Bob Gliner, Documentary filmmaker

April 6-12, 2005

Varsity Blues

San Jose's one-man filmmaking machine tackles the troubled Spartan football program in new documentary

By William Dean Hinton

TOWARD THE END of the 2001 spring semester, San Jose State University sociology professor Bob Gliner saw the makings of a movie unfolding on his own campus.

The school had hired a coach, Fitz Hill, to turn around its struggling football program, one of only four African American college football head coaches at the time, and one of only two to hold a doctorate degree. The 62-year-old Gliner was already a veteran of the documentary film circuit, having recently returned from filming his latest project, Heifer, which took him to Central America and Africa. Why not stay home for a change, he thought, and follow Fitz Hill's progress as he navigated the perils of major college athletics?

Gliner's four-year journey, which he titled Playing for Keeps, will be broadcast for the first time April 11 at 9pm on KTEH, San Jose's public television station.

Issues around sports funding at public schools have been a flashpoint of controversy for years, with supporters arguing that a strong football program can put a campus on the map, and critics complaining that an obsession with sports robs other programs of funding—and can bring down academic standards, especially for star players.

A football fan, Gliner was a backup quarterback in junior high school and attended Minnesota University the year after he saw the Golden Gophers win the 1962 Rose Bowl. Yet in Playing for Keeps, it's difficult to tell whose side he's on—the football program or the faculty members who took a vote to disband the team. Gliner says he vacillated between the two sides and still can't make up his mind. "While I was making the film," he says, "I kept going back and forth. Sometimes I thought, 'You know what, let's ax the program.' Other times I thought, 'This is changing lives.'"

Rather than a black or white answer, Gliner says he wants viewers of Playing for Keeps to take away "an understanding of the complexity involved in being a student-athlete and the various issues of whether the college should have football—and what role, if anything, should sports play on a campus that doesn't care about sports?"

"I think [the film] comes across as very gray," says Gliner. "The issue has many different facets."

Sports As Salvation

It begins with the introduction of two freshmen players, Lamar Ferguson and Trestin George, both of whom come from low-income, single-parent households. Ferguson, a diminutive scatback seen several times in the film running past opposing defenders, provides a glimpse of how he grew up as he drives Gliner through the south-central L.A. neighborhood where he was raised. Here is the house where a now-dead friend lived. Here's the home of a troubled friend forced to move away. Ferguson calls Inglewood the worst neighborhood in America.

Trestin George is a product of St. Mary's High in Berkeley, recruited by several college football powerhouses. He chose San Jose State because he needed to be close to home. His mother had suffered a stroke and he felt he should be ready in case she required medical attention. What Gliner appears to ask, at least initially, is whether Hill's football program, with an emphasis on educating young black men, can save the two from the curse of poverty.

Gliner initially wanted to follow the two freshmen, as well as other incoming players from Hill's first recruiting class, through their SJSU careers, similar to the way filmmakers followed two high school basketball players in Hoop Dreams.

Hill, though, was forced to resign after the 2004 season, providing a natural jumping off point for Gliner. (Ferguson and George are still enrolled; they'll be seniors next year.)

On the issue of Hill's dismissal, Gliner will only opine that when African American coaches are hired, the records of previous African American coaches are examined as if they are relevant to the hiring. When white coaches are hired, no one researches the winning percentage of white coaches.

Playing for Keeps then becomes less a chronicle of Ferguson and George's collegiate careers than Hill's failure to elevate Spartan football to something more than a minor nuisance to San Jose State students, many of whom grew up in cultures where football was not a national pastime.

The film's best moments are those captured away from the football field: Fitz Hill's locker-room meltdown, complete with toppled Gatorade cups and a head coach nearly driven to tears; football boosters unable to generate interest in the Fresno State game—a game that would have ensured the Spartans a bowl game for the first time in a decade; the George family unpacking boxes as Trestin, in gold dreadlocks and an Old Navy T-shirt, moves into an apartment.

The Valley's Film Maverick

The hour-long documentary is a significant departure from Gliner's 35 other films. Usually his films offer critiques of consumerism, as Gliner did in Time Frenzy, arguably his best documentary, which examined the downside of materialism and the constant pursuit of the good life, especially as it relates to Silicon Valley.

Another Gliner theme is the humanization of the opposition or enemy. For example, he visited Jerusalem in 1992 to interview Jews and Palestinians as the two sides contemplated a brokered peace in the holy city. The film generated a strong response from some Bay Area Jews, who took exception to allowing Palestinians access to American airwaves.

Or Gliner focuses on what Americans can do to impact the world, as he did in the 2000 film, Making a Difference: American Volunteers Abroad and College Volunteers Abroad. Or he shows what Americans can stop doing, like traveling abroad as recreational tourists, which has caused some countries to adopt tourist-friendly behaviors at the expense of traditional customs and practices.

Except for the occasional micro-grant, all of Gliner's films are self-funded. The PBS stations on which they air pay him nothing. He writes, directs and produces all his documentaries and, aside from his first 10 films, has done all his own camerawork. He often travels with a single companion, who sits in a chair to help sources focus on someone while Gliner asks questions from behind the camera.

KTEH President and CEO Tom Fanella says of the 50 or so independent producers who discuss projects with the station annually, Gliner is the only one who can crank out two to three films per year.

"I don't know anyone as prolific as Bob is," Fanella says.

Not that you can necessarily tell from meeting him.

"If you've been around him, you think he's one of the most lethargic guys you've ever seen," says retired SJSU Humanities Chair Gene Bernardini. "He moves slowly. He speaks softly, almost as if he's depressed. But he's remarkable in his energy and ability to work. He's a real workaholic even though he seems slow."

Gliner has won a handful of awards for his productions as well as high praise from colleagues.

"Bob Gliner is one of the most impressive producers of quality documentaries anywhere in the United States," says Bob Rucker, a former CNN correspondent who teaches in the San Jose State journalism department. "His work stands for creativity and excellence on many levels. While he is not a journalist, his body of work, known for its depth of understanding of topics and keen attention to details and accuracy, is respected and greatly admired by news-gathering professionals."

Consequently, Playing for Keeps doesn't wrap up neatly. There's a sense the campus might not rectify the complexities involved any time soon. The Spartans hired a new football coach who is hosting spring practice sessions, culminating in the annual spring scrimmage April 16.

"I think pushing for Division I-AA makes sense," says Gliner of SJSU's options. "It costs less money—but it's not as glamorous."

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