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So to Speak Podcast Transcript - Undefeated' with Coach Bill Courtney

'Undefeated' with Coach Bill Courtney

Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.

Nico Perrino: You're listening to So To Speak, the free speech podcast brought to you by FIRE, the foundation for individual rights and expression.

Nico Perrino: Welcome back, everyone. I've been really looking forward to this conversation. My wife and I – gosh, it must have been four or five years ago – were in our old apartment, and we watched a documentary about a sports team in Memphis, a football team, and what one coach was able to do to bring that team – which for over 100 years, had an abysmal record on the playing field – to bring it to a 9-1 finish, and that coach's last year coaching the team.

And I was at a conference recently in Nashville, and I happened to meet that coach, Bill Courtney; and we got to talking. He's a big free speech supporter, and he's kind of a renaissance man. He's a football coach. He is a podcast host. He hosts a popular podcast, An Army of Normal Folks, and I think we'll talk a little bit about that during the show. He's an entrepreneur.

He owns a lumber company, and he's an author. So, he does all the things. And he's a father, as well, I believe, of four kids, if the documentary is correct. And so, I'm very excited to have Coach Bill Courtney joining us today. That documentary, I should say, is called Undefeated, and it did win the 2011 Oscar for feature documentary.

I'm a big football fan. I grew up going to Notre Dame football games. My dad played for Notre Dame. My dad played in the NFL. Football is the sport in my family. So, Coach Bill Courtney, welcome on the show.

Bill Courtney: Man, thanks for having me, and if you'd have told me I'd been described as a renaissance man, I probably would have fallen out of my chair. I appreciate that very much.

Nico Perrino: Well, let's talk about how you got to where you are now. Tell me a little bit about yourself, how you grew up, and what led you to coaching, entrepreneurship, podcast hosting?

Bill Courtney: I grew up Memphis; really what defines a lot of who I am. My mother and father were divorced when I was 4. My father actually died earlier this year, and I got a call, I don't know, a week and a half to two weeks after his death, to be told he passed. That was pretty much my sum total relationship with him from 4 years old until today. Mom was married and divorced four more times, for a total of five. My fourth daddy, after downing a handle of Scotch one night, took out a 38-caliber pistol and shot at me down a hallway. I had to dive out a window to save myself, and grew up with not a whole lot, and a fair amount of trauma and dysfunction.

And it was my coaches, that had I not had those coaches in my life, I really don't know where I'd ended up. And I think people use that phrase, "I don't know where I'd have ended up," but genuinely, I really honestly have no idea, if those men hadn't mentored me. I don't know how my life would have turned out.

So, I'm kind of defined by an understanding of what fatherlessness and broken households mean. And then, as a result of that, I'm also defined by what mentorship and subscribing to basic fundamentals and tenets in your life can also mean, in the face of dysfunction, and in the face of problems.

And so, from a 30,000-foot view, I believe that things like character, commitment, integrity, teamwork, the dignity of hard work, grace, forgiveness, all these basic fundamentals and tenets that really I discuss in my book – I believe that those fundamentals are the only thing really that can create a foundation for meaningful life.

And while those are old school thoughts, I also fundamentally believe we can be a forward-thinking, evolving society without abandoning the core principles that defined us in the first place. And as it pertains to, really, free speech, and a lot of the things you guys spend an enormous amount of capital working on, I think there's a discussion to be had around how those fundamentals somehow have become, in some ways, antiquated, when actually, I think they're paramount in our cultural and societal success.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. I've been thinking about sports teams, and kind of my experience growing up. I didn't have, fortunately, a lot of the trauma that you just described. My parents were together, a loving marriage. But I did have coaches in my life who taught me what it meant to be a man, what it meant to be respected in my community, what it meant to be a good person.

I went to high school, York High School, in Elmhurst, Illinois. I ran track, and the track and cross country program at York High School is arguably the best one in the country. Coach Joe Newton was my coach, one of my coaches, and he had won 26 state titles in 50 years. That doesn't include second and third places, of which there were many.

Bill Courtney: Good Lord. That's impressive.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. He was a fantastic, fantastic coach. And that's just in cross country. That doesn't include the track state championships, and seconds and third places. But the way he approached the sport, and there's a documentary made about him, as well, called The Long Ring Line, was not so much training people to run fast, run far. That was definitely part of it, but training them to be good men.

And so, every day before our practices, we would sit down as a team. It was almost like he was delivering a sermon for like 15, 20 minutes, just talking about what it means to be a good person, and how that translates into effectiveness on the track, or on the field, so to speak.

I saw a lot of that from you, as well, when I watched Undefeated. You had many conversations in that film, with your athletes, about what it took to overcome adversity, what it took to do the right thing. There's one student, a student athlete who you had, who had spent a year in juvenile detention, and came back onto the field, and had a way of just getting a little bit violent; wasn't unable to control his emotions.

And I want to ask you how you ended up at Manassas, which is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Memphis. I mean, you're a successful entrepreneur. You had four kids. You say it repeatedly during the film, you don't have to be doing this, and you don't have to be mediating all these disputes, and breaking up fights and trying to get across to people; but you do.

And so, I want to use this kind of as a segue to talk about how you were able to bring all these folks together, who had so much trauma, as well, in their life, and how you were able to get them to kind of work together as one unit.

Bill Courtney: It's really a three-part answer, and I'll try to do the elevator speech on all three.

Nico Perrino: Well, it was a three-part question, so it's not your fault.

Bill Courtney: So, the first one is this. Fundamentally, I believe that players win games, and coaches win players. And what I mean by that is I have never – I actually think Woody Hayes came off the sideline and made a tackle once, but beyond that, I've never seen a coach score touchdown; I've never seen a coach record a tackle; I've never seen a coach throw a pass. Coaches don't win games. Players win games. Players execute on the field.

So, what does a coach win? The most effective coaches win their players. And it sounds to me like that's what your track coach was doing. He was winning your hearts and minds, serving you, leading you by serving you, by teaching you fundamentals and tenets that were going to serve you in life well after the days of running track were over, well after the days of playing football are over.

And when you serve and teach, and win kids hearts and minds, and empower and equip with the necessary tutelage, equipment, and opportunity to go be successful on the football field, I believe they'll do that. And the segue to the world is, if you employ those same fundamentals and tenets in your life after the playing days are over, you got a really good shot at being successful in life.

Coaching any sport is not like chess. In chess, when you scheme an opening, or you're in the middle game and you make a move, or when you're in game and you're working on a trap – in chess, when you make a move, that piece moves there, and that's it. In sport, you can push all the right Xs and Os schematics, but your pieces can change their mind to decide they don't want to do what you've pushed them to do.

So, coaches who think that X's and O's alone win games are fooling themselves. You've got to not only move the pieces, but you've got to convince them why you're moving the piece the way you're moving them, and get them to buy in to why you're moving those pieces and the way you're moving them, so that they execute to the best of their ability. And you don't do that by saying it's my way and the highway. You do that by winning their hearts and minds, and having them believe in you as much as you believe in them. So, players win games, coaches win players.

The second part is why I was coaching. My freshman year in high school, I got in a fight. And back then, back in the day, when you got in a fight, you didn't go before the board, or a principal, and all this happy stuff people do now. If you were an athlete and you got in trouble, you went to the coach's office.

And Lord, I'm telling you, going to the coach's office was far worse than suspension or anything else they could give you, because a coach could lace you up, could do whatever. And my high school football coach was Philip Spain. He grew up in Milan, Tennessee, the son of a cotton farmer, and exactly what you might expect; gruff, tough, country strong, chewed on grass when he was coaching; red-faced.

And he was the kind of guy that was hard, and you never wanted to let down, but you knew he loved you, and he never had to say the words. And I knew he was going to kill me. And so, when I went in his office, back then, I was Billy. And he said, "Billy, why'd you get in a fight?" And I said, "Coach, I'm just so angry." And he looked at me and he said, "That's completely understandable."

He said, "At 15 years old, you've lived through more than most, with gunfire in the house, and men in and out of your life, and all kinds of dysfunction, and frankly trauma." And he said, "Nobody can blame you for being angry," and he said, "but I want to paint a picture for you."

And he said, "Fifteen years from now, you have a choice to make, because 15 years from now, you can fall prey to that dysfunction that you're experiencing. You can be a victim of that, and nobody really blame you, because kids that deal with what you're dealing with oftentimes become victim to it.

"But what that's going to look like when you're 30 is you're probably going to have one or two jobs you've lost. You're more than likely going to have a kid out of wedlock, or through divorce. You're probably going to be pretty miserable. And if you fall prey and victim to the dysfunction you're experiencing, and let your anger overcome you, while nobody could blame you for it, you need to know that at 30 years old, your life is going to look a lot like the lives of the people who are making you miserable today."

And he said, "Or you can make the choice to decide you're going to be a rock that dysfunction breaks itself on." And he said, "Son, it's time for you to make a choice. You're going to be a rock, or you're going to be a victim." And I'd like to say I had an immediate epiphany, and like a light shone down from the heavens on me when he said that, but I was 15 and hardheaded.

So, it took me a year, probably, for that to sink in, but I did make a conscious decision after my time with Philip Spain and that fight, and that conversation, to say, "I denounce this. This is not what I want in my life, and I'm going to be something different." The reason I'm telling you this story is, if it weren't for normal people like Philip Spain taking the time to not only tell me the difference in right and wrong, but understand my reality enough to have a real conversation about me – he won me.

We were really good at football, and he was a great tactician. But the reason I was willing to play hurt for that man, the reason I was willing to do anything for that guy, was because he knew me. He understood me. And by learning me and understanding me, when the opportunity came for him to use that knowledge to exact some measure of change in my life, and mentor me, he was prepared to do it, because he was about winning football games; but more importantly, he was about winning the kids.

And he won me, and in winning me, changed my life. He changed the trajectory of my life. He changed my vision of myself by taking the time to learn me. So, when I graduated from Ole Miss, I thought coaching football and teaching school was the greatest calling there was, because I know without my teachers and coaches where I'd have been. And so, that's what I did.

The problem is I met this beautiful woman named Lisa. I way out-kicked my coverage. She's drop dead gorgeous. She's fun. She's everything. And so, in the South, if you're fishing, and you light into a 15-pound slab on eight-pound test, you don't pull on the line too hard, because you're going to break it, and the fish gets off.

So, you do whatever you can to get that thing in the boat without breaking the line. Well, that's what I felt like when I met Lisa; I caught a 15-pound slab on eight-pound test. I'm like, how do I keep her in the boat? So, we just started having kids. So, we had four kids in four years, and that way I knew I had her. Yeah, but the problem was –

Nico Perrino: Yeah, I've got two kids. I got a two-year old and a six-month old, and that's a lot.

Bill Courtney: Well, there you go. We had four in four years. She had three in diapers, and was pregnant pushing a cart through Walmart. So, anyway, $17,000 a year coaching football and teaching school wasn't getting it, you know? So, that's when I got into the private world, started a business on a wing and a prayer, but coaching was still my passion. In the state of Tennessee, you can be what's called a certified non-faculty football coach.

