One of the keys to popular television makeover shows is the “reveal” -- the emotional payoff when the audience finally gets to see the suddenly slim contestant, the new house, the ugly-duckling-turned-swan. But with “Bound for Glory,” ESPN is offering a different brand of reality programming -- one in which there’s no guarantee of a successful transformation.
The program, which premieres tonight at 7 p.m., revolves around the beleaguered Montour Spartans, a high school football team in a Pittsburgh suburb that racked up just two wins during the last two seasons. Riding to the team’s rescue is former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus, who has been charged with the task of restoring the team to its former glory, when the Spartans were a name to be feared in the football-crazed townships of western Pennsylvania.
It won’t be an easy task.
“They were looking for a team that was in the doldrums but had been great before,” said Joseph Findley, superintendent of Montour School District. “Well, we’re pathetic.”
Butkus, a Hall of Famer as fearsome as anyone who ever played the game, acknowledges that he’s unsure how far he’ll be able to take the Spartans.
“It’s really been challenging to get them to even think they can win,” said Butkus, who has been living out of his motor home in the town of McKees Rocks, Pa., since August in order to coach the team.
Still, producers said the Spartans don’t need to beat the competition to make the story compelling, an approach that sets the show apart from other “wish-fulfillment” reality offerings this season.
“It’s very, very different from ‘Extreme Home Makeover,” said co-executive producer R.J. Cutler, who has produced other documentary-style shows about adolescent life, such as “Freshman Diaries” and “American High.” “I think these kids are already learning things that will change their lives forever, and that is the core of our story.”
For ESPN, “Bound for Glory” -- being co-produced with Reveille Productions and Full Circle Entertainment -- fit squarely into the cable sports channel’s 4-year-old effort to expand its audience with sports-related entertainment programming. So far, its attempts to move beyond pure sports programming into dramatic series and movies have had mixed results. The 2003 show “Playmakers,” about the off-field exploits of a fictional football team, was widely panned. But executives are hopeful “Bound for Glory” could turn into a successful franchise.
“This is a textbook example of the type of show that, while it certainly belongs on ESPN and will not polarize traditional ESPN viewers, will also have an appeal to nontraditional and more casual sports fans,” said Ron Semiao, senior vice president of ESPN Original Entertainment.
Semiao believes many viewers will relate to the central role that football plays in western Pennsylvania, which has produced such greats as San Francisco 49er quarterback Joe Montana and Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. For many in this middle-class community -- a once rural area that has increasingly become home to office parks and suburban homes -- attending high school football games is an essential cultural ritual.
“On Friday nights, basically everything stops and people go to the game,” said Jim Pastin, president of the Montour Football Boosters.
The Spartans used to be at the center of that ritual. From the 1950s to 1970s, the team racked up an impressive string of titles and league championships. But their reputation faded over the years as a succession of different coaches and a series of losses took their toll. Lately, the school’s record has been a source of discomfort locally; the last time the Spartans made it into the playoffs was 1997.
“It’s tough because the boys want to play football, they want to represent the school, yet they never had the fire, the heart that it seemed you needed to win,” said Joe Kulik, whose 17-year-old son is a senior on the team. “They would go into the year saying, ‘We’re going to play, but we know we’re going to lose.’ ”
The players themselves have been up front about their failings.
“To be a Montour Spartan, it wasn’t embarrassing, but it was -- I guess you could say it was embarrassing,” senior Anthony Pastin says in the opening moments of the first episode.
This spring, Findley heard that ESPN was looking for a school seeking to turn its football program around. While the idea was appealing, “we from the get-go had a tremendous apprehension about how much of a distraction this would be,” the superintendent said. In the end, “we were concerned but willing to accept the fact they had told us they would be as seamless as possible.”
Still, the show has caused a bit of a frenzy at the 1,000-student high school and in the surrounding community. Students aped for the cameras in initial days and local sportswriters chastised school leaders, saying they had sold out to ESPN and the program’s corporate sponsors -- Reebok, Dodge and Energizer -- which have provided the team with new training equipment, uniforms and a scoreboard.
“Montour made this decision for the oldest reason known to man: Money,” Bob Smizik, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wrote shortly after the school was selected.
It remains unclear how much progress Butkus will be able to make in one season. The gruff linebacker, who has never coached a team, brought the same hard-charging attitude he had on the field to his new job.
In the first episode, Butkus repeatedly dresses down the glum-looking players as they struggle with passes and formations.
“I never was a loser,” he growls at one point. “I’m not going to let anybody here make me a loser.”
His initial goal -- to guide the team to the league championship -- seems out of reach. So far this season, the Spartans are 1-4. Still, there are signs of improvement, in both morale and performance, he believes.
“We’re getting there,” Butkus said. “We’re in a tough league, and maybe we don’t quite measure up talent-wise, but that doesn’t mean we have to roll over and play dead.”
Meanwhile, there’s been a new burst of interest in Montour’s football program. This year, more than 90 students went out for the team, up from 65. More than 6,000 fans have packed the stands over the first few games, three times the attendance during the last few years. People are tailgating and banging “thunder stick” noisemakers in excitement during the games.
“It’s like the good old days, when the place was rocking and rolling,” Kulik said. “This is the way Montour football used to be.”
‘Bound for Glory’
When: 7 tonight
Executive producers Ben Silverman, Robert Riesenberg.