The greatest coaches ever are legendary titans of their sport. They are multi-time champions like Bill Belichick, Vince Lombardi, John Wooden, Red Auerbach, and Pat Summitt. But who is the greatest fictional coach in sports movie history? That list features some iconic characters, alongside some names you might not expect. Here are the top ten ever, chosen both for their accomplishments and their abilities as leaders, motivators, and tacticians.
Note: We are only considering fictional coaches from the big screen, not television. That eliminates great leaders like Coach Boone from Remember the Titans, Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights, and Herb Brooks from Miracle.
A League of Their Own – Jimmy Dugan: Drank his way through half the season while Dottie managed, and he was really mean. We’d love to hang out with him though.
The Bad News Bears – Coach Buttermaker: Great coach and motivator who would have child services called on him today. Plus he was one-and-done. He’s in our personal top ten though.
Rocky/Creed Franchise – Mickey, Apollo, Rocky, and Duke were all great trainers, but each also all had some glaring shortcomings or failures. We’d need a whole column just to cover those.
The Natural – Pop Fisher: We love Pop, but his hands-off approach only worked when he was gifted with the greatest hitter who ever lived.
Happy Gilmore – Chubbs: Turned a hockey goon into a professional golfer, but he died before Happy truly harnessed his powers. He’s the toughest omission from our list, but kudos to Carl Weathers for two honorable mentions.
10. Paul Crewe (The Longest Yard 1974)
Burt Reynolds’ Paul Crewe managed to unite a diverse group of prisoners, most of whom had never played organized football, into the Mean Machine. They were good enough to beat a semi-pro team with years of experience. That would have been impressive enough, but he did it as a player-coach. He was also the team’s quarterback. Crewe also had style and panache, and he delivered an all-time sports movie speech. His previous point shaving scandal and brief time faking an injury during the game knocks him down a little.
9. Danny O’Shea (Little Giants)
Football coaches play an outsized role in their team’s success compared to others sports. But it’s still hard to overcome a complete lack of talent, especially when you’re up against a vastly superior opponent. That didn’t stop Rick Moranis’s Danny O’Shea from leading a group of passed over young players. He instilled confidence in his little Giants, guiding them them to a major upset over his brother’s team of all-stars. He turned into a great coach, but he was an even better man.
8. Eddie Franklin (Eddie)
We’re not here to judge sports movies. We’re here to judge movie coaches, and Whoopi Goldberg’s Eddie absolutely belongs on this list. In fact, she might be too low. Eddie was a fan with no NBA experience hired as a publicity stunt. Yet despite that, along with having to overcome the challenges of being the first female coach in league history, she managed to lead a dysfunctional group of millionaires to an improbable playoff berth. And she did in under the glare of the biggest media market in the country. Most impressive though was that she made the Knicks good.
The f***ing Knicks!
Maybe she should be first.
7. Gordon Bombay (The Mighty Ducks)
Only cake eaters don’t appreciate the job Emilio Estevez’s Gordon Bombay did behind the bench. He would belong here just for taking uniting a group of castoffs and turning them into improbable league champions. Coach Bombay’s tactics also stand out as some of the best ever. The Flying V was unconventional, but it worked. But it’s what he did after that makes him special. Unlike most coaches on this list he returned and led the Ducks to an even bigger title at the international Junior Goodwill Games. You could easily argue for him to be higher.
6. Billy Heywood (Little Big League)
What’s more impressive than coaching kids? A kid coach. Owner or not, young Billy Heywood had no business naming himself as manager of the Minnesota Twins. How did he expect a group of grown professionals to take orders from some pre-teen rich boy? Through sheer force of will and a keen instinct for the game of baseball. Billy Heywood was a fantastic in-game manager and he knew how to be a leader of men in the clubhouse. If not for an in-his-prime Ken Griffey Jr. he would have led his team to the playoffs and ranked even higher.
5. Tony D’Amato (Any Given Sunday)
Tony D’Amato was already Hall of Fame-bound when we met him in Any Given Sunday. He had previously led the Miami Sharks to multiple titles during his 30-year career. Then he took a third string quarterback and a team of overpaid and selfish veterans to the playoffs, where he delivered one of the greatest locker room speeches ever. We wouldn’t want him as our life coach, but we’d be willing to die for him fighting for every inch out on the football field.
4. Mr. Miyagi (The Karate Kid)
Some coaches know the ins-and-outs of their game with an intimacy few can ever understand. Mr. Miyagi didn’t even know the rules of the All Valley Karate Tournament when he signed up Daniel LaRusso. If you think that matters you have much to learn. Fortunately Mr. Miyagi can teach you without you even knowing. His methods were unique, but they were effective. And like the best coaches, his lessons went well beyond the sports arena. Mr. Miyagi is an all-time great life coach.
3. Reggie Dunlop (Slap Shot)
The best coaches are the ones who can adapt. They aren’t driven by ego or a desire to win “their way.” They take what they are given and devise the best strategy for the players they have. And when you have a group of lunatics anchored by the Hanson Brothers that means adopting a style of hockey that mostly resembles ancient gladiator battles. Unorthodox? No, not really. We’re talking about old school hockey (“Eddie Shore!”), and there’s no one we’d want leading the Chiefs than Paul Newman’s player-coach Reggie Dunlop.
2. Lou Brown (Major League)
Lou Brown, who had never worked in MLB before, was pulled out of obscurity and given a team of overpaid stiffs, washed up veterans, non-professionals, an actual criminal, and a voodoo priest—a group designed to finish dead-last in all of baseball. Instead, thanks his no-nonsense approach, instincts for the game, and motivational tactics off the field, he brought them to the postseason. Every baseball fun wants a gritty manager, and no one was gruffer than the great Lou Brown. He should be put in the actual Hall of Fame.
1. Normal Dale (Hoosiers)
Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale has a lot in common with many on this list. He took a massive underdog and made them successful against overwhelming odds. He was a great tactician on the court and a great motivator off it. But he gets the top spot because he was so much more than just a coach. Norman Dale was principled, and didn’t care if those principles cost him a win. He had the right perspective for a high school basketball coach. His job wasn’t about making his players champions. (Though winning the Indiana state championship is one hell of an accomplishment.)
His job was to help those young men grow up to be good people. His dedication to doing the right thing for his players is the reason Jimmy Chitwood played basketball at all. And Coach Dale’s genuine concern for others led to Shooter finally getting the help he needed.
All coaches are measured by wins and losses. Coach Norman Dale was great because he didn’t care about that.