Audiences clearly get a kick out of Ted Lasso, the Apple TV+ series that picked up 20 Emmy nominations this year to match its 2021 mark and again lead the comedy pack. But this isn’t the first comedic series to score with viewers and voters alike by focusing on a coach who succeeds against the odds.
While Jason Sudeikis’ Lasso is an American college football coach who ventures into the world of English soccer, Craig T. Nelson starred on ABC’s Coach as Hayden Fox, a gruff leader tasked with guiding his football players at fictional Minnesota State — while eventually bonding with assistants Luther (Jerry Van Dyke) and Dauber (Bill Fagerbakke), getting to know estranged adult daughter Kelly (Clare Carey) and falling in love with TV news anchor Christine (Shelley Fabares).
Series creator Barry Kemp, who had previously written for Taxi and created Newhart, remembers ABC’s skepticism about casting Nelson, given that the actor had voiced his frustration when the network canceled his drama series Call to Glory in 1985 after a single season. Luckily, they granted him an audition. “I don’t know if I could say it felt like a special project at first because it was a bit of a long shot,” Kemp recalls to The Hollywood Reporter. But the show launched in 1989 and gradually found its audience, lasting nine seasons before signing off in May 1997.
Nelson still appreciates the cast’s chemistry and tells THR proudly, “We had lunch together every day for nine years.” The show netted 16 Emmy nominations and two wins, including Nelson’s 1992 triumph as best actor in a comedy. “I was kind of shocked — it was very meaningful,” he says of the victory.
In looking back on his time with the show, the star makes it clear that producing TV in the streaming era feels very different to him from what he remembers with Coach. He recalls just three people entrusted with making creative decisions on the comedy: Bob Iger, who was named head of ABC Entertainment the year that Coach launched and was an early supporter of the series; Kerry McCluggage, president of Universal Television; and Kemp.
“It was a much smaller community in terms of the corporations that ran or are running television,” he says. “It’s more of a corporate decision-making that I think has taken away the elements of spontaneity and inventiveness. And there’s a lot of fear now in the business in terms of making a decision. When we were doing Coach, we had basically three people that were involved in anything that we did. We didn’t have an audience of 15 making decisions.”
Nelson praises the space that the Coach team was given to experiment and take chances. “The freedom we had was more expansive, and it was arguably easier to get things done that you felt benefited the show,” says the star. “And that could be a change in direction of the show. It could be a change in the character. It could be decisions about the season. It involved a lot of things — you were more involved. So it was a time that I look back on now, and it’d be very difficult to do that, at least from my experience.”
In Nelson’s view, these industry changes can be attributed to the advent of streaming culture, which he feels has led to an influx of decision-makers who appear to him to have more of a corporate rather than creative background. That said, he feels lucky for his own career path and points out that NBC’s Parenthood, on which he starred as patriarch Zeek Braverman, and CBS’ Young Sheldon, on which he recurs as Dale Ballard, also benefited from similar freedom.
“When streaming came in, it opened things up,” he says about the addition of new platforms and opportunities for projects. “But what did it do? It gave you a glut and, at the same time, this kind of stress on making sure it was successful, whatever that meant. So you had a lot of people involved in making that decision because you had people that hadn’t necessarily grown up in the business now running shows and writing them.”
In 2015, NBC granted a 13-episode order to a revival series, enlisting Nelson and Fagerbakke to reprise their roles and Kemp to return as showrunner. But the project never made it to air. However, the positivity from the show’s initial run lives on, and Nelson had a ball on set: “The laughter was infectious, and it’s what I remember the most.”
A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.