There are few truly great football movies. The things that draw fans to the sport — a strange mix of athleticism, schematic complexity, courage and violence — seem to defy easy capture on the big screen.
Perhaps it’s because our rooting interests change when we watch movies. We cheer for dramatic character arcs rather than rainbow Hail Marys caught as time runs out. Good football movies aren’t about big moments on the field but the big characters who shape them. And there’s no bigger personality than a movie football coach.
On the big screen, a head coach is typically part father figure, part disciplinarian extracting the utmost from his team. Some serve as a foil — a common enemy players can rally around to come together and ultimately overcome insurmountable odds. Others are inspirational lords of the locker room, dispensing life advice. But which movie coach is the best? We watched nine football movies — from “Air Bud” to “Varsity Blues” — and tried to capture what makes each film’s head football coach tick.
|Movie||Year||Competition Level||Tomato Rating|
|“North Dallas Forty”||1979||Pro||84%|
|“Friday Night Lights”||2004||High school||82|
|“The Longest Yard”||1974||Semi-pro||79|
|“Remember the Titans”||2000||High school||73|
|“Any Given Sunday”||1999||Pro||52|
|“We Are Marshall”||2006||College||48|
|“Varsity Blues”||1999||High school||43|
|“Air Bud: Golden Receiver”||1998||Junior high||21|
|“Johnny Be Good”||1988||College||0|
Where possible, we calculated the expected points added of each coach’s play calls, and we evaluated coaches’ decision making — both on the field and in the locker room. Finally, we ranked the leadership qualities of each coach along an alignment chart, defining each of the nine as lawful good, lawful evil, chaotic good and chaotic evil.
“Lawful” means adhering to the law generally. In cases where a coach deviates from established norms, they will at least remain consistent with respect to their worldviews. Conversely, a “chaotic” coach would be an individual willing to buck norms and traditions — including those he’s established — in pursuit of his goals. A “good” coach is selfless as a leader and puts the needs of others ahead of his own interests, while an “evil” coach is willing to actively harm others to get what he wants.
And yes, we will spoil the movies here … but the most recent one came out in 2006, so if you haven’t seen them by now, that’s on you.
In a cartoonish family drama about a dog suiting up and helping protagonist Josh Framm’s junior high school football team turn its program around, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Fanelli’s only flaw appears to be an unhealthy love of junk food. Fanelli’s job is in danger because of the Timberwolves’ persistent losing, but his perspective on coaching never wavers: It’s about the kids. “If winning’s all they’re interested in, I’m not the right guy anyway,” Fanelli says.
And while Fanelli is open to the unorthodox — he allows Josh to bring Buddy onto the team — he does so in service to his ethos that “football is about having fun.” Most of “Air Bud: Golden Receiver” is undeniably corny, but Robert Costanzo as Fanelli is able to transcend the kitsch in one touching moment when he convinces runaway Josh that opening his heart to his mother’s new boyfriend doesn’t mean he has to stop loving his deceased father. That, coupled with his ability to adapt to the strengths of his personnel, is enough to place the coach firmly in the upper right corner of our alignment chart.
Denzel Washington’s Herman Boone is firm but fair. He’s a mean cuss to everyone, Black or white. He’s authoritarian and perhaps not quite the coach the players deserved, but maybe the one they needed. In the situation the movie’s writers put him in — lose one game and you’re fired, in an environment of dusty racism and heightened tensions — Boone’s sometimes excessive drive to win is at least somewhat understandable. “We will be perfect” is a laughable statement from any football coach, but it somehow manages to be stoic and endearing from Washington. It also helps, of course, that the Titans do end up going undefeated.
If winning is the best measure of a coach’s ability, the title of best movie coach surely goes to Boone. In fact, his Titans were so dominant in real life — the 1971 T.C. Williams High School team outscored its opponents 357-45 with nine shutouts — that screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard had to manufacture drama to make the movie more compelling.
|W & L||W||34-0|
T.C. Williams plays in a number of close games over the course of the film, but the actual Titans played in only one nail-biter: their fifth game of the season, against Marshall. The Titans trailed for most of the game and were held scoreless until midway through the second quarter. It wasn’t until Frankie Glascoe — who rushed for negative yardage in the first half — broke loose for a 75-yard touchdown run with 5:20 left in the game that the Titans took the lead.