So, I took all these classes to be able to coach, not like a volunteer daddy, but a real certified straight-up coach, so I could still do it while I was pursuing the private world. And so, I was broke and wanted to start a business. And so, I was looking for industrial property, for lumber manufacturing, and I was looking in the cheapest areas in the world; and I bought this dilapidated piece of property in North Memphis, and I really thought, "Okay, I'm starting a business now, I'm going to have to take a couple of years off coaching."

And the opportunity to coach at Manassas came up, and it was only a half mile from where this dilapidated piece of property I was. So, how I ended up at Manassas was just really because it was efficient. It was close. I could do it while starting my business. And so, the three-part answer to your question is I got to Manassas, and I wanted to coach, because that was my passion, because of people like Phillip Spain.

And when I got to Manassas, I arrived with the mentality that yeah, I need to coach football, but more importantly, I've got to win these kids. And how do you win the kids? You win the kids by letting them speak, listening. learning their fears, their goals, their dreams, their ambitions, and then seeking to serve them.

And in serving them, by quelling their fears and helping to try to reach their goals, by doing that service, you end up leading them. And in leading them, you can coach them, because you want them. And then, hopefully, you can take a disaster, and turn it into something pretty good.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. You talk about needing to convince the players. It's not just like moving a chess piece on the chessboard. And as a coach, I imagine there are more difficult environments than others to do that, right? Context matters. You do not control the entirety of student athletes' lives. You aren't at home with them, for example. And in Undefeated, the documentary, it's very clear that a lot of the student athletes who you coached had broken homes, much in the way that you did, as well.

Bill Courtney: Oh, there's a scene in Undefeated where a friend of mine who played in NFL asked my team of 76 kids, "Who has a family member, a close family member, cousin, aunt, brother, father, whatever, who served time in jail? And every single kid on that team raises their hand. And then he said, "Who has two parents at home?" And not one kid raised their hand. So, that scene alone tells you the demographic that Manassas is it.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. So, they bring a lot of baggage, I imagine to, to practice, that you have to help sort through. I mean, it seems, of course, that it makes your job harder, but in other respects, I'm sure these kids are eager for someone to help give them guidance, to help provide structure, to help create a sort of family that's an oasis from everything else that might be going on in their lives.

Bill Courtney: The ZIP Code at the time of your birth should not, in an idealistic society, determine the path of your life. It shouldn't, but the reality is in our country, in many places, it does. An 18-year-old male, Manassas has three neighborhoods. It's New Chicago, Smoky City, and Green Law that most of the kids from Manassas come from. That's one of the poorest ZIP Codes in the United States.

And one of the demographics are an 18-year-old male is three times more likely – from those neighborhoods – is three times more likely to be in jail or dead by his 21st birthday than he is to have a job. That's the dire circumstances surrounding this area. And so, yeah, when you show up and you inherit a football team that has won four games in 10 years, where the demographics are as I just described, there's a whole lot going on there, besides the lack of Xs and Os on a football team.

And I would dare say the Xs and Os on a football team pale in comparison to the other lessons that need to be taught. But you can't just show up and start… kids aren't showing up to be mentored. Kids are showing up to play football. Football's the hook, but you can use football as an opportunity to have discussions about stuff that's more deep and meaningful and matter. And so, you can't just show up and start throwing out rules.

You first got to understand your audience. And so, you start learning kids, and you start learning all of the things about them, and while you're coaching football, you start coaching up that stuff, too. But that's not germane to just my time at Manassas. I've got 140 employees in my business. How am I supposed to lead 140 guys that range from common laborers, to forklift drivers to machine operators, all the way up to pretty highly compensated sales guys that travel all over Europe and Asia selling wares?

That's a wide range of people that you've got to manage, and I don't think you can effectively manage and lead a group of people in a business unless you understand your employees. I think that a lot of the problems that are plaguing our society today is because, as parents, we don't really learn and understand our own children.

You can be a servant leader without even leaving the house. What's really going on between the ears of that kid down the hallway that you spawned? What's really going on in your spouse's world? Are you seeking to serve your spouse? Do you really understand what's going on there? We got to talk, and we got to listen, and we got to understand. And then, we got to serve, in order to lead and manage. And you can do that in the home; you can do that in your company, your business, your society; everywhere.

And it all boils down to those basic fundamental tenants of civility, and integrity, and leadership, and character, and commitment. All of those things transcend all walks of our life if we will employ them, but you don't have to do it like you're set in 1952. Those basic fundamentals and tenants still work in an evolving society; we just have to employ them a little differently; because back when I played ball, it was my way of the highway coach's stuff. And if you did anything wrong, you ran laps, and you didn't dare talk back to a coach, and you didn't dare. Today's world's different, but the fundamentals remain the same. It's just how do you employ them.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. Today's world kind of reflects broadly some of the democratic principles that animate our country, when you use words like talk, listen, serve, understand. I often talk on this podcast about how there's really only two ways to mediate differences. One is through coercion, or if you're talking about governments, historically, violence. The other one is talking, right?

And the democratic enterprise is one where we talk about our differences and try and come to some sort of conclusion about the best way to move forward. Free speech, of course, enables that. You can't do it without free speech. But you also see how these sort of principles, and how well they are executed within companies and teams, can lead or differentiate some teams to be more successful than others, some companies to be more successful than others; and if you're looking at a national scale or international scale, some countries to be more successful than others.

