‘The Way Back’ and The Bad Coach Playbook

Five movie coaches who probably shouldn’t be around kids

With his new film The Way Back, Ben Affleck joins the cinematic ranks of the “bad coach.” This sub-genre of the sports film is not about coaches who are bad at their jobs, but rather troubled men (it’s always a man) who must coach a sports team as penance for past misdeeds. The stories can skew comedic or dramatic, but by the end the power of organized sport has made the bad coach a better man. Does The Way Back follow the playbook from previous bad coach movies? Let’s look at the stats.

The Bad News Bears (1976)

The premise: Former minor league pitcher, and current alcoholic, Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) is hired to coach the Bears, a youth baseball team made up of league rejects. While the Bears lack skills, they possess plenty of rude ‘tude. Can Buttermaker coach the team to a single win, or perhaps even the league championship?

What’s his coaching style? He’s pretty laid-back, but makes an impact by simply giving the kids some attention and encouraging camaraderie and teamwork. After their disastrous first game, the team votes to disband, but Buttermaker won’t let them quit, saying, “This quitting thing, it’s a hard habit to break once you start.”

Does he have a secret weapon? As the trailer explains, Tatum O’Neal, as hotshot pitcher Amanda, is his secret weapon. Buttermaker also recruits “the best athlete in the area,” Kelly Leak, (Jackie Earle Haley) to fill out the roster.

What’s the low point before his final redemption? When the Bears have a chance at the championship, Buttermaker becomes focused on winning at any cost and he realizes he has become as blindly competitive as the other coaches.

How bad is he? Matthau is perfect as a grump with a heart of gold and this role really set the bar for bad coaches (and teachers, santas, moms, etc.) to come. However, while the movie treats Buttermaker’s drinking as a personality quirk, it plays differently in 2020. Drinking while driving, drinking in the dugout, and giving alcohol to minors is actually pretty bad.


Hoosiers (1986)

The premise: Former college coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) has spent the last ten years in the Navy, but he returns to the court when an old friend hires him to coach basketball at a small Indiana high school. The town may be crazy for basketball, but they are wary of Dale’s mysterious past. Can Dale coach the team to winning a single game, or possibly even the state championship?

What’s his coaching style? He’s tough! Dale’s practices are all about fundamentals and drills, peppered with choice phrases like “My practices aren’t designed for your enjoyment!” and

“You’re in MY army everyday from 3 to 5.” He also appoints the town drunk (Dennis Hopper) as his assistant coach because Dale himself does not have a substance abuse problem to cure.

Does he have a secret weapon? Dale gains the trust of former star player Jimmy Chitwood and coaxes him back to the team.

What’s the low point before his final redemption? Dale’s hiring of the town drunk, reliance on man-to-man defense, and other questionable coaching decisions provoke the citizens to call for his removal. Fellow teacher Myra (Barbara Hershey) discovers that Dale was suspended from college coaching 12 years ago after he punched one of his players in the face.

How bad is he? Dale hit one of his players and when asked why, he just shrugs and says he can’t explain it. Taken along with his multiple game ejections, the punching indicates that, at the very least, Dale needs to work on his anger management. That said, of the movie coaches on this list, Dale has the most actual coaching experience and the least obvious personal issues.

The Mighty Ducