• The football consultant for a 20-year-old classic looks back at the Oop-Dee-Oop, the Air Raid and what James Van Der Beek and Lincoln Riley may have in common.
By Andy Staples
January 15, 2019

Mark Ellis was busy teaching Adam Sandler—and Sandler’s stunt double—how to powerbomb actor Todd Holland on The Waterboy set in Orlando in 1998 when he got a call about a movie that was about to start production near Austin. Ellis, a former Appalachian State and Guilford quarterback, was in charge of making sure the football played by Bobby Boucher and the South Central Louisiana State University Mud Dogs looked at least semi-realistic. 

The movie Ellis was called about would require far more realistic football action, and it would need to go into production quickly. Paramount wanted to race Varsity Blues into theaters because Texas-based director Richard Linklater (Dazed And Confused) had been attached to an adaptation of Buzz Bissinger’s best-seller Friday Night Lights, and getting started first was critical because the studio didn’t want an Armageddon/Deep Impact predicament. So even though Ellis had injured his back demonstrating the aforementioned powerbomb on the 6'6", 280-pound Holland*, he wrapped The Waterboy, returned home to South Carolina for about a day and headed to Texas to film the movie that charted the course for the future of football.

That last statement isn’t made lightly. Varsity Blues debuted 20 years ago Tuesday, but if you watch closely, you’ll notice the seeds of the game we watch now. Go back and watch the scene early in the film when West Canaan Coyotes backup quarterback Jonathan Moxon (a smoldering James Van Der Beek, who still doesn’t want your life) brings the scout team offense on the field and proceeds to shift into the Oop-Dee-Oop formation. 

*Holland, a former walk-on offensive lineman at Florida, once had the misfortune of being two lockers down from the author of this story. It truly is a small world.

ORR: The Waterboy: A Cinematic Retrospective

The Coyotes start out in 21 personnel (two backs and one tight end) with a receiver on each side and the tight end attached on the boundary side. Moxon calls for a shift, and the receivers, tight end and fullback all cluster on the field side while the tailback moves to the boundary side. Before Moxon can snap the ball out of this four-by-one empty backfield formation, coach Bud Kilmer (a scenery-chewing Jon Voight) stops practice and berates Moxon. Moxon, clearly an early adopter of analytics, defends himself. “Mississippi Valley State’s averaging over 40 points a game with this offense,” Moxon says. “Overload the defense on the strong side. Burn them one-on-one on the other.”

It’s clear from this scene that Moxon is based on a young Lincoln Riley, who at the time of the movie’s release was a sophomore defensive lineman for the Muleshoe (Texas) High Mules. Riley would move to quarterback the following season, and though he ultimately didn’t convince Mules coaches to scrap the Power-I, he probably burned like Dawson—I mean, Moxon—to subvert the dominant gridiron paradigm. I’m definitely making up this part, but Ellis did want the football in the film to illustrate the conflict between a dinosaur like Kilmer and younger, fresher ideas from a new generation.

For Kilmer’s offense, Ellis used the same scheme—and same terminology—that he used as the quarterback at Page High in Greensboro, N.C., in the 1980s. “I figured a guy like [Kilmer] would run that offense,” Ellis says. “He was being very conservative. James was fighting him to spread everybody out.” This earned Ellis plenty of phone calls from his former teammates and coaches, but it also provided a foil for the up-tempo, empty-backfield scheme that Moxon and injured starter Lance Harbor (the late Paul Walker) after the team stages a mutiny and runs off Kilmer at halftime of the Gilroy game. 

This wasn’t completely unheard of at the time, either. While the movie was getting edited in the fall of 1998, head coach Hal Mumme and offensive coordinator Mike Leach were directing the Air Raid at Kentucky and averaging 412.2 passing yards a game. Leach would be hired that offseason by Bob Stoops to run the Air Raid at Oklahoma, thus introducing the offense that would dominate that section of the country to this day. Meanwhile, Texas high school football had already tilted toward the spread. While Varsity Blues was being filmed in Georgetown, Texas, former Georgetown High coach Art Briles was on the tail end of a very successful tenure at Stephenville (Texas) High running an offense that looked an awful lot like the one Briles would run as Baylor’s head coach.

Ellis was getting his own education in Lone Star State football during filming. Other than the late Ron Lester, who played left tackle/game-winning touchdown scorer Billy Bob, the Coyotes’ offensive linemen were former Texas high school and college football players. And they had very definite ideas about the soundtrack. The linemen kept pestering director Brian Robbins about the song they wanted cranked during the scene when the Coyotes play a game hung over following a night at a club called The Landing Strip. Unfortunately for the linemen, Robbins didn’t seem interested. So one night—the production filmed from sundown to sunup for almost a month because the movie had so many night scenes—the crew returned from a break. Radios across the set squawked the same question. Where’s the director? Ellis had another question. Where’s my offensive line? Then Ellis heard something in the parking lot. A tricked-out pickup truck was tearing around the lot loaded down by a horde of linemen and one movie director. AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” blasted from the speakers. “They got tired of telling him,” Ellis says. “They finally just grabbed him.”

It worked. When Robbins locked in the final cut, “Thunderstruck” scored the hangover scene.

The cast also learned about the power of college football in Texas. Peter Gardere, QB1 at Texas from 1989 to ’92, served as the body double for Walker and Van Der Beek. And despite having an ascendant leading man, the star of a primetime teen soap opera and future whipped cream bikini model Ali Larter in tow, Gardere was the featured attraction wherever the cast and crew went. “He can make every throw you want,” Ellis says. “And when we got done shooting, he got us into any bar or restaurant in town.”

Still, Ellis didn’t have a Keanu Reeves/Shane Falco situation. Walker and Van Der Beek could sling it. “Paul was tall and lanky. He’d get that ball up real high and let it go,” Ellis says. “James was a little more compact. But both of them were strong, athletic guys.”

The best football player among the actors with major roles was Eliel Swinton, who played tailback Wendell Brown. Swinton played for Stanford and had a cup of coffee with the Kansas City Chiefs, and Ellis considered him the most critical member of the cast from a football standpoint. The most pleasant surprise was Scott Caan, who played receiver/sexual-harassment-lawsuit-waiting-to-happen Charlie Tweeder. Ellis had worked with Caan’s very famous father James on The Program, but Ellis had no idea the one-time Sonny Corleone had sired the prototype for today’s slot receivers. “Scott Caan is an athlete,” Ellis says. “Strong, fast, good hands. Tough kid. He’ll hit you in the mouth. He’s the Julian Edelman-type guy.”

Varsity Blues predicted the next 20 years of football, so hopefully now we can truly appreciate it for the trailblazer it is. A few years after Varsity Blues wrapped, Ellis got another call. They finally were going to make Friday Night Lights into a feature film. Would he be interested in coordinating the football scenes for Permian High? “I’ve already done Friday Night Lights,” Ellis responded. “It was better, and it had a whipped cream scene in it.”

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