All the right movie coaches
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

On Sunday night, the ESPN movie "A Season on the Brink" will remind us anew that Robert Montgomery Knight, while a powerful floor general, might be a few social graces shy of perfection. Like his players, he could use a few polite pointers, and we are here to provide them -- with the help of the other great movie coaches through the years.

Burt Reynolds
Burt Reynolds' Paul Crewe had to back up his words in "The Longest Yard."
So, what qualities would the perfect coach have?

The life experience of Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman, "The Color of Money")
Sometimes a coach has no real talent for coaching at all. He's just a guy who's been through some stuff like you're going through now, and he's just sitting there, eyeing your girl and waiting for you to shut up and ask him what he knows.

The scrapheap face and gravel voice of Mickey (Burgess Meredith, "Rocky")
What the hell happened to him over the years? How did he survive it? He's one of the living dead, a perfect underdog's trainer.

The guts of Paul Crewe (Burt Reynolds, "The Longest Yard")
Preaching about giving yourself up for the team is all well and good, doing it is something else. Plus, nothing says leadership like a wildly improbable three-day-long slow-motion touchdown run to win the game and stick it to Warden Hazen.

Gene Hackman
Gene Hackman's Norman Dale keeps it simple.
The glorious vision of Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon, "Bull Durham")
Sometimes you need to think outside the box, breathe through your eyelids, wear the rose in front, whatever. (Honorable "Bull Durham" mention goes to Larry Hockett, the Bulls' "assistant manager," whose "Candlesticks always make a nice gift ... let's get two!" parlay is the essence of clutch coaching.)

The hard-won wisdom of Norman Dale (Gene Hackman, "Hoosiers")
All baskets are 10 feet high and a team is five men functioning as one unit. The game is easy, don't complicate it. (You'd want a little bit of that bottom-of-the-barrel courage or fear or whatever that was that Shooter came up with when he took the playbook from Dale, too.)

The controlled fury of Herman Boone (Denzel Washington, "Remember the Titans")
Every coach gives some kind of "we will be perfect in every aspect of the game" speech, but his seemed to come down from the mountaintop on stone tablets.

(OK, I admit, I'd watch Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman do anything on screen, from coaching to reading cereal boxes and street signs.)

Denzel Washington
We "Remember the Titans" because of Denzel Washington's Herman Boone.
The charming boyishness of Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman, "Slap Shot")
Reggie has never grown up; he's beautiful because he is still a child. Reggie is scarred and bruised, and there are gold rims on his chipped teeth; you don't see much of his eyes. But the childlike quality is inner, and the warmth comes from deeper down. He makes boyishness seem magically attractive. He's thin-skinned but a little thickheaded -- a good-natured macho clown who can't conceal his vulnerability. (I copped this whole thing, word for word, from legendary movie critic Pauline Kael's 1977 review of "Slap Shot." Here's my question: Who wouldn't want to play with and for this guy?)

The beat-up hat of Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau, "The Bad News Bears")
Every good coach has a prop. Think John Wooden's rolled-up program, Bear Bryant's houndstooth, Jimmy Johnson's hairspray, Knight's red sweater. Buttermaker's lid was unpretentious, relaxed. It said, "I know Amanda's arm is shot, and I know we've got nothing without her, but trust me, it's all going to work out fine." Everything flowed from the hat. (This one was a tough call, by the way. I almost went with Buttermaker's six-pack, which said all the same things.)

The devil-may-care resourcefulness of David Greene (Gabe Kaplan, "Fast Break")
I'm not talking about putting a team of streetballers together and getting them all the way across the country on cheeseburgers and pot. I'm talking about the ace bandage around Swish's chest.

Paul Newman
Childishness is the charm of Paul Newman's Reggie Dunlop in "Slap Shot."
The beer-soaked heart of Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks, "A League of Their Own")
He's a baby, he's a tyrant, he sleeps, he makes up signs. Keep 'em guessing -- that's Coaching 101.

The battle limp of Ken Reeves (Ken Howard, "The White Shadow")
So he's a TV coach, not a movie coach, so what? Except for maybe Wooden, name a more important, more iconic coach, on film or anywhere else in the last 25 years. You can't do it. Anyway, the limp was everything -- it was a badge of honor from his NBA days that commanded respect from his team, and at the same time it was a sign of vulnerability that made them want to win for him.

The Marine Corps code of Bull Meechum (Robert Duvall, "The Great Santini")
OK, sports fans that which does not kill you makes you stronger bouncing a basketball off your kid's head. It's the kind of abusive BS that some folks will tell you our country is built on. (Thought about giving this slot to Moreland Smith from "One on One," but I decided he's a totally irredeemable bastard, and so Bull got the nod, even though he isn't technically a coach, because he's just a mostly irredeemable one.)

Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks' Jimmy Dugan kept everyone, including himself, guessing in "League of Their Own."
The curmudgeonliness of Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley, "The Natural")
We're talking the early Pop, before he got all soft on Roy. We're talking the "pacing the dugout, spitting filthy water from the fountain, refusing to play Hobbs because Scotty Carson signed him without asking me first and I got that in my contract as long as I live and my mother begged me to get out of the game but I didn't listen to her and now it's too late" Pop. Crusty, standoffish coaches breed eager-to-prove-them-wrong players -- that's the stuff of championships.

The faith of Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos, "Stand and Deliver")
He moves in an odd, quiet sort of way, like he's the keeper of secret knowledge. You believe in him, even though you know what he says is impossible, and then, after a while, for reasons you can't begin to explain, you start to do what he says he knew you could.

The crusty understanding of George Halas (Jack Warden, "Brian's Song")
What am I going to say that you haven't already heard, or thought of yourself, a hundred times before? You know.

Any Given Sunday
What's an Al Pacino movie without screaming? Tony D'Amato tries to fire up the troops in "Any Given Sunday."
The innocence of Kid Gleason (John Mahoney, "Eight Men Out")
When the world is going to hell in a hand basket, it's nice to know that someone is totally, blindly devoted to the game.

The toughness of Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez, "The Mighty Ducks")
Just kidding.

The inspirational mania of Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino, "Any Given Sunday")
He stomps and shouts like Bob Fosse directing a Broadway show, but he does get the kids fired up.

which brings us around to

The otherworldly intensity of Bob Knight
Admit it, if you don't like anything else about the man, you admire his focus, his willingness to work, and his ability to get the job done. He is, for better or worse, the coach of our time.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his regular "Critical Mass" column for Page 2. You can e-mail him at



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