Bill Courtney: I was just going to say metaphorically, the United States is just a big team. And if you think about the things we've just talked about… when I grew up, I grew up under the notion that I may vehemently disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend with my life your right to say it. My children are growing up in a culture that says I may vehemently disagree with what you say, and if I do, I need to crush and cancel you. And I think that's toxic.

And where that is germane to what I think our conversation is now, is my full belief set is the greatest measure of the success of a leader is the actions of the followers. The greatest measure of the success of a leader is the actions of followers. If the followers are running amok, quit blaming them. Look yourself in the mirror if you're in charge.

And so, if you think about that on a national scale, where is our servant leadership, and why do we have all these divisions? And where did this cancel culture and "crush what you have to say if I disagree with you" come from? And I would argue that there's an enormous amount of wealth and power in the national media and in places like DC, where that wealth and power is predicated by the narratives that come out of those areas that seek to divide us in order to retain that power.

And it all comes from quelling conversation, free speech, understanding, reconciliation, and listening to one another. And until we get back to those basic fundamentals and tenets of... of the importance of listening to someone's viewpoint. You don't have to agree with somebody else's viewpoint to at least understand it. And if you understand it, then you have an opportunity to understand where somebody comes from and why they think the way they do.

And then, from there, you can start to learn one another and respect one another. But when you can't even listen, and when power and wealth is predicated by keeping people from listening to alternate viewpoints, it's toxic and it's dangerous, and I think it's a threat to our republic.

Nico Perrino: There's this French saying that says to understand all is to forgive all, and I sometimes wonder if our current cancel culture society is a society that 1), doesn't seek to understand, 2), has abandoned the principles of forgiveness and grace. And maybe it's because our society has become more non-religious. I'm not very religious myself, but I can kind of appreciate the values that those inculcate. And societies, like religion, or like teams, are communities associated around a shared set of values.

In the United States, that's our constitution, right? It's the idioms that we tell ourselves. You talk about how your kids' generation is all about cancel culture. Well, how often now do you hear phrases like sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me? To each his own. It's a free country. You don't hear these as often anymore.

And so, there is some sort of reflection in that about our broader society. You know, the film about you and your team at Manassas is called Undefeated, but I think in a certain way it could be called Undivided. It's about bringing this team together, these people who have all these different circumstances in their lives, and you trying to corral them to bring out the best in themselves, and therefore the best in the team.

So, I want to pivot now a little bit to talk about the lessons you learned from keeping your team united, that we can bring to society at large. How can we unite as a nation, do you think, using lessons from your coaching experience, to come to agreement on a shared set of values to eliminate some of the polarization? I would have loved to have seen this documentary take place in like 2022, with smartphones and everything else going on right now. It would have probably been wild.

Bill Courtney: Wow. This podcast could go on for four hours, because first of all, just I love this topic, because I think it is central to fixing a lot what ails us. But a couple of thoughts, to answer your question. One is a turkey person story, which I'll share with you. The first one is something you touched on, which is forgiveness and grace. And I want to tell you something. I lettered in six sports in high school. My athletic director in high school called me a triathlete: I'd try anything.

So, my father, East High School in Memphis back in the day was like the high school. It's actually where Cybil Shepherd went to high school. My father was the point guard on the basketball team and the quarterback on the football team for four years, and he held records that lasted even into the nineties. And I'm playing six sports, and my name's in the paper, and we share the same name.

So, even though I didn't grow up with him, and didn't know him, he certainly knew who I was. He had to have, because we shared this love of sport, apparently. We didn't share it together, but clearly we did. And despite that, the man never came to a single game that he knew; he had to have known. But he never came to support me, congratulate me. I'd score touchdowns, and dads would be walking off the field with their sons and their arms around them, and I'd be walking off alone with no father.

And I cannot tell you the insecurity and the pain that I carried with me as a result of longing for one man to love me as a father, and to be proud of me. And I never had it. And that plagued me into my early 40s. It also affected the way I interacted with my beautiful wife and my four children I've been blessed with, and I was not the full husband and father I needed to be because of the pain and the anger I carried with me into my 40s now.

And it was when I learned the power of grace and forgiveness that I finally was rid of something that was holding me back, which is my own anger. And what I found out is grace and forgiveness is actually more important to the forgiver than the forgiven, and you've got to let old wounds heal; and you can't let old wounds heal until you let them go; and you can't let them go until you understand the power of forgiveness and grace.

And unlike you, I'm not going to say – I don't like the word religious; I'm faithful. And I think paramount to Christianity, if you brought it down to one word, it's all about grace and forgiveness. I mean, what's the point in Christ coming to earth to redeem you for your sins? I mean, what's the point if you don't get redemption? That's what it's all about.

And so, whether you're faithful or not, the power of forgiveness and grace is really important to free speech, because if you can't get over what somebody said that offended you, and you continue to ratchet it up, where's the end game to that? You've got to let some things go, and you've got to forgive. And then, you've got to sit down and listen, and try to consider someone else's perspective and where they're coming from, to understand where that comes from.

Nico Perrino: And what does it accomplish, too? I mean, okay, so, you shut someone up who has a different perspective from you. It's, I guess, maybe cathartic. Maybe it's less annoying, because you don't have to, you don't have to hear it anymore. But if the purpose here is to change people's minds – this is a phrase that my colleague and sometimes friend, Jonathan Rausch, which I could he's a colleague, but I like to consider him a friend. I don't know if that's mutual.

Bill Courtney: I bet it is.

Nico Perrino: We have a good relationship, but he says, "Censorship, it's like breaking the thermometer. You don't know what temperature it is anymore, but the temperature hasn't changed."

Bill Courtney: Now that's really cool. I may steal that –

Nico Perrino: You should.

Bill Courtney: – because that's a great metaphor. But it's true. What's the point? And where does the growth come from? I mean, when you surround yourself with people that look like you, vote like you, worship like you, and think like you, you may have a lot of conversations, but they're all happening in a vacuum, meaning all of the hot air you're blowing around each other is just going really fast in circles. There's no lineal growth.

We have to get out of that vacuum. We have to surround ourselves with people that don't vote like us, and don't worship like us, and don't think like us, but have civil non-threatening conversations about the things that matter, like race, creed, faith, sexuality, so that we understand one another. It's the only way we can grow. And if you can't get over yourself, and you take yourself so seriously that you're unwilling to forgive something somebody may say to you that ruffles your little feathers a little bit, well, then you're just a narrow-minded goofball who's never going to grow.

Nico Perrino: And isn't really going to accomplish anything.

Bill Courtney: No, there's no end game there.

Nico Perrino: I've had on this podcast before a man named Darrell Davis. He's a Black man. He's a very, very talented musician; played in Chuck Berry's band. And he one time met a member of the Ku Klux Klan at a gig in Maryland, where he lives. And ended up sitting down, having a conversation with this man.

He would have had every reason after he learned he was a Klan member to get up, walk away, say you're a terrible person. But no, he decided to have a conversation. Got to know the guy, and over time convinced him that all of his prejudices about Black men like him were wrong. Guy ended up giving Daryl his robe.

Bill Courtney: Wow.

Nico Perrino: And Daryl learned from that experience. Yeah, Daryl learned from that experience that you're never going to change anyone's mind by plugging yours or shutting them up, but you might change their mind by talking to them. And so, he used this as a strategy to go and meet Klansmen all across the country and have conversations with them.

And I visited his house. He's got dozens and dozens of Klan robes that were given to him by former members of the Ku Klux Klan who, after meeting him, decided that their beliefs were wrong. And there's this documentary about him called Accidental Courtesy, which I encourage folks to watch out. And there's a perfect quote that I think encapsulates this from Abraham Lincoln who says, "Do I not destroy my enemy when I make him my friend?" Do I not destroy my enemy when I make him my friend?

I think that speaks, Coach Courtney, to what you were saying about the power of forgiveness. You cannot become a friend with someone until you forgive them for whatever might have led you to believe that they were your enemy, but it starts with understanding, as you mentioned. It starts with listening, with understanding.

Bill Courtney: There's one more component to it, I think. My first year at Manassas, we were three and three halfway through the season. Now, I think three and three is pretty average, but I –

Nico Perrino: Good for them.

Bill Courtney: Well, I inherited a team of 17 kids whose previous 10 years record was four wins and 95 losses, okay? They'd won four games in 10 years, right? So, three and three, while I think it's average, that was pretty cool for them, that first year. And the whole team was buying into the football. They were yes sir, no sir, and getting after it, but only half the team was buying into the important stuff, the things we're talking about; character, commitment, integrity. It was apparent early that we weren't just going to coach football, but we're going to coach all that other stuff.

And so, halfway through the season, we're three and three. The whole team's buying into football. Half the team is buying into important stuff. The other half the team, not so much. And I was frustrated, so I went to my guy. Every coach has a guy. And I said, "Hey man, what do I gotta do to get that half the team to buy into important stuff like your half the team?" And he really dismissed me.

He just said, "Oh, coach, just keep doing what you're doing." And that was not normal for him. He was the guy that had the temerity to actually have conversations about stuff that mattered with me. And I'm like, "No, man, real talk." And he said, "Coach, you don't want to hurt your feelings." I said, "You're not going to hurt my feelings. Why can't I get that half the team to buy into important stuff like your half the team?" And he said, "Well, okay. I'll tell you. They're trying to figure out if you're a turkey person or not." And I was like, "I have no idea what you're talking about."

Nico Perrino: I don't either.

Bill Courtney: Yeah. Well, he said, "Coach, every Thanksgiving and Christmas, people come into our neighborhoods, and they give us hams and gifts and turkeys, and we take them, because we ain't got none. But then, they leave, and we never see them again. Makes you wonder if they're doing that because they really care about us, or they're doing that to make themselves feel good." And looked me dead in the eyes, and he said, "Coach, really man, what the hell are you doing here?"

And I'm going to tell you something, if your listeners or you or anybody serves in soup kitchens, or gives away turkeys on Thanksgiving, or gifts to the needy children on Christmas, that's a beautiful thing. The turkey person narrative is not to disparage that work. It's to highlight this: what is your motive?

Are you motivated by the simple edification of someone that's not as fortunate as you? Are you motivated by actually exacting some measure of change, or are you motivated by the backslaps that people give you for doing kind things? Are you motivated by the way it elevates you among your peers for doing this work?

What's your motive? If you're motivated to actually make some measure of change, and do some good simply for the people you seek to serve, then you're motivated properly. If you're motivated by how it elevates you, or how it makes you look because of the nice things you do, then you're a turkey person. And what a turkey person is, ultimately, is a fraud.

Nico Perrino: And people can sniff those out.

Bill Courtney: Oh, they'll see. Now, they'll say yes sir, no sir, yes ma'am, no ma'am, and they take what you got. But the minute you turn and walk away, they're staring darts through your back, and you're not fooling anyone. And so, the point is, the gentleman you talked about, he wasn't motivated by collecting robes, right? He wasn't motivated by the documentary that came along that was made from him. He was motivated –

Nico Perrino: Decades later.

