Many of us enjoyed the Super Bowl yesterday. Maybe you are a football fanatic, maybe you just wanted to catch the commercials, or perhaps, like many of us, you just wanted someone, anyone, besides the Patriots to win this year. For many Americans, the Super Bowl has become an unofficial holiday. We prepare certain foods, we throw parties, and decorate the house.
Many movies have been written about football; my favorite is still Remember the Titans, although Brian’s Song (appropriately with Shelly Fabares as Joy Piccolo) still makes me cry. On television we had Friday Night Lights, but when I think back to the classic sitcoms, the only show that came to mind was Coach.
I remember watching Coach when it was originally on the air from 1989-1997, but my viewing was hit and miss. In my defense, I had two young children then, and they kept my evenings busy. This past year, I caught part of the Coach marathon on Decades. I’ve also been watching it on Antenna TV, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. The characters still ring true for me. Hayden, Christine, Luther, Dauber, and Judy are just exaggerated enough to be fun and quirky. My youngest son attends Minnesota State Mankato, and I knew there were some connections with the show, but I was unsure what they were. I decided this was the perfect time to learn some of the behind-the-scene details of the show and celebrate our national pastimes of football and television watching.
Hayden Fox (Craig T. Nelson) is the head coach of a NCAA Division I college football team. His staff, primarily Michael “Dauber” Dybinski (Bill Fagerbakke, later the voice of Patrick on SpongeBob Square Pants) and Luther Van Dam (Jerry Van Dyke), help him coach the Screaming Eagles. His girlfriend is Christine Armstrong (Shelly Fabares), a local newscaster. Christine doesn’t especially love sports, but she loves Hayden even though his narrow mindedness can make her crazy. Their relationship is a give and take that gradually entwines them and allows them to grow together, understanding more about each other, but still retaining very different personalities and points of view. Hayden truly cares about his friends, he just has a gruff manner when showing it. Feelings make him uncomfortable.
In addition to Christine, Hayden has to learn to be a father again. His ex-wife raised their daughter, and now Kelly (Clare Carey) has enrolled at Minnesota State. Kelly has much more in common with Christine than with Hayden. Eventually she dates and marries Stu, a guy Hayden cannot relate to at all. In 1991, the marriage ends in divorce when Stu falls in love with someone else, and Hayden is relieved to have him out of their lives. Kelly graduates in 1993 and is offered a job at an ad agency in New York and only guest stars after that time. Oddly enough, Carey was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in California but got the part because she was a believable Midwesterner.
In addition to trying to influence the players on his team to become good men and citizens, Hayden “parents” Dauber who is much younger and Luther who is much older. Luther is a bachelor and has a lack of self-confidence, but he’s a great coordinator and Hayden appreciates him. Dauber has a heart of gold but is not the most intelligent though he can be wise at times. He continues to work with the team, eventually gathering three degrees and dating the women’s basketball coach, Judy (Pam Grier).
Judy and Hayden do not see eye to eye, and she does not have the patience or motivation to be nice to Hayden. Hayden often has harsh words for his athletic director Howard Burleigh, (Kenneth Kimmins) who always has his finger on the bottom line, but Hayden and Christine are friends with Howard and his wife Shirley (Georgia Engels) and, despite their working relationship, we see their underlying friendship developing.
At the end of season seven, Hayden is offered an NFL dream job with the Orlando Breakers. He accepts and takes his staff with him. By this time, he and Christine are married, so she also moves with the coaching staff. The owner of the team, Doris Sherman (Katherine Helmond), is more interested in the perks she gets being an owner than the success of the team. However, Fox gets the Breakers to a wild spot playoff game in the last season, although they lose to Buffalo. Also in the final season, Christine and Hayden adopt a baby boy. The Breakers were a parody of the Jacksonville Jaguars who, like the Breakers, entered the NFL in 1995 and made the playoffs against Buffalo in their second year as a team. The view Hayden sees when he looks out his office window at the stadium is actually the Milwaukee County Stadium, another tie to my Midwest.
In the season finale, the cast thanks the audience for nine years of support. Van Dyke refuses to believe the series is really over, despite all his co-stars trying to convince him. The fans also are treated to an summary of what the characters did after Coach. Hayden and Christine return to Minnesota to raise their son, even though other NFL teams are interested in Fox as a coach. Luther and Doris are in a relationship, and they build a house similar to Graceland as a tribute to Elvis. Howard and Shirley sell their rare collection of Barbie dolls and use the proceeds to buy a dinner theater in Florida. Dauber takes over the Breakers team as head coach. He wins back-to-back Super Bowls, and when he retires, he joins the Monday Night Football crew as an announcer.
