Commentary

Prominent coaches turn actors for film

Saban, Tuberville among those who appear in movie about former Ole Miss star Oher

Originally Published: June 29, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- With his arms crossed, wearing a gray sports coat, Nick Saban leaned toward the computer screen on his desk and shook his head.

"Wow!" he said. "This guy is something else."

A few feet away, a thin man sitting in a director's chair yelled, "Cut!"

"Very nice," said director John Lee Hancock. "Let's go just a little bit faster."

So with the cameras rolling again, Saban leaned toward the computer screen and picked up the pace of his still-evolving Southern drawl.

"Wow!" Saban repeated. "This kid is something!"

"Perfect!" Hancock yelled. "That was really good."

[+] EnlargeLou Holtz
Ralph Nelson/Alcon Entertainment Former Notre Dame and South Carolina coach and current ESPN broadcaster Lou Holtz is comfortable in front of the cameras.

And with that Saban finished Scene 132 of the upcoming film "The Blind Side," which is based on Michael Lewis' best-selling book about the life of former Ole Miss star Michael Oher. The book, "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game," documented Oher's transformation from the son of a drug-addicted mother and murdered father growing up in a Memphis housing project to an All-American and NFL prospect at Ole Miss.

While actress Sandra Bullock and country singer Tim McGraw are the film's most famous entertainers, a handful of current and former college football coaches played some prominent roles. Along with Saban, former Notre Dame and South Carolina coach Lou Holtz, current Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt and former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville filmed scenes at an Atlanta office building as the movie neared the end of production earlier this month.

Former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer and ex-Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron filmed scenes for the movie on a previous day.

"I think it gives the film more authenticity," said Hancock, who previously directed "The Alamo" and the baseball movie "The Rookie." "I knew since it's a true story, you really couldn't have actors portraying these [coaches]. I didn't want sports fans pointing at the screen and saying, 'That's not Tommy Tuberville,' or 'That guy doesn't look like Nick Saban.'"

Finding an actor big enough to portray Oher was even more challenging. The 6-foot-4, 309-pound offensive tackle was a first-round draft choice of the Baltimore Ravens in this year's NFL draft. He was even bigger as a raw prospect at tiny Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis. Boston Celtics forward Glen "Big Baby" Davis actually auditioned for the role of Oher before Hancock settled on Quinton Aaron, a 24-year-old actor from New York, who is 6-8 and 380 pounds.

But Hancock knew there were no suitable substitutes for the college football coaches appearing in the film.

The director said he first contacted Orgeron about playing himself. Orgeron was in his first season as Ole Miss' head coach in 2005 when he won a fierce recruiting battle for Oher, who was considered the top offensive line prospect by many recruiting experts.

Orgeron -- who was fired at Ole Miss after the 2007 season and now works as Tennessee's associate head coach and recruiting coordinator -- filmed a few lines for Hancock in the initial stages of filming. The director was immediately impressed with Orgeron's enthusiasm.

"Ed put himself on tape and was fantastic," Hancock said. "Once you get one, you're committed to all of them playing themselves."

Leigh Anne Tuohy, the Memphis housewife who helped foster Oher after he enrolled at her daughter's high school, helped persuade Saban to participate in the film. Tuohy and her husband, Sean, had previously befriended Saban through their relationship with Jimmy Sexton, the coach's Memphis-based agent. Once Saban was on board, Leigh Anne Tuohy said it was easy to get the other coaches to appear in the film.

"I kind of knew once Nick said he'd do it, they'd all jump on board," she said. "I told him, 'You'd better play yourself. If you don't, I'm going to find a short, ugly guy to play you.' You know how vain Nick is. He probably thought about it and said, 'I'd better play myself.'"

Because the film is based on a story that happened five years ago, it did create some awkward moments for a few of the coaches. When Saban recruited Oher he was LSU's coach. He left after the 2004 season for the NFL's Miami Dolphins and now coaches at Alabama, one of the Tigers' fiercest rivals.

On the set where Saban filmed his last scene for "The Blind Side," his office was littered with LSU memorabilia. There was an LSU game ball, a 2001 SEC championship trophy and reprints of pages from The (Baton Rouge) Advocate newspaper. There was even a replica of the key to the city of Baton Rouge.

Saban, who had just finished his second season with the Crimson Tide, told his Alabama players he would be appearing in the movie as LSU's coach.