Conversely, the real Herman Boone was a much more complicated character than the one made famous by Washington’s portrayal. The real Boone narrowly survived a player mutiny in 1977 when the football team threatened to quit unless he apologized for a particularly vitriolic tirade after a loss. Boone was removed from his job two years later after he was accused of abusing his players “orally and physically.”
“Remember the Titans” doesn’t completely gloss over the troubling parts of Boone’s character. Some of his hard edge is revealed when he tells tired and dehydrated player Darryl “Blue” Stanton that “Water is for cowards. Water makes you weak” and then proceeds to have the team do up-and-downs “until Blue is no longer tired, and thirsty.” The evidence is clear that this type of coaching is harmful for players and counterproductive to team-building. In fact, it can be deadly. Reports compiled by the University of North Carolina show that 106 football players across all levels of play died from heatstroke from 1971 to 2019. And eight young men died in 1970 — the most fatalities due to heatstroke ever recorded in a single year — just one year prior to the season depicted in the movie. Despite this — mainly because of the strength of Washington’s acting — Boone manages to rate highly on our good and lawful scales.
Matthew McConaughey’s Jack Lengyel is a joyful and big-hearted but ultimately one-dimensional character. Lengyel’s goal in taking over the Marshall University football team a year after nearly the entire coaching staff and all but three players were killed in an airplane crash isn’t to win. It’s merely to suit up and take the field. Lengyel’s expectations fit the moment: The Thundering Herd won two games in 1971. Over his career at Marshall, Lengyel went just 9-33.
Lengyel rates highly on the “good” scale of the alignment chart. He took a job no one else wanted because he thought he could help a town with deep wounds heal. McConaughey’s Lengyel doesn’t pretend to have the answers to the movie’s bigger questions about grief, but he does know when to shut up and listen.
Perhaps because of this, his leadership style drifts toward the chaotic. His accomplishments in the movie are largely due to him pushing back against institutions and bucking convention. He convinces Marshall’s president to petition the NCAA to allow true freshmen to play for the team, overturning a long tradition. And he brazenly asks coach Bobby Bowden at rival West Virginia University to allow him and his staff to plunder their archives to learn the Veer, an offensive system better suited to their players than a more standard offense. In the movie’s best scene, Lengyel and his assistant coach discover that WVU’s team is wearing Marshall stickers on their helmets to honor the team and the dead. As it turns out, the portrayal is accurate — and part of the reason for Bowden’s generosity was that he nearly took the coaching job at Marshall, and very well might have been on that plane.
In the movie based on the book,1 Gary Gaines coaches the Permian High School Panthers in a small Texas town obsessed with high school football. The town’s skewed view of the importance of Friday nights seems to rub off on a character that the movie tries to cast as its hero. Gaines — played by Billy Bob Thornton — says he doesn’t do the Oklahoma drill “just to make heads rattle,” but it doesn’t stop him from lining his kids up and doing just that. Perhaps more than any other moment, this knocks Gaines down our “good” and “lawful” scales. The drill’s benefits are not worth the risks involved. The NFL banned the controversial drill last year out of concern that it causes preventable head injury, and college programs have begun to follow suit. And while it’s perhaps unfair to judge a coach too harshly for the practice in 1988, it remains bewildering that sober adults ever thought having young men in high school slam their heads into one another during practice is either smart or acceptable.
On the field, Gaines is wildly successful despite losing his best player, running back James “Boobie” Miles, to a career-ending knee injury in a blowout Week 1 win. Gaines eventually leads the Panthers to the state championship against Dallas Carter High School at the Astrodome in front of 55,000 fans, losing the game on the last play after a courageous come-from-behind effort.
Strothers is the most interesting and complex of the movie coaches we viewed. Perhaps that’s because his character was modeled after the Dallas Cowboys’ Hall of Fame head coach Tom Landry, an undeniably great tactician and one of the first people in the NFL to use an analytical process to manage a team. In one scene in a meeting at team headquarters, Strothers — played by G.D. Spradlin — upbraids his star quarterback for a low completion percentage: “Pass completions were 49 percent. That’s 6.3 percent less than reasonable, and 19 percent less than our outstanding.” The dehumanization of players by the business of football is a major theme of “North Dallas Forty,” and Strothers neatly embodies the cold, calculating executive who stares into a computer screen for insights into his players rather than looking them in the eye.
