Great (fictional) coaches in sports movies

The NCAA Final Four and Frozen Four both take place in the next week.

Then, the NBA and NHL playoffs are right around the corner. As is the NFL Draft, with the Super Bowl in the rear view. Simply put, there are a lot of sports events taking place this time of year.

With that in mind, I decided to take a look at some of the best fictional coaches featured in sports movies. I mean completely fictional, too, so no made up coaches for films inspired by true stories.

Rocky Balboa: Tommy Gunn and Adonis Creed

Sylvester Stallone as former heavyweight champion and boxing trainer Rocky Balboa.
  • Trained boxer Tommy Gunn, who went on to win the heavyweight title.
  • Coached Adonis Creed to a heavyweight title and a successful championship defense.

Balboa’s ability to not go down when taking multiple hits, as well as his punching power, made him an effective boxer. However, he showed he was just as good outside the ring as a trainer, too.

His first coaching gig was with the hot-headed fighter Tommy “Machine” Gunn. Skill-wise, Balboa helped Gunn advance to contender-status and the young boxer went on to win the heavyweight championship.

Unfortunately Gunn’s temper and outside influences drove a wedge between himself and Balboa that ended in the two coming to blows.

Two decades later, Balboa returned to the coaching position, this time training the son of his late friend Apollo. Despite getting treated for cancer, Balboa works to improve an already skilled Adonis Creed and make him ready for top tier competition.

It pays off in “Creed II,” where Adonis not only wins the heavyweight championship, but defends it against a fierce foe in Viktor Drago.

Coached in “Rocky V,” “Creed” and “Creed II.”

Gordon Bombay: The Mighty Ducks and Team USA

Emilio Estevez as Coach Bombay.
  • Coached the District 5 Mighty Ducks to win the Minnesota Peewee Hockey Championship.
  • Coached Team USA Hockey to a gold medal at the Junior Goodwill Games.

It takes some time but Bombay rediscovers his love for the sport in “The Mighty Ducks.” Once he does so, Bombay not only coaches the Ducks to become competent hockey players with a knowledge of the basic skills, but also gets them new equipment. The latter was something they severely needed.

Bombay also recruits several new players to add significant depth to the roster. He does this while teaching the players to work as a team and use creativity with the puck.

A short time later, Bombay coaches an expanded roster, mixing the District 5 players from Minnesota with others from around the country to form the USA squad for the Junior Goodwill Games. Outside of a drubbing  against Iceland, Bombay manages to successfully coach the team to a championship.

He does so by refining a lot of the raw talent that the team carried into the games. Several of the players were already skilled, but they needed to be sharpened to overcome the physicality of the Iceland squad. Bombay’s ability to polish his players pays off with gold medals.

Coached in “The Mighty Ducks” and “D2: The Mighty Ducks.”

Lou Brown: Cleveland Indians

James Gammon as Manager Brown.
  • Turned around a troubled Cleveland Indians team to a division title and status as a playoff contender.

After cutting his teeth at the minor league level as manager of the Toledo Mud Hens, Brown was brought up to the next level. That background as a minor league leader was meant to be a hindrance, though.

He was hired with the intention that the bright lights would be too much for him, with the owner hoping the team would lose enough to make it easier for the Indians to be relocated. The result was the opposite, as Brown’s straightforward, tough-but-fair approach was just what the team needed.

A coach who doesn’t beat around the bush, Brown had an eye for talent and was great at fixing players’ weaknesses. Because of his work, Cleveland basically went from worst to first in Major League Baseball’s American League.

Managed in “Major League” and “Major League II.”

Judge Walter Burns: Mystery Alaska Hockey Club

Burt Reynolds as Coach Burns.
  • Coached amateur players in a competitive game against a National Hockey League team.

It took a lot of convincing, but Judge Burns eventually agrees to coach a group of amateur players from a small town in Alaska for a special exhibition against the New York Rangers. Burns works the players hard, pushing them as much as he can to get them ready for the speed and skill of the National Hockey League.

During the game itself, Burns effectively manages the team, relying on both the leadership of Sheriff John Biebe (Russell Crowe), as well as the speed of his younger skaters. His efforts ultimately lead to a 5-4 loss for the Mystery, Alaska club.

While they don’t earn a victory, just the fact that they kept the game that close against an NHL roster is massively impressive.

Coached in “Mystery Alaska.”

Apollo Creed: Rocky Balboa

Carl Weathers as former heavyweight champion and boxing trainer Apollo Creed.
  • Trained Rocky Balboa, who went on to recapture the heavyweight championship title.