Bill Courtney: Yeah, decades later. He was motivated by changing lives. He was motivated by the right things, and that's why he was successful. So, what I'll say to you is, what's the motive of the people in DC? What's the motive of the talking heads all over our national media? What's the motivation behind the people on social media, who are seeking to cancel people because they don't agree with them? What's the motivation of some of the TV shows that are prevalent in our society that pit people against each other. What are those motives?

And I will tell you, their motives are not to fix culture or society. Their motives are not to make us a better republic. Their motives are to line their pockets, divide us, and have their own power. And until we really understand what those motives are about, denounce them, and take a different path, we will continue to be plagued by this crap.

And I just think one of the most valuable lessons I've ever been taught was by a 17 year old kid from the hood, and I think that lesson is valuable across the spectrum of our lives.

Nico Perrino: Yeah, there's this phrase in business, right? Show me the incentives, I'll show you the outcome. I think we do have too many incentives within some of our very powerful institutions to create divisive outcomes. You talk about X, formerly known as Twitter, right? There have been studies done that demonstrate that the more emotional, politically charged, divisive tweets that folks put out are the ones that are more likely to get engaged with.

And if you have an X account, you know: when you start getting those likes, or those retweets, or those comments, you get pings on your phone if you allow the push notifications, or you go into Twitter and you see what everyone's saying. It's like these little mini dopamine hits. It's like a little pat on the back; oh, you said something that people like. Or you said something that people didn't like, but you can't help yourself but coming back.

But how much are you changing by that? Maybe some. You might be changing the narrative about a conversation, but you're sitting at your computer doing something, right? You're not getting out on the football field and trying to change hearts and minds and mold young men.

Bill Courtney: Well, it's a perfect example. Are you motivated that your thoughts may open up a greater conversation about stuff that matters, or are you motivated by the ping, the thumbs up that makes you feel good about yourself? And the truth is, that's disgusting, and it's doing nothing for our society, and it's dangerous. Alex Cortez, the producer of my podcast, who you know, he sent me some stuff from Pew Research; and I'm about to butcher it, but –

Nico Perrino: I might be familiar with it.

Bill Courtney: Yeah, but it's like 80 percent of the people, respondents, said that they know that depending on whether or not they're watching Fox or CNN or Newsmax or CNBC, whichever side of the aisle, they know that the reporting or the information they're getting is shaded to one political viewpoint or another.

Those same respondents, like more, 85 percent, said when they read anything on social media, they know it's to be looked at with… that more than likely, it's at least shaded, and sometimes completely not factual.

Yet those same respondents, 80 something percent of those same respondents, that know that they'd be given unfactual or shaded information, admit to spending three hours a day listening to the national media or social media. So, what that says is we know what we're being fed is crap, yet like sheep, we flock to it to it, to listen to it and fill our brains full of it. Now, that's crazy.

Nico Perrino: Yeah, which creates more of it, right?

Bill Courtney: That's it.

Nico Perrino: The two things we have are dollars, and our attention, and it's our choice where we send that. And the folks who get our dollars and attention are going to be looking at the kind of feedback loop that says you're doing the right thing, and then all the other businesses on the other side, or all the other people who are seeing them be successful are saying that that's something to emulate, right?

Bill Courtney: Right.

Nico Perrino: And that's how you just kind of get this death spiral of discourse, this spiral into polarization and division, that I think everyone who's listening to this podcast kind of feels. I mean, you're older than I am, but I can see, since I graduated –

Bill Courtney: Easy, easy, easy, easy, easy. No need to say.

Nico Perrino: A few years, a few years.

Bill Courtney: Yeah, that's right.

Nico Perrino: But since I graduated from college in 2012, the world just seems far more nasty than it was. I mean, the documentary about your football team came out in 2011. What season was it documenting? What year was that?

Bill Courtney: 2009.

Nico Perrino: 2009. That was a tough year for other reasons, the financial crisis.

Bill Courtney: It was a very tough year. I was in the lumber business.

Nico Perrino: No one's building homes.

Bill Courtney: That's it. Right.

Nico Perrino: Building furniture.

Bill Courtney: Tough on a number of levels, but I will tell you, fundamentally, I do not believe humanity has changed. I think process and information has changed, and we have done a poor job of evolving at how, inside of our humanity, to handle process and information; and it is an assault on free speech. And maybe, even more importantly, it's an assault on our ability to interact.

And it's one of the reasons we started the whole podcast, is I genuinely believe we've got to denounce this national power and wealth grab from DC and the national media, and return to just being an army of normal folks, learning, understanding, listening, and celebrating one another. I just think, again, the basic fundamentals of what has defined us still work today. We have to evolve how we employ them.

But I get asked all the time, how do we fix the proverbial "it"? And I just don't see another way to fix the proverbial "it," all the things that are plaguing us, until we sit down and start having conversations about the stuff that matters, in civil, non-threatening way, and employ these core fundamentals and values in our lives again.

Nico Perrino: Yeah, I agree that the effects that we're seeing are an assault on free speech, an assault on our ability to talk across lines of difference, to bridge divides, to move forward as a democracy. Right now, you can't get anything done at Congress. In part, because –

Bill Courtney: It's a disaster.

Nico Perrino: I mean, in part because folks are up there doing the thing you were talking about before, which is just showboating. There's no incentive to work across the aisle right now, because the partisan nature of our kind of current news environment is telling everyone that the way you get the clicks, the way you get the media hits, the way you get the votes, frankly, is to be a hardline partisan on one side or the other. I mean, there's a reason a lot of the moderates out there don't get the attention that the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the Matt Gaetz's get, right? They're not the fire breathers.