[+] EnlargeTommy Tuberville
Ralph Nelson/Alcon Entertainment Tommy Tuberville says he was comfortable portraying Auburn's coach in "The Blind Side."

"It's a historic event," Saban said. "I told our players at Alabama that it was a historic event and this happened when I was at LSU. I did this in honor of the Tuohys and Michael, even though he didn't come to LSU or Alabama. We have great fans at Alabama. Hopefully, everybody is big enough to understand that this film is documenting a true story."

Nutt was the head coach at Arkansas when he recruited Oher five years ago. Now Nutt is coaching at Ole Miss, another SEC school, where he coached Oher during his senior season in 2008.

"At first I was really apprehensive and a little anxious," Nutt said. "I was trying to get out of it. But with the relationship I had with Michael Oher last year, I couldn't turn it down. I really didn't know much about his story. But as you get to know his background and the Tuohy family, it's pretty special. It's a little weird because I'm at Ole Miss now. But it's a true story, and I recruited him when I was at Arkansas, so it fits."

Fulmer and Tuberville were the head coaches at Tennessee and Auburn, respectively, when they tried to recruit Oher to their schools. Both coaches were forced out of their jobs after last season.

Tuberville, who still lives in Auburn, said he didn't hesitate to wear a Tigers shirt during the film.

"I'll always be a fan," Tuberville said. "It's a job. I made it a lot longer than I thought I would. Ten years in the SEC is a long, long time."

Other than appearing in commercials for soft drinks and potato chips and a grocery store chain while at Auburn, Tuberville's acting experience was limited.

Hancock made sure the coaches were able to ad-lib through their scenes, relying on their real-life experiences to get through their lines, instead of simply reading a script.

"They gave you an idea of what to say," said Holtz, who was in his final season of coaching at South Carolina when Oher was being recruited. "They ask, 'What would you say to the athlete when you were in the home?' They give you a time limit and you go."

During one scene, each of the coaches greeted Bullock -- who is portraying Leigh Anne Tuohy -- at the front door of the Tuohys' home. Once inside, the coaches had to recruit Oher and the Tuohys' young son, Sean Jr.

"Orgeron came out of his seat and forearmed the couch," Tuberville joked. "The rest of us looked a little more in control."

Overall, Tuberville said his first Hollywood acting role was rewarding. He said the coaches were able to spend a lot of time together during one day of filming, when they spent nearly eight hours on set.

"I've got this acting thing down now," Tuberville said. "It was a good time. They weren't asking us to play a bad guy or anything. Of course, I'm sure Nick had a hard time doing that."

Hancock said he was surprised by the coaches' commitment to the film. After several takes, Saban asked Hancock, "John, what can I do to make it better?"

During one of Tuberville's scenes, Hancock asked him to stop moving his hands. The director told Tuberville that people watching the film would be distracted by the movement. On the next take, the coach clasped his hands together and kept them still.

"See, you're coachable," Hancock told him. "I know that now. We'll coach you up and make you look good."

[+] EnlargeLou Holtz
Ralph Nelson/Alcon Entertainment Lou Holtz and the other coaches were able to ad-lib through their scenes during the filming of the movie.

Hancock said each of the coaches, many of whom are among the highest-paid in college football, were open to suggestions and critiques.

"They are highly coachable," Hancock said. "They're very organized individuals. They like the organizational aspects of the set. It made me understand why these guys are so successful. They entered an arena they're not accustomed to being in, but each of them asked, 'Is it OK?' and 'What can I do better?'"

Sean Tuohy, who played basketball at Ole Miss and now works as a radio color analyst for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, said acting almost became a healthy competition among the SEC coaches appearing in "The Blind Side."

"I think it got to the point where they wanted to be better than the last guy," Tuohy said. "They couldn't wait to get on the phone and ask, 'How did I do?'"

Holtz, who works as an ESPN college football analyst, seemed more comfortable in front of the cameras than other coaches.

"I told them I'm not a cameo actor," Holtz joked. "I'm a supporting actor at worst. I can't believe they didn't give me a starring role."

During one of Holtz's scenes, he was watching Oher's video highlights for the first time.

"What did I tell you?" Holtz asked an actor portraying a South Carolina assistant coach. "You don't even have to coach him. He does things you don't see. You get a player like him, all you do is say, 'Sic 'em.'"

Just like Hancock did with the SEC coaches appearing in his film.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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