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TV REVIEWS : Winning Looks at Very Special Coaches

December 22, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Times Television Critic

"Brian's Song"--recalling the friendship of Chicago Bears star Gayle Sayers and his dying teammate Brian Piccolo--was the 1971 prototype for TV's endless triumph-over-affliction stories about sports figures. The sheer number of these stories has tended to diminish and trivialize the genre.

Yet none has ever been more affecting--and astounding--than "One More Season," a documentary about Charlie Wedemeyer, a victim of Lou Gehrig's disease (at 9 tonight on KCET Channel 28).

And following that at 10 p.m. on Channel 28 is "Coach!," another worthy program profiling super coaches Joe Paterno of Penn State and Rollie Massimino of Villanova. ("Coach!" also airs at 9 p.m. on Channel 24 and at 10 p.m. on Channel 15.)

Actually, there was more than one additional season for Wedemeyer, the former star Michigan State running back and Los Gatos football coach, whose incredible story is documented by producers Ken Ellis and Deborah Gee.

Wedemeyer fell ill a decade ago with a disease that kills most of its victims within a few years. Yet he continued to coach, ultimately guiding his team to the state championship while virtually speechless and confined to a wheelchair as his wife, Lucy, read his lips and relayed his instructions to his assistant coaches.

Remarkable footage of that--and of Wedemeyer also coaching, via Lucy, by phone from a hospital bed while watching his team on local TV--testify to the extraordinary will of both Wedemeyers. This is really the heroic story of two people. The intimate camera conveys the impact of the disease on both of them and their awesome determination that Charlie should continue his life's work despite his atrophied body.

If "One More Season" is not light fun, it is also not grim. Despite his trials, Wedemeyer displays a playful sense of humor and his wife an almost cheery pragmatism that is simply inspiring, each drawing on resources that would seem far beyond most of us.

By not updating Wedemeyer's story, the hour ends a bit ominously, leaving you to guess Charlie's fate. You may guess wrong. On the phone recently, Lucy reported that her husband had gained 57 pounds and was hoping to attend the Rose Bowl.

May there be many more seasons.

Paterno and Massimino are inspirational in a different way, each depicted in "Coach!" as shaping athletic programs that succeed not only on the football field and basketball court, respectively, but also in the classroom. Produced by WHYY-TV in Philadelphia, the program has a distinctly Pennsylvania flavor, but both coaches are nationally known.

What immediately strikes you about "Coach!" are testimonials from former Paterno and Massimino players--not necessarily what they say but how they say it. They're obviously intelligent and articulate, unlike many other mass-produced post-college jocks who can't even compose a simple grammatical sentence when interviewed.

Paterno and Massamino have both won national championships. But we're told that Massimino is 42 of 42 in having his basketball players graduate, a soaring statistic in college athletics. And we hear Paterno relate his philosophy about winning: It isn't everything.

Yet, as the program notes, each of these men faces enormous pressure to win from fans and alumni, and each is driven, if in different ways. For example, there is one revealing locker room sequence showing a ranting, hissing Massimino chewing out his players after a poor game.

There is one crucial element missing from "Coach!" You learn from producer/director David Rosenberg what Paterno and Massamino have accomplished, but not how they accomplished it. What is the magic? How are they, unlike most of their high-powered counterparts, able to attract top jocks who also become acceptable students?

In an era marked by frequent scandal and exploitation in big-time college athletics, Paterno and Massimino remain refreshing enigmas.

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