Bill Courtney: You've got to ask yourself, why are people like Romney and Manchin going away?

Nico Perrino: Yeah.

Bill Courtney: These are centered guys. I mean, Romney, he was a Republican governor of Massachusetts. That's the biggest unicorn. I actually think you'll find a unicorn before you find another Republican governor of Massachusetts.

Nico Perrino: Well, Manchin is a Democratic Senator in West Virginia.

Bill Courtney: A Democratic Senator in West Virginia, who I think went over 30 percent in the last federal election president for president, for Trump. But here's the thing. It's scary to me that there's no home anymore for men like Romney and Manchin.

I may not agree with their politics. And in fact, I don't agree with some of both of their politics, but I love what they are and stand for in terms of crossover guys, people who can garner votes in places that are just not perfectly aligned with them, because of their ability to reason, think, interact, compromise, and understand. And I think it is a really telling narrative on our current culture that people like that cannot exist anymore, and that is scary, and it should wake us up to what cancel culture and the assault on free speech is doing to our society.

Nico Perrino: Yeah, we need to be able to talk to people who disagree with us, right? And we need to understand where they come from in order to talk to them, and maybe convince them of our positions effectively. There's this phrase I spent 10 years of my life leading FIRE's communications team, or the saying that goes, "To write something without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter, to whom it may concern."

Bill Courtney: That's great. That's hilarious.

Nico Perrino: And too often I feel like we're getting on, we're getting to our desk, we're hopping on Twitter, and we're writing a love letter to whom it may concern. We're not trying to bring people around to our position. We're maybe just trying to mobilize our base, or just kind of, I don't know, bloviate.

But I did want to say one thing. Maybe it's a slight disagree with you. And I agree that a lot of this is an assault on free speech, but I think some of it is also a result of free speech. And that's not to say that any of this necessarily should change. We need to remember that when the printing press was invented, that caused wars for centuries in Europe, right? Because the Catholic Church didn't have a hold on all the information anymore. People could start to read. People could start to get their own ideas out there.

But again, that's not to say that the invention of the printing press was bad. No, in fact, I think it was good. What I'm trying to say is sometimes it takes society a long time to catch up to the progress that it has made, and learn how to live with it. And I think what we have inserted into the conversation right now with social media – my boss, Greg Lukianoff, talks about how the printing press allowed individuals to speak to thousands and millions. Now, with social media, we have the ability to speak to billions, and much faster, and the barriers to entry are much lower.

We just haven't figured out the systems to deal with it yet. But I'm fundamentally an optimist, and I think we'll get there. And it's going to be tough for those of us who have to live in this society in the short term, but I hope that my kids or my grandkids will have done the work to figure out how to avoid some of the division and polarization that we currently see now.

I've only got a few more minutes with you, so I do want to ask two questions, to take the host's privilege here, that may be slightly unrelated to this conversation. But I just watched Undefeated again last night in preparation for this call. I have two questions. The first is, what happened to Manassas after you left? How did the team do?

Bill Courtney: They had an okay year the year after I left, and unfortunately the administration turned over, the coaching staff that I left in place turned over, and Manassas is not much different today than it was when I first showed up, sadly.

Nico Perrino: Well, that might mean that coaching is more important than you admitted here at the top of the podcast.

Bill Courtney: I would say leadership is the important part.

Nico Perrino: Leadership. The other question is, how did the filmmakers for Undefeated find you? I'm a documentary filmmaker myself. I've made a film. Finding good stories is hard, and knowing to look for a story in a poor part of Memphis probably doesn't get much media.

Bill Courtney: Lane Kiffin was hired as the head coach of the University of Tennessee, and in one of his first interviews, they asked him what his first order of business was; and he said, "I'm going to Memphis to recruit this kid, OC Brown, who played football for me. Sitting in LA is a guy named Rich Middlemas, who's a movie producer, who graduated from Tennessee, and is a huge UT fan.

So, he was screwing around on the internet, because when Lane Kiffin was hired at Tennessee, his big news, saw that, and he Googled OC Brown and found an article about OC in the daily Memphis newspaper; called us up and said, "Hey, I'm interested," came to Memphis, thinking he was going to do a 30 for 30 short, and sell it to ESPN. When he found out the greater story beyond OC, about all the coaches and other kids, he said, "I'm not selling this idea to ESPN. I want to make a movie."

Showed up four weeks later with two guys who are now the directors, Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin, but two guys and a couple borrowed cameras, and almost no budget. And they said they're going to make a film. And so, they followed us around all season; left Memphis with 550 hours of film, to make a movie I was convinced we'd see on Wednesday at 2:00 a.m. on Channel 344. And two years later, I'm walking down the red carpet at the Academy Awards with George Clooney.

Nico Perrino: As a filmmaker, sometimes – and you're a business owner as well, and you're a coach, so you know; sometimes the stuff that gets the highlights are the fact that it won an Oscar, and that it's entertaining. But sometimes, you just also have to wonder about the process, right? The process to make things happen.

I talk to my team a lot here about, ideation without execution is hallucination; and execution, in a film, where you're often working with minors, in a school setting, where everything's controlled, and you have to get all these releases, I imagine, must have been tough. Like, how did they get that sort of access, and how did you convince, or they convince you and the kids on your team, to allow them to take such a deep look at their lives?

Bill Courtney: It really wasn't hard convincing me and the kids, because we'd been together since these kids were in eighth grade. This was the culmination of six years of work, and we thought this would be cool. We'll have a video yearbook of our last year together.