Barry Kemp originally created the role of Hayden Fox for Dabney Coleman, but when ABC was ready to air the show, Coleman was unavailable. Kemp was also the creator of Newhart, and he gives a nod to his previous hit from time to time. In one episode, Christine is reading a book, How To Fly Fish by Dick Louden. In the finale, when Christine and Hayden return to his cabin, there just happen to be several people living there: Larry, Darryl and his “other brother Darryl,” whom all Newhart fans recognize immediately.
Another interesting twist on Coach was the appearance of stars who had personal relationships with the cast. Nanette Fabray, Shelly’s aunt, shows up as Mildred Armstrong, Christine’s mother. Mike Farrell, from M*A*S*H, Shelly’s husband, also appears on an episode. Nelson’s son, Noah, guest stars as a football player in one show, a delivery boy in one show, and the biological father of Fox’s adopted son in two later episodes. Perhaps the most unusual appearance was related to Luther. When Luther learns he was adopted and attends his birth family’s reunion, he tells Hayden that there was no way he could be related to any of these people. At that moment, a guy walks by them. He doesn’t have any lines, but it is Dick Van Dyke, Jerry’s brother.
Other guest stars included Tim Conway, Elinor Donahue, Lisa Kudrow, Dick Martin, Lucy Liu, Tom Poston, Rob Schneider, and Alan Young.
This show might have more stars appearing as themselves as any sitcom ever. Just a few of these sports heroes include Troy Aikman, George Allen, Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka, Eddie George, Frank Gifford, Kathie Lee Gifford, Bob Griese, Lou Holtz, Keith Jackson, Jimmy Johnson, Keyshawn Johnson, Jerry Jones, Al Michaels, Hank Stram, Joe Theismann, and Johnny Unitas.
Kemp was an alumnus of The University of Iowa. He chose the name Hayden Fox as a tribute to Iowa coach Hayden Fry. Even though the show is supposed to be set in Minnesota, much of it is filmed in Iowa. Many of the exterior shots on the show were taped at the Memorial Union. A couple of residence halls and the Field House also end up on the show.
The theme song was performed by the Iowa State University marching band. They won a national contest, earning the right to record the song.
The footage of football games is actually film from The University of Minnesota football seasons.
The Screaming Eagles was a nod to the line of Harley-Davidson motorcycles which Nelson collected.
In 1989 when the show first aired, there was no Minnesota State University. However, in 1998 Mankato State University became Minnesota State University Mankato ( and Moorhead became Minnesota State University Moorhead). However, there are some similarities between Mankato and the fictional college. Both have purple and gold as their school colors. The campus is about an hour from St. Paul-Minneapolis as is Mankato. (Christine lives in the Twin Cities when they first begin dating.) Hayden lives on a lake and in Mankato, faculty members do live on Lake Washington. The television university was founded in 1867, and Mankato was also created at that time.
Although the finale summed up the lives of the characters, that was not the end of the story. In 2015, NBC ordered 13 episodes of a Coach sequel. Nelson and Kemp came up with a concept where Hayden’s son takes a coaching job at a small college in Pennsylvania. The plan was to retain the original viewers while attracting a new, younger audience. Hayden, now a widower, comes out of retirement to be his son’s assistant coach. Dauber, now married to Judy, also signs on to help with the team. The pilot was filmed, but then NBC changed its mind. There are rumors that the revival may still happen, and other networks might be considering it. We’ll have to stay tuned.
Although the reboot has not come to fruition yet, Nelson, Van Dyke, and Fagerbakke did star again in an episode of The District. Nelson starred in the show from 2000-2004. In “The Black Widow Maker,” Jerry is a grumpy small-town judge and Bill is a police officer.
It’s too bad that the revival has not been fully developed. Considering the shows that were resurrected, often badly, this one sounds like it might have been a hit. Nelson won an Emmy during his time on Coach, but the network moved the show constantly, making it hard for fans to become loyal viewers. It was on every night except Thursday and Sunday. It survived because it worked. The writing was solid, and the characters were realistic. Hayden always had good intentions, and Christine was aware of that. Also, the show was able to survive the changes with Kelly graduating and moving, with the NFL team move; the crew stayed together while circumstances kept the show fresh.
The show went on the Antenna TV schedule last January. Do yourself a favor and get to know the Minnesota State crew.
Let’s end with some dialogue that captures the relationship between Hayden and Christine’s real marriage and Hayden and Luther’s work marriage:
Assistant Coach Luther Van Dam: I’ve made out my will, and I’d like you to be my executioner.
Coach Hayden Fox: I think you mean “executor.”
Coach Hayden Fox to his wife: You think I didn’t respect you Christine, but the truth is, I didn’t even think of you.
Poor Hayden, even when he takes two steps forward, he fumbles and loses yardage.