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Ole Miss alum part of Oscar-winning documentary

University of Mississippi alumnus Bill Courtney didn’t plan on changing anyone’s life when he started coaching at Manassas High School, located in the impoverished area of North Memphis. He also did not realize that documenting his last season at Manassas would bring home an Oscar for best documentary.
It all started in 2004 after his friend Jim Tipton told the school he knew a guy who could help out. Courtney agreed, with no intention of staying there long — much less for six years.
“My business is about a mile away from the school,” Courtney said. “In the past, I coached football and taught school. They had only 17 kids and had only won a couple of games. So I went over and coached.”
Because North Memphis was a different area than what he was used to, the kids Courtney would end up coaching were not like the ones he had experience with. However, Courtney said this did not change how he coached the players.
“You are talking about an area that is riddled with abject poverty,” he said. “Young men are more likely to get incarcerated than go to college. I didn’t coach those kids differently than in the suburbs. If the kids believe that you care about them, they respond to coaching.”
In the 110 years since the school was founded, the Manassas football team had not won a single playoff game. The Tigers would pay rival teams in “pay games” to beat them and raise funds for the team.
Little by little, Courtney and his fellow coaches, along with a new group of promising students, changed the football program at Manassas. By fall 2009, there was hope that the Tigers would make it to the playoffs.
A producer caught wind of the Manassas football team around February 2009 after the Tigers were featured in an article. A Commercial Appeal reporter wrote about a student who was going to live with coach Mike Ray part-time so he could be tutored and make good-enough grades to play on the football team.
As the documentary “Undefeated” began, the focus turned to three players on the team: senior left tackle O.C. Brown, senior offensive lineman Montrail, or “Money,” and junior linebacker Chavis.
These three young men and their relationship with coach Courtney is the driving force behind the documentary. During the course of the football season, an injured player may get to finish playing his last year, a hothead may have to stay off the team due to his volatile nature and a player that needs to make the grades to play college football may achieve his goals.
Because the documentary focused on the players instead of football, it has gained a lot of positive attention. Courtney said he wasn’t surprised at the reactions because it is something anyone can relate to.
“There was an older lady who saw the movie in a focus group in L.A.,” he said. “She said, ‘This is the best movie I’ve ever seen; it’s my all-time favorite movie.’ She had no idea that it wasn’t actors — that it was real people. ‘Undefeated’ has nothing to do with wins and losses.”
The positive feedback may not have been unexpected, but Courtney said the Academy Award nomination was a huge shock.
“I was asleep; I had been at the office the night before,” he said. “The phone rang at 7:20 (a.m.) and I had to go into work at 8:30 (a.m.). The director who was in L.A. called me and I asked him, ‘What are you calling me for at 5:20?’ He then told me, ‘Your story got nominated for an Oscar.’ I told him OK and hung up. I called him back as soon as I woke back up.”
Things have changed for Courtney and the players since the documentary won an Oscar, but Courtney said he’s doing his best to keep things in perspective.
“It is surreal,” he said. “I do want to enjoy it. Honestly though, it is just a moment. For an 18 year old, they have a long, miserable life (ahead) if this is what has defined them. It doesn’t need to define us. It’s going to college, getting a degree, having a family — not a damn movie. It is humbling and great. Nineteen seniors went to college.”
Courtney taught and coached at several schools before Manassas, but whether he was in the suburbs or North Memphis, he said he didn’t deal with the kids any differently.
“In two ways I related to kids,” he said. “As a kid, I lived in it and played with those guys. I know what it is like to be lost and lonely. I just coached them; I didn’t treat them any different. They have the same fears and anxieties. You coach and mentor and love; you love in spite of, not because.”
As a student at Ole Miss, football played an big role in Courtney’s life. He was a junior when the Sigma Nu Charity Bowl was founded to honor Ole Miss football player Chucky Mullins, who broke his neck and was paralyzed.
“If you are willing to put that garbage to the side and work together for a common purpose, it truly is amazing,” he said.
Courtney said he wrote to Dean of Students Sparky Reardon when “Undefeated” was nominated for an Oscar. Reardon, who taught Courtney during his undergraduate tenure at Ole Miss, said this was his first year to watch the Oscars.
“I knew him as an undergrad and he had a great deal of self confidence, but he was very respectful,” Reardon said. “Bill is passionate. He was passionate when he was a sports writer at The DM. I am just real proud of Bill and everyone who has had a hand in this; it’s a real testament to Ole Miss.”
Courtney left Manassas after the 2009 season, but he will always be connected to the school, the team and the players.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t talk to them,” he said.