The 1986 film, Hoosiers, opens on a dark and lonely road on the verge of dawn. Off in the distance, two headlights drive toward us in the night. Black is giving way to gray and soon the sun rises over a two-lane highway. As rays of sunlight break through the clouds, we watch a series of shots from various angles tracking the mid-century American sedan cruising purposefully by cornfields, barns, silos, country stores, gas pumps, and boys playing basketball.

Driving down country roads lined with crossed-top telephone poles and decorated with bright-colored fall leaves, the car stops at a crossroads with a church prominent in the background. After a momentary pause, the driver proceeds. Has he found the right path?


Norman Dale has driven through the night to get to the one-blinking-stop-light town of Hickory, Indiana, where he has anxiously agreed to coach a basketball team at a high school with an enrollment of 64 students. Standing in the tradition of a thousand small-town schools built all over the United States during the first half of the twentieth century, the campus fits perfectly within the period of the film; but to our modern eyes, the old school is an anachronism.

"You're not the new coach?" asks Myra Fleener. She is strikingly pretty in a mature teacherly way--but she is all business. "I was expecting someone younger." Her glance is all-knowing and unapproving.

Later, she observes accusingly: "A man your age comes to a place like this, either he's running away from something or he has nowhere else to go." She is spot-on.

She watches him warily as he moves on up the stairs to find his old friend, Cletus, the principal who has sent for him.

"Norman Dale? I hardly recognized you," Cletus says.

It's been a long time since their days at the teacher's college. "I appreciate the opportunity," Norman says. "You've got a clean slate here," Cletus assures him.

Early on, Norman Dale remains a mystery. Mostly, we know that he is here and eager for "one last chance." Eventually, we discover that Dale had led a college team to a national championship twelve years earlier before the NCAA barred him for life for misconduct.

His rival for the Hickory coaching job wonders: "I don't know why Cletus drug your tired old bones in here."

Why? This is a story about regeneration and forgiveness. The tag line for the film: They needed a second chance to finish first. Dale is merely the first in a series of characters who are in need of redemption.

Dale enlists the help of the town drunk, Wilbur "Shooter" Flatch, who lives in a cabin in the woods and is something of a basketball oracle. Shooter is also the father of one of Dale's players, who sees his dad as a hopeless embarrassment. "When is the last time someone gave him a chance?" Dale asks. Pushed to get clean and sober, Shooter mounts an unsteady journey back to respectability; like most of us in the real world, he remains a work in progress throughout the film.

Dale soon finds that the entire town (less Myra Fleener) believes that the key to the season will be enticing Jimmy Chitwood to play with the team. By most accounts, Chitwood is the best school-boy basketball player any of these rabid fans have ever seen. But in the aftermath of a series of personal tragedies, Jimmy has withdrawn from the community and has lost his love for game.

Dale does not push Jimmy, and he encourages the fans to be patient and appreciate the current team "for who they are--not who they are not."

But basketball is the civic religion in Hickory, and they are hungry to break out of their long history of mediocrity. Ironically, the community seems determined to resist any changes to its basketball orthodoxy. They are devout believers in the zone defense and shooting the basketball at every opportunity. They are skeptical and hostile to Dale, a peculiar and perplexing prophet of a new system.

Even his old friend Cletus has his doubts: "I'm trying hard to believe you know what you're doing."

After the rocky start on the court, and increasing consternation from the townspeople, the citizens call a town meeting to decide the fate of the embattled coach. The situation looks dire for Dale. Cletus has taken ill and can no longer offer him protection. Myra Fleener, now acting principal and starting to warm to Dale, calls for the crowd to give him another chance. But the throng clamors for his dismissal.

We are told that twelve legions of angels stood at the ready to rescue the Savior during his time of misery. In keeping with the divine plan, the suffering Christ never issued a call for celestial assistance. In the case of Norman Dale, Jimmy Chitwood intercedes of his own accord. Jimmy has had a change of heart. Dale has won him over with his style and sincerity. Jimmy will rejoin the team, if the town agrees to keep the coach; they are only too pleased to make Jimmy happy.

From there on, it is nothing but net. Success. Enthusiastic cheering crowds. Even the coach’s former tormentors come around.

Myra Fleener and Norman Dale, at a stage in life where they have reason to believe passion has passed them by, find one another and experience personal regeneration.

The team reaches its potential and makes a brilliant run into the playoffs, culminating with a come-from-behind win in the state championship game against a big-city powerhouse.

Most importantly, Coach Dale connects with his humanity, happily coming to understand that his love for his players is much greater than his prodigious desire to win.

More than anything else, Hoosiers is a story of hope and possibility. In the midst of our failure, there is hope for redemption, growth, love, and meaning. No matter where we are in life, we are people with potential. We should take great comfort from the knowledge that we are people perpetually in the process of becoming.