Set in 1979, the film isn’t clear on who actually calls the plays in the final sequence against Chicago. Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith was known for changing Landry’s plays in the 60s, but if Strothers did have a hand in things, he did a good job. To save the season, the Bulls dial up a clever draw on third-and-long that’s worth 1.25 expected points added, and then North Dallas overcomes a costly holding call with 24 seconds left by calling back-to-back passes so that the team won’t have to huddle and lose time off the clock. Nick Nolte’s character — wide receiver Phil Elliott — runs a devastating “blaze-out route” (one that looks only slightly slower than Julio Jones’s more recent incarnations) with no time left on the clock for an improbable last-second touchdown.
|Play type||down||To go||Field position||Time left (secs.)||epa||TD odds|
|Holding, no play||1||10||18||24||-1.55||35|
Strothers is also cast as a hypocrite on drug use. In a league still struggling with how to properly deal with recreational cannabis, Strothers’s attitude is understandable. The movie ends with Elliott forced out of the league ostensibly for smoking grass (but in reality, it was mostly to save payroll costs), while Strothers encourages the use of painkillers to keep his players on the field.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NFL was not a fan of the film. There were real-life repercussions for the experts who served as advisers on the movie. Hall of Famer and scout Tom Fears reportedly had contracts with three NFL teams prior to the film’s release, and each of them severed ties with him after “North Dallas Forty” opened in theaters. Raiders receiver Fred Biletnikoff, who coached Nolte and after whom Nolte modeled his character’s playing style, wasn’t asked back to camp. And Tommy Reamon — who played needle-shy receiver Delma Huddle — was cut by the San Francisco 49ers and claimed he had been blackballed by the league.
Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” is a mess of a movie, with camera movements so violent that it’s difficult to sit through the first third without having a seizure. When things reach their nadir and a player loses an eye on the field in an absolutely ridiculous scene, the only thing keeping a viewer interested is Al Pacino’s Tony D’Amato. D’Amato is an old-school coach caught in a league that’s changing in ways he seems unprepared for. Front office meddling and a young offensive coordinator who “knows the probabilities” are conspiring to force him out of the game he loves. But while D’Amato starts out as a selfish, manipulative, run-first control freak (“You talk about a running game. … People want to see passes, touchdowns, high scores. That’s the game today.”), he ultimately morphs into a selfish and manipulative but relatable player’s coach. Even with his characteristic late-career overacting, Pacino’s “Inches” speech is still one of the best of the genre.
On the field, D’Amato evolves as well, ultimately embracing the passing game and a new style of mobile quarterbacks. After his defense gets a stop on fourth-and-1, he calls a long pass play that connects for 80 yards but is called back for holding. D’Amato’s Miami Sharks overcome the setback by passing the rest of the way down the field (save for the final two plays of the drive) against the Dallas Knights to win (though they eventually lose the Pantheon Cup to San Francisco). It would be nice to be able to say more about D’Amato’s tactics, but Stone’s claustrophobic camerawork is so tight on each actor’s face that it’s nearly impossible to determine what’s actually happening on the field.
Burt Reynolds’s portrayal of the woman-beating, drunk-driving former NFL QB Paul Crewe is probably more beloved than it deserves to be. The characters in “The Longest Yard” are largely unlikable (“I never gave a shit about football, or anything else.”), and the comedy — which may once have been shocking — is tired and flat by today’s standards.
As a coach of a semi-pro football team in prison, Crewe integrates the squad and at one point opts to go for a 2-point conversion, both of which are laudable (though to different degrees). Another memorable moment is when a decision to punt by the warden’s team is described by announcers as “kind of a timid or a chicken kind of football.” Still, Crewe’s failures outweigh his successes. In one scene, he wastes two straight downs hitting a guard below the belt with a football, which about sums up the viewing experience for this 1974 “classic.”
Bud Kilmer and Wayne Hisler are lumped together because they’re mostly uninteresting caricatures. Kilmer, played by Jon Voight, represents the worst parts of Strothers, Gaines and Boone all rolled into one seething package. He’s a racist who sends a lineman suffering from a concussion back into the game despite suspecting head trauma, then later cuts him when the injury hampers his performance. An authoritarian who is also, unsurprisingly, a run-first play-caller, Kilmer is ultimately thrown off the team by the players and is not on the sideline for West Canaan High School’s climactic win.
In “Johnny Be Good,” Hisler — portrayed by Paul Gleason — is a craven narcissist trying to parlay his relationship with his star high school QB (played by “The Breakfast Club” nerd-turned-jock Anthony Michael Hall) into a higher-paying job at a university. An abomination of a character, Hisler is unlikable and unwatchable, much like the movie itself.
Illustration by Madison Ketcham.