magazine-category: Bulldog Nation

The Dance to Remember

group on stage at the NC film festival

Award-winning Documentary Captures GWU Men’s Basketball Magical Season

It has been said that during times of isolation or quarantine, some artists dig deeper into the well of creativity and offer works beyond their initial imagining.

That is exactly what happened to four Gardner-Webb friends during the spring of 2020; they produced an award-winning documentary celebrating the Gardner-Webb University Men’s Basketball team’s magical 2018-19 season, which ended with an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, a first in men’s Division I basketball history.

Dancing Bulldogs movie posterDirected by Christian Jessup, the film, “The Dancin’ Bulldogs,” follows GWU’s entire journey, from the early wins against NCAA powerhouses to heartbreaking losses, the tournament appearance and coming home after the loss to No. 1 seed Virginia. The doc features interviews with players, coaches and NCAA officials, and never-before-released footage of the team’s championship run.

Jessup, a 2018 alumnus, made his directorial debut with this 80-minute film that began as a short tribute. He got the idea for the documentary from watching ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” a documentary series that followed Michael Jordan’s NBA finals run. Jessup compared the feelings he had watching the series to those he had while witnessing Gardner-Webb win the Big South Championship and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

He texted his friend, GWU student Thomas Manning, asking if he would help. Manning, a member of the North Carolina Film Critics’ Association, was on the ESPN Plus camera crew that filmed the men’s basketball team that year.

Manning agreed, and the two enlisted the help of Eli Hardin and Brendan Boylan, also 2018 alumni. “Eli was the fact checker,” Jessup said. “He is a stats guy and keeps up with the news articles. Brendan was a producer and helped call some game shots and provided some much-needed commentary.”

Jessup, who doubled majored in music composition, and film and video at Gardner-Webb, wrote and performed the film’s music. He has composed music for film and visual media since 2016 and interned in 2017 with Hans Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lion King, Dark Knight Trilogy). He also writes music for video and audio-based projects for VisionPoint Marketing.

Jessup began by searching online for anything related to the Bulldogs’ season. Based on the footage, he created an outline and scheduled interviews with key individuals. One reason he and Manning had access to people was because of COVID-19 restrictions at the time. “Everyone was at home over that summer,” Jessup informed. “The Big South commissioner (Kyle Kallander), Chris Holtman, the former head basketball coach, who is now head coach at Ohio State, and Jason Williford, Virginia’s associate head coach. A lot of people we might not normally be able to interview, we were able to get in touch with and hold Zoom interviews.”

Manning noted that everyone he interviewed was happy to talk about the men’s basketball team’s accomplishment. “The Virginia associate head coach (Williford)—we spoke to him for 15 minutes,” Manning related. “He was extremely complimentary of Gardner-Webb, and the fight they put up in the NCAA tournament game against Virginia, who went on to win the National Championship that year.”

While finishing the documentary and feeling good about the content, Manning and Jessup received a last-minute email that took the film to the next level. Ryan Bridges (former GWU director of Sports Information) offered them 150 gigabytes of never-before-seen footage made by Eric Mangum (former director of new media relations). “It was a huge help from GWU,” Jessup stated. “That was a game-changer in terms of the angles and the shots we could include. Some of the quotes in that footage we never thought we’d find.”

Jessup and Manning were excited for people to see the film and grateful for the support they received in its making upon the official release in October 2020. “The evolution of this project—starting as an idea for a 5-minute video tribute on YouTube, eventually resulting in an award-winning feature-length documentary selected to multiple film festivals—taught me that if you have the time, energy, and passion for something special, then just go for it,” Manning concluded. “The four of us dedicated a ton of emotional energy into this journey, but I think we would all agree that it was 100 percent worth every minute.”

Jessup added, “I hope by reliving those moments, people watching it will be proud of Gardner-Webb and what they accomplished.”

The documentary has gone on to be recognized by organizations and film festivals.

North Carolina Film Critics Association Awards: The Dancin’ Bulldogs was nominated in December 2020 for the Ken Hanke Memorial Tar Heel Award, recognizing a film or person with a special tie to North Carolina.

Indie Eye Film Awards: A monthly film awards show, with the monthly winners entered into a yearly competition. The Dancin’ Bulldogs won “Best Documentary” and “Best Original Music/ Song/Score” in May 2021.

North Carolina Film Festival: The Dancin’ Bulldogs was nominated for the 2021 North Carolina Film Festival. The film was screened at the festival in June 2021, and the documentary team (Christian Jessup, Thomas Manning, Eli Hardin, Brendan Boylan) won the “Best Filmmakers” for the festival.

Triumphant Film Series: The Dancin’ Bulldogs was named “Most Inspirational Film” for the 2021 Triumphant Film Series presented by the Raleigh Film and Art Festival, a film festival created to promote “love, peace, laughter, and the triumph of the human spirit, juried by industry insiders.” The festival took place in October 2021

More information on the Dancin’ Bulldogs can be found online:

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