Creed knew Balboa already had the iron jaw and the strength to be a good boxer. He learned it first-hand. However, to take down Clubber Lang, he knew Balboa would also need to expand his set of skills.

In an exhausting effort, Creed makes Balboa a faster fighter who’s more precise and efficient than ever before. The result is Balboa defeating Lang in a rematch in just three rounds.

Coached in “Rocky III.”

Frank Couzu: USA Martial Arts Team

Screenshot 2022-02-10 9.53.48 AM
Coach Frank Couzo portrayed by James Earl Jones in “Best of the Best.”.
  • Trained five USA fighters in a tournament where the team was slightly edged by South Korea.

Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve was the story for Couzo’s team. During a 5-on-5 tournament, Team USA fell just short of a win over South Korea. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t manage to win, though.

In the final fight, for the safety of one of South Korea’s fighters who had severe injuries, a USA fighter opted not to score what would have been a winning blow. While they fell short in earning victory, though, they won a lot of respect.

This was all made possible through Couzo’s intense training methods. Couzo not only pushes all five USA fighters to their limits to build their skill, but also works to make them a true team, rather than just a loose collection of athletes.

Coached in “Best of the Best.”

Tony D’Amato: Miami Sharks

Al Pacino as Coach D’Amato.
  • Longtime coach of the Miami Sharks, winning two Pantheon Cup championships in the Associated Football Franchises of America.
  • Coached the Sharks to an improbable playoff run culminating in a Pantheon Cup final appearance after losing the team’s starting quarterback.

At the start of “Any Given Sunday,” D’Amato is in the twilight of his career. He led the Miami football franchise to championships and is still respected as a consistent winner, but now he’s in a skid.

On top of a losing streak and the team’s owner looking to move in a different direction with the head coaching position, the Sharks’ first and second string quarterback go down with injuries. The remainder of the season, D’Amato now has to deal with a talented but brash young quarterback whose style clashes with the veteran coach’s conservative play-calling.

It gets rocky at times, but D’Amato’s Miami squad manages to win enough games to earn a playoff speech. Then, in a playoff round against Dallas, D’Amato makes a memorable, passionate speech before the game and alters his strategy in an important way at halftime.

He may have his issues off the field, but on the field, D’Amato proved he is able inspire players, train them to compete at a high level and adjust his style when needed.

Coached in “Any Given Sunday.”

Duke Evers: Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa

Tony Burton as boxing trainer Duke Evers.
  • Trained heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, who had a record of 48-0 at the start of “Rocky.”
  • Trained Rocky Balboa to a win against Olympic gold medalist and amateur champion Ivan Drago.

By the time we as an audience are introduced to Evers, he’s already quite accomplished. Evers is coach of Apollo Creed, the heavyweight champion who boasts a 48-0 record at the start of “Rocky.”

Creed was so good that no boxer could compete with him for a full set of rounds, that was until Rocky Balboa of course. In a rematch with Balboa, Creed narrowly lost.

However, that wasn’t the end of Evers’ training career. He then became an assistant coach to Balboa when Creed became the Italian Stallion’s main trainer.

Following Creed’s death, Evers took on Balboa as a coach, when the Philly fighter decided to fight Ivan Drago. Through grueling training, Evers trained Balboa well enough to take down Drago, who once seemed invulnerable.

Evers would once again train Balboa more than a decade later, when the Italian Stallion decided to enter an exhibition match against the current champion Mason Dixon. While Balboa didn’t win, he did go the distance with Dixon, thanks in part to Evers guidance.

Coached in “Rocky,” “Rocky II,” “Rocky III,” “Rocky IV” and “Rocky Balboa.”

Mickey Goldmill: Rocky Balboa

Burgess Meredith as boxing trainer Mickey Goldmill
  • Rocky Balboa won the heavyweight title and defended it 10 times under Mickey’s training.

Balboa and Goldmill didn’t start off as a perfect pair, with Rocky initially declining the trainer’s help. Once they put their past aside, though, and begin working together, they become a force.

Goldmill puts Balboa through a tough workout routine to get him ready for his fight with Apollo Creed. While Balboa loses the fight, he does go all of the rounds with the defending champion, something once thought impossible.

Goldmill did even more impressive work for their rematch, whipping Balboa quickly into good shape after their training was delayed when Rocky’s wife gave birth. In the rematch, Balboa had enough to take down Creed in a close decision.

From there, Goldmill coached Balboa to 10 consecutive title defenses, making Rocky a superstar. Unfortunately, in preparing for a fight against Clubber Lang, Balboa didn’t focus enough in training and Goldmill was declining in health.