Nico Perrino: Oh, that's a great way to put it, yeah.

Bill Courtney: Yeah. So, that was cool. Convincing the city school system to allow them access and everything else, really – there was a school board member who was politically very connected. Her name was Tamika Hart. Tamika and I had about a 45-minute conversation. And she said, "Promise me this. You won't sensationalize Memphis. You won't sensationalize the kids. You won't sensationalize the school. And you'll just tell the truth." And I said, "If I ever feel like it's being sensationalized, or these guys' motives aren't pure, I'll pull out and tell them to leave Memphis," and she said, okay.

And within 24 hours, they had the green light and full access, because she believed that the stories needed to be told, to show that these kids from the hood are not gang-banging awful human beings. They're just like any other kids, and given a level playing field and opportunity, they too could achieve anything.

And she knew that being undefeated was not about wins and losses on the football field, but not being defeated by your circumstances, and she understood that's a story that the filmmakers wanted to tell. And she gave us her blessing, and used her political clout to make it happen.

So, Tamika Hart gets a nod for that. And then, Dan, Rich and TJ deserve an enormous amount of credit for producing, and directing, and editing, and putting together a film with 550 hours of film to tell a two-hour story that is meaningful. So, a lot of talent, a lot of trust, and a lot of just being present and hard work.

And again, films about football teams coached by a White guy, a team of all Black kids, who happens to be a lumberman in Memphis, these are not social experiments that typically win documentary Academy Awards. It speaks to the power of human interaction and coming-of-age stories that people still gravitate to, that it did win the Academy Award, and it's done so well.

And ironically enough, I think that's germane to our conversation. It's about having conversations, listening, and people coming from all kinds of different walks of life, taking the time to learn one another. And when you do that, what amazing things can happen as a result.

Nico Perrino: On that note, was the documentary good for the school and the kids?

Bill Courtney: Yeah, it was great.

Nico Perrino: Opened up doors that it would have never opened up before?

Bill Courtney: Absolutely.

Nico Perrino: Or did it make things more difficult?

Bill Courtney: Listen, it's real life, but yeah, the school got a ton of support from it. The city's very proud of it, and many of the kids have used that opportunity. If anything, just the opportunity to learn that if you do the right things, people will watch, and if people watch you do the right things, there's opportunities for you. And it captured one of the most formative, meaningful times of our lives together.

And listen, I'd be remiss not to say it's humbling to have a period of your life be shared with people, and that period be inspiring to people. And so, it's very meaningful to all of us. And it's just a moment in time, and you can't let one little thing like that define you for the rest of your life, but to celebrate it and enjoy it is appropriate. And we have, and the school has, and the kids have. That's been great.

And for me, I mean, I wouldn't be talking to you. I wouldn't have a book. I speak all over the country. I wouldn't have this podcast that's been as high as number 10 on the Apple charts in the country if it wasn't for that opportunity. And it's not about money or fame, for me. It's about the opportunity to have a national conversation about stuff that matters. And so, it's led to that as well.

Nico Perrino: I think that's an excellent place to leave this conversation. Coach, if you just hang tight, I'm going to tell folks a little bit more about you and the show. But I did want to thank you for taking the time. I know you're busy. You're father of four. You've got a lumber business to run. You've got a podcast to host. Do you still coach?

Bill Courtney: Yeah. COVID really screwed up coaching, so, I had to get out of it COVID, because it shutdown football season, but I actually am not this year. I've got three or four opportunities for next year, and I'm jonesing to do it. So, I expect I'll be back into it, but I did coach 31 straight years, and then a couple off, and now I'll be getting back to it, for sure.

Nico Perrino: I'd love to get into coaching, maybe when my kids get a little older, I don't know how you do it, though, how do you get off of work at like 2:30 so that you can get on the field at 3:00. Nine-to-five jobs are conducive to that.

Bill Courtney: Let me tell you something. Make time. If you do it right, it will be some of the most rewarding times in your life. Make time. Figure it out.

Nico Perrino: Some of my biggest influences have been my coaches. Coach Joe Newton, who I mentioned earlier, Stan Rettle.

Bill Courtney: Don't you want to have a kid say that about you one day?

Nico Perrino: Absolutely, absolutely.

Bill Courtney: Do it.

Nico Perrino: Yeah. Coach Newton unfortunately died, but Coach Rettle and Coach Corfus, who sometimes listens to this podcast, I'm still in touch with them, and they largely shaped any successes that I have. They're not responsible for any of the failures, but the successes are due in part, to them.

So, Coach Bill Courtney, again, thanks for coming on the show, subject of the 2011 Oscar-winning documentary, Undefeated, host of An Army of Normal Folks, which you can subscribe to wherever you get your podcasts. Author of the book, Against the Grain, a Coach's Wisdom on Character, Faith, Family, and Love. Coach, it's been a real pleasure.

Bill Courtney: Thanks for having me.

Nico Perrino: This podcast is hosted by me, Nico Perino, and produced by Sam Niederholzer, and myself. It's edited by my colleagues, Aaron Reese and Ella Ross. You can learn more about the podcast by going to our YouTube channel, where a video of this conversation will become available. You can follow us on Twitter or Instagram by searching for the handle freespeechtalk. We're also on Facebook at

And if you've got thoughts for me, If you got thoughts for Coach Courtney, you can send them there as well. I know on your podcast, you give out your email address and say everyone can email you. I'll forward you anything that we get. But folks who enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review. Reviews help us attract new listeners to the show. Until next time, I thank you all again for listening.