. Rival Yale would sing “Bye Bye Blackbird” when playing against Harvard. Fritz Pollard would make a name for himself by being the first African-American to take part in the Rose Bowl and to be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. Eddie Robinson became the coach with the most victories of all time at Grambling University. Players usually did not have much of a career after going to a black college, but Robinson changed that when Paul “Tank” Younger was drafted by the NFL’s Rams. Other black college players to make the NFL was Walter Peyton and Jerry Rice. Many Northern teams would agree to withhold their players when playing a Southern team. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the South fully embraced integrated football teams. Jerry Levias was recruited to play at a rich white school, but had to hide in the huddle to avoid potential snipers. African-American players changed College Football and “Conflict and Change” outlines this part of the games history.

As a graduate of Penn State, “Innovators and Motivators” contains a segment that is an absolute much watch. But before Joe Paterno is given his due as a great College Coach, the first coach is a man whose record he just broke. Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant is easily one of the greatest coaches in college history. Nicknamed for wrestling a carnival bear as a boy, Bryant is credited with opening up the South to African-American players. He was known for being incredibly tough, but he was respected. In all of his years at Alabama, Bryant had one losing season. Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne is another legendary coach given his time in the documentary. He was a high school dropout who went to Notre Dame to get a job on campus. He ended up with a Chemistry degree and in 1918 became the team’s coach. Best known for his “Win one for the Gipper” speech, Rockne is perhaps the most responsible for Notre Dame’s mystique. Amos Alonzo Stag decided to be a coach instead of a minister. He was known as the “Football Missionary” and for his “Gosphel of the Gridiron.” Stag brought the T-Formation, huddle, man-in-motion and passing to the game. He coached until he was 90. Joe Paterno is known for his stance on education and the importance of it to his players. Paterno has coached Penn State for 35 seasons. He has had seven undefeated seasons ad two national championships. Also in Pennsylvania and covered is how Glen Warner and Jim Thorpe of the Carlisle War College and his famous “hidden ball play” faced off against Harvard and Warner’s importance as a coach. Eddie Robinson, Bobby Bowden and Bud Wilkinson are also topics of discussion in “Innovators and Motivators.”

The final episode is “Final Glory.” This closing episode focuses on some great finishes to Bowl Games. The first chapter is about Joe Namath and how he did not start the game because of an injured knee. In 1965, NBC was televising the Orange Bowl and it was the first ever televised game at night. The coaches facing off was Darrel Royal and Bear Bryant. Namath was brought into the second half and his knee was heavily taped. With a minute left on the clock and a fourth and goal on the one-yard line, Namath tried to complete his comeback with a QB sneak. He was stopped just inches shy of victory. The 1966 Orange Bowl saw Alabama facing off against Nebraska. They were ranked #4 and #3 respectively. Bryant scheduled this game because he knew that if the two top seeds would be upset, this would be for the National Championship. He was right and Alabama ended up National Champs. Tom Osbourne faced Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl. In this game, a tie would have guaranteed him victory, but he went for the win and gave Miami the championship. A Tournament of Roses game where Stanford resigned after losing 49-0 at the half, Joe Paterno’s second national championship against a superior Miami team, an interesting finish to the 1973 Notre Dame / Alabama game and a great comeback in the 1979 USC / Ohio State Rose Bowl round out the games covered in “Final Glory.”

Video:
My Sony 7700 has been a bit under the weather the past couple of days. It was not up to the job of playing “Rites of Autumn” and will be healthier within the next day or two. To get the cleanest picture and best sound, a surprising entry has become my backup player. No longer does the venerable and sub-par Pioneer DVL-700 get the call. “Rites of Autumn” marked the first time that my Microsoft Xbox was called to duty to play a DVD. I must say, it performed admirably, but the remote needs more buttons. During my viewing of the 1.33:1 picture, I could see the line structure of the image and some over-enhancement of the edges. I’m going to blame the line structure on the video game turned movie machine.

Overall, the picture quality for “Rites of Autumn” is good. Colors are well saturated and detail is good. This, of course, is during the interview segments. The archival footage used ranges in quality based upon the source materials. Some of these look absolutely horrendous and exhibit no detail. The DVD does an excellent job of amplifying any flaw in these source materials. The power and clarity of DVD shows its shortcomings here. If you have old newsreel and television footage, it will look bad. I do think that the picture quality was better than the television I owned during the Penn State / Miami game.

Audio:
“Rites of Autumn” is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. The sound is clean and intelligible. Burt Reynolds and those interviewed always comes across loud and clear. A few of the older radio spots contained during the documentaries and some old television clips feature sound that is difficult to follow. This is entirely a flaw of the source materials. The period themed soundtrack is lively and carried nicely to the speakers. Bass is present, but limited. “Rites of Autumn” sounds like a television broadcast, but what are you to expect from a television broadcast? The fact that most of the original clips shown were done in monaural sound limits what can be done in the overall package, and the material is good enough that sound certainly does not matter much.

Extras:
The front of the packaging states that every episode contains extra footage. I scoured the web for information on the title and found practically nothing. However, nobody else had anything on “Rites of Autumn: The Story of College Football,” so the extent of this bonus footage is unknown. Nonetheless, the bonus footage is wrapped into the episodes. The packaging is unique in being a large keep case that holds four discs and possibly a booklet. The only booklet contained was a promotional one that showed all of the Trimark and Lions Gate releases. Each of the five discs contains two episodes. Most of the episodes contain seven chapters, and a chapter index is provided for each episode. The menus are stylishly done and fit the set perfectly.

Summary:
“Rites of Autumn” is a well-done documentary that aired on ESPN in November and December of 2001. Covering everything from the beginnings of the game, to great rivalries and heroic finishes; “Rites of Autumn” reminds one of the award winning PBS series, “Ken Burns’ Baseball.” “Rites of Autumn” brings together footage, photographs and interviews with those involved in the game. Various historians, writers, coaches and players lend their time to create an experience that should be coveted by any football fan. It took nearly eight hours to watch the entire series. In the end, I wanted to learn more about the game and hear more wondrous stories about football. If you are a fan of the game, do yourself a favor and watch this series.

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