Just before the fight against Lang, Goldmill suffered a heart attack, causing Balboa to become significantly distracted, which led to him losing the title. Had Goldmill been healthy for the match, even with the lesser training, it’s arguable that Balboa would have been able to edge out Lang.

Coached in “Rocky,” “Rocky II” and “Rocky III.”

Jimmy McGinty: Washington Sentinels

Gene Hackman as Coach McGinty.
  • Coached the Washington Sentinels to an improbable playoff berth when the team relied on replacement players.

With only four games left in the season, the Washington Sentinel football team decided to go on strike. Needing to field a team, the owner brings back veteran coach Jimmy McGinty for one last shot.

McGinty uses it to recruit a group of men who’re rowdy, but skilled. This includes a speedy wide receiver who has trouble catching, a former college star, a sumo wrestler and a prison inmate. While not being professional players, though, the ragtag group has raw talent.

Under McGinty’s guidance, that talent is fine tuned just enough for the Sentinels to win three out of the last four games, earning a playoff bid for Washington. Any coach who could bring that team together and accomplish that deserves credit.

Coached in “The Replacements.”

Molly McGrath: Central High School Wildcats

Goldie Hawn as Coach McGrath.
  • Coached the Central High School Wildcats to the Chicago City Football Championship.

The Central High School Wildcats had gone 1-9 in their previous season before the arrival of Coach Molly McGrath, with the lone win coming by forfeit. That changed when McGrath, a gridiron expert and daughter of a legendary football coach arrived.

Change didn’t come easy. McGrath had to earn the team’s respect first, eventually doing so by challenging them to a run-until-you-drop competition during a rain storm, which she wins. From there, she improves the training, conditioning and discipline of the team, turning them into winners.

She does this despite the team being at an underfunded school where the players don’t have the best equipment or stadium. She is also able to successfully coach the team and connect with the players, despite going through a tough divorce and custody battle.

Coached in “Wildcats.”

Kesuke Miyagi: Daniel LaRusso

Mr. Miyagi portrayed by Pat Morita.
  • Trained Daniel LaRusso to two All Valley Karate Tournament championships.

Miyagi was more than a karate trainer, he was a father figure for Daniel. LaRusso was a kid who needed a male role model, and Miyagi filled that role well, teaching the teen about life and martial arts.

With the latter, Miyagi was especially impressive, building up Daniel’s martial arts arsenal through labor to create muscle memory that the teen could rely on in a fight. All of the training methods paid off with a karate tournament championship.

After honing his skills in Japan, Daniel returned to America with Miyagi and there was another tournament on the horizon. After a short falling out, the fighter and his trainer reunited and entered the karate tournament, which LaRusso went on to win again.

Coached in “The Karate Kid,” “The Karate Kid Part 2” and  “The Karate Kid Part 3.”

Patches O’Houlihan: Average Joes Dodgeball Team

Rip Torn as Coach O’Houlihan.
  • Coached the Average Joes team, which won the American Dodgeball Association of America Tournament Championship.

A former dodgeball champion himself, O’Houlihan emerges from a prolonged absence from the spotlight to coach the Average Joes squad. His training is all about  excelling at the basics, highlighting the “Five Ds:” dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge.

His training methods, such as having the team dodge traffic, are unorthodox. However, the team becomes skilled in the fundamentals and it allows them to get to the ADAA tournament final.

Unfortunately, a tragic casino accident cuts O’Houlihan’s life short just before the championship round. Using the skills they learned from the legend, though, the Average Joes win the title against the favored Globo Gym Purple Cobras.

Coached in “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.”

Chubbs Peterson: Happy Gilmore

Carl Weathers as golf coach Chubbs Peterson.
  • Coached Happy Gilmore to become skilled professional golfer. Gilmore went on to win the Professional Golf Tour Championship

Outside of a mighty slap shot and maybe the potential of being an enforcer, Happy Gilmore was lacking as a hockey player. Finding himself at the short end of the hockey stick in try-outs, he decided to take another route: Golf.

For much of his run through the pro tour, Gilmore relied on himself, and it helped him earn some needed cash, but it was Chubbs’ guidance that cemented the rookie golfer’s status as a champion.

Chubbs’ helped Gilmore win the Waterbury Open to get on the pro tour, teaching him to loosen up with the “it’s all in the hips” method. Before his tragic death, Chubbs’ then assisted Gilmore in sharpening his short game, teaching him the importance of having a “happy place.”

The end result was Gilmore earning a Gold Jacket, upsetting Shooter McGavin.

Coached in “Happy Gilmore.”

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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