Bob Gliner, Documentary filmmaker

April 10, 2005

Gliner turns his eye to college football

Boulder Creek filmmaker Bob Gliner has shot documentaries in Israel and Vietnam, in Russia and Macedonia, in Cuba and El Salvador. But his latest film had no travel budget. This time, Gliner told his story close to home.

"Playing for Keeps" focuses on football and higher education and the complex, sometimes contentious relationship between the two. Gliner, who teaches at San Jose State University, went out on his own campus to tell the story of the SJSU Spartans football team under the tutelage of head coach Fitz Hill, one of only four African-American head coaches in big-time college football.

Though college football may be the single most publicized aspect of campus life, it rarely gets this kind of treatment. Tracing Hill’s tenure from 2001 to his resignation in 2004, Gliner follows a handful of players as they make the difficult transition from the often dangerous neighborhoods where they grew up to the demands of the college experience. He shows how football might be an ill fit at SJSU with its older and ethnically diverse student body.

Even though Gliner interviews such football luminaries as former 49ers head coach Bill Walsh and former Super Bowl quarterback Doug Williams, "Playing for Keeps" is not told from a sports fan’s perspective, but rather a sociologist’s. Watching Coach Hill excoriate his players in the locker room, it might occur to you that football programs like San Jose State’s are actually blessed by their relative obscurity. Compared with some of the football factories of the South and the Midwest, SJSU seems still relatively free of the warped values that high-profile college sports often reinforce.

Hill’s protest that white coaches are judged individually while black coaches are judged collectively underlines the themes of race that run through the film. With Hill and Notre Dame coach Ty Willingham, the most well-known black coach in college football, both losing their positions the same year, it’s fair to ask: Does a sport that often exploits young black athletes have room for black coaches?

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