One of the more interesting sports debates of all time is… what is the greatest sports movie ever made. Hoosiers, The Longest Yard, Rocky, Raging Bull, Cinderella Man, The Natural, Field of Dreams, Caddyshack, Slapshot and yes, even Talladega Nights all have their merit.
But what makes a great sports movie? Is it the plot? A hero’s plight against insurmountable odds? Which is better, a depiction of actual events or fictional story-telling? In many sports films, one individual is often relied upon to extract the most out of his team. It is often these key characters within the film who determine its greatness and longevity.
Sportschump.net therefore chooses to celebrate the greatest coaches in sports film history. The list is based not only on the quality of the movie and the acting therein, but also how the character, with odds stacked against him, did so much with so little. After all, that is the definition of a coach, isn’t it? To teach and maximize his athletes’ potential?
Well, these five did just that. By doing so, these actors not only made their film more memorable, but blessed us with acting performances for the ages.
5 – Walter Matthau as Morris Buttermaker in “Bad New Bears” – 1976
Despite the numerous Bears’ films that came afterwards, it was Matthau who originally defined the drunken, downtrodden, minor leaguer turned little league coach who bit off more than he could chew with a bunch of miniscule, mop-topped troublemakers. He chain smoked, brought liquor into the dugout, recruited a girl to pitch for his team and allowed his kids to curse, spit and fight. What kid wouldn’t want a coach like that? In doing so, he taught his kids that winning isn’t necessarily everything. Thirty years later, this film still holds up, as does Matthau’s performance.
4 – Gene Hackman as Norman Dale in “Hoosiers” – 1986
Arguably one of the best basketball films ever made, Hoosiers tells the tale of a coach cast out for slugging a referee. Hackman moves to small town Indiana where basketball is religion and is asked to take over coaching responsibilities for the local high school. While Hackman’s past haunts him, Hickory could not have found a better man for the job. Nor could the director have found a better actor for the role. Hackman wins over the town, helps a player with an alcoholic father, once played with four boys instead of five just to prove a point, beds himself the local brunette and takes his all-opaque, undersized team to the state title, while never compromising his morals. Put me in, coach, I’m ready to play.
3 – Denzel Washington as Herman Boone in “Remember The Titans” – 2000
Ok, name one bad Denzel movie role. You can’t, can you? Well, in Titans, Denzel does it yet again. Based on a true story, Washington’s character is thrust into racially charged and recently desegregated, 1970s Virginia. He takes over a controversial head coaching position, once held by a more popular white coach, and unites his team around football, discipline, togetherness and up-and-downs until they vomit. You cannot replace a Gary Bertier as a player or as a person, but when Denzel’s star defensive end gets paralyzed in a car accident, Coach Boone still gets the best out of his team, calling the final play to win the state title. Gold star if you can name the play, like your life depended on it. No cheating.
2 – Burgess Meredith as Mickey Goldmill in the Rocky series – 1976-82
Taking a washed-up, out of shape, left-handed boxer from the streets of Philadelphia and turning him into a heavyweight champion is no easy task, unless you’re a seventy year-old Jewish man with a hearing aid, a knit cap and a street corner gym. Meredith’s performance in this series was so powerful and convincing, it’s hard to picture him in any other role, despite his success as the Penguin in the 1960s Batman series. Mickey consistently gave Rocky the dose of hard love he needed throughout his training and ultimately found within Balboa what it took to topple Apollo Creed. Cut me, Mick.
1 – Pat Morita as Mister Miyagi in “The Karate Kid” – 1984
Not only does Miyagi take a scrawny, high school kid from New Jersey from practicing karate in his mom’s living room to the All Valley Karate Championship, he also fixes his bike and gives him a lifetime supply of bansai trees. He beats up those that bully him, talks smack within the enemy grounds of the Cobra Kai dojo, gives Daniel LaRusso vintage wheels so he can seal the deal with Elisabeth Shue and magically heals his busted leg so he can properly exercise an indefensible karate move which he himself taught him. What else could one ask for in a coach? Wax on, Mr Miyagi! You’re the best around.
Honorable mention: Tom Hanks, A League of Their Own; Nick Nolte, Blue Chips; Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man; Ben Kingsley, Searching For Bobby Fischer; Carl Weathers, Happy Gilmore; Susan Sarandon, Bull Durham; Billy Bob Thornton, Friday Night Lights; James Gammon, Major League; Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby