What a 1936 movie reveals about women coaching football

One ad has been nearly inescapable over the past few months, even more so if The Algorithm knows you watch sports. Niners coach Katie Sowers, the first woman to coach at any level in a Super Bowl, talks about her journey to the NFL while not-so-subtly promoting the league’s iPad-like device of choice, the Microsoft Surface. “I always wanted to be a coach,” she says in the voiceover for a clip of her directing some players in practice. “I never saw an opportunity in football because I’d never seen a female coach before.”

Sowers might have found a little inspiration on the big screen if she’d been up for digging through some Hollywood vaults. Pigskin Parade, the 1936 musical best known as Judy Garland’s film debut, features a story as unlikely now as it appears to have been unremarkable then: A bumbling football coach gets recruited from Flushing, Queens, to then-fictional Texas State University, where his wife pushes that team of underdogs to victory in an accidentally-scheduled game against Yale. Yes, at that point beating Yale was considered hard.

Bessie Winters (played by the so-called “Queen of Wisecracks” Patsy Kelly) isn’t named as the team’s coach, and she is generally relegated to the sidelines with everyone else. But from the film’s opening scene, she’s established as both smarter and more fluent in football than her husband Slug. When he accidentally pushes her over during their train ride to the school, her droll response is, “Don’t pull any of those offside plays on me.” Their playfully combative dynamic wasn’t unusual for screwball comedies of the period but its relative one-sidedness is surprising, especially to those viewing it today.

Winters telling her husband (and the team’s coach) Slug how to win in Pigskin Parade.
Pigskin Parade/20th Century Fox

Bessie’s impact on the rag-tag team begins almost immediately. When she learns there are four players who also compete on the school’s much stronger basketball team, she calls her husband over to the sideline and tells him he needs to get his team to play “basketball football” — sort of inverting the idea of converting basketball players to tight ends.

“Look, you’ve got four great basketball players — make them your backfield,” she suggests. “They’re used to heaving a basketball to each other, let them do the same thing with a football.”

“Say, there might be something to what you’re saying,” he replies.

“There’s everything to it!” she says, indignant. “Don’t write a lot of screwy passing plays, let them toss the ball around and run wild.”

“This is the greatest idea you’ve had since you asked me to marry you,” he concludes — a gag that draws out how Bessie’s interest in the game is hardly the only way she defies traditional gender roles.

Though Bessie is none too pleased at the mention of her proposal, her unorthodox offense works immediately and the team starts blowing out all its opponents. (The offense is basically just a lot of laterals, mimicking the way you might pass a basketball down the court.) When reporters ask Slug where he came up with the idea he (naturally) takes credit despite the fact Bessie is standing right next to him, folding her arms and looking chagrined.

The team faces a new challenge, though, when Bessie accidentally breaks the star player’s leg while trying to teach him to improve his tackling (!) at a dance (!!).

“You played a great game Saturday, but I’m sorry, old boy — you still don’t know how to take a man out,” she tells Biff (yes, his name is Biff), seemingly inspired in part by the gin she’s consumed. There’s cringey subtext around her desire to tackle him that was likely intended to titillate audiences, but isn’t played too dramatically in the movie itself. Biff doesn’t have time to be surprised, as she immediately gets into a three-point stance and pushes him straight into a wall of dumbbells (hence the leg breaking).

Winters starting a tackling drill with Biff in Pigskin Parade.
Pigskin Parade/20th Century Fox

The film reiterates Bessie’s masculinity, evidenced by her interest in the game, her lack of deference to her husband, and in Biff’s case, her brute strength, over and over. But somehow it’s never a source of serious alarm to her peers on-screen — instead, more of a winking gag. It might actually be more surprising to modern viewers that she’s the one who recruits Biff’s replacement, the massively talented quarterback Amos Dodd, literally from a field of melons (funnily enough, she also suggests paying another top player, prompting a brief aside about the ethics of amateurism). When a visitor drops by her and Slug’s apartment unexpectedly, she’s drawing up a play on a chalkboard while he does the dishes in a frilly apron.

Showing a woman as successful in football didn’t raise many red flags probably because the movie itself was presented as mildly absurdist, an “elegant spoofing of the conventional football film” as Hollywood Reporter described it at the time. The whole film was so patently unrealistic (although Variety noted the “somewhat domineering wife”) that no one was too concerned about Kelly’s “characteristically amusing performance as the coach’s coach” (also from the Reporter).

Winters convincing Amos Dodd that he can play quarterback in Pigskin Parade.
Pigskin Parade/20th Century Fox

But what the reviewers may not have realized is the character of Bessie Winters mirrors the role of some real coaches’ wives from the period. Alice Graham Sumner, wife of the “father of American football” Walter Camp, was known for attending Yale practices when he couldn’t be there (Camp still had to work a day job) and taking detailed notes on the proceedings. They would rehash practice over dinner, often alongside players or other coaches. During the 1888 season — when Yale outscored opponents, 698-0 — Alice herself was billed as an assistant coach. Both of Camp’s most prominent biographers, Harford Powell and Julie Des Jardins, agree that Alice was indispensable to Camp’s success at Yale.

Amos Alonzo Stagg, another legendary college football coach and player, played at Yale under the Camps and eventually developed a similar relationship with his wife Stella Robertson while he was coaching at the University of Chicago. She would help scout and work out plays — and according to Erin McCarthy, an associate professor of history at Columbia College Chicago, her presence at all the games was regularly noted by Chicago papers.

Winters drawing up the gamewinning play in Pigskin Parade.
Pigskin Parade/20th Century Fox

Stella and Alice probably never called the game-winning play after their husbands hit their heads and passed out on the sideline, as Bessie does at the conclusion of Pigskin Parade. But there’s a chance they might have known the thrill of being part of the game, the same way Bessie does throughout the movie. There’s nothing farcical about the unbridled glee she shows when she’s finally able to work unhindered: “Now we’ve got a chance!” she yells after her husband faints, before whispering one final play to her top recruit. Sure, the movie is a comedy and her Hail Mary is to have the very country QB take off his shoes and run to the endzone. But that single moment of total self-assurance — a feeling women are afforded all too rarely in movies and in life — is a serious, and deserved, triumph.

Winters celebrating a W while her husband (the coach) is passed out on the bench in Pigskin Parade.
Pigskin Parade/20th Century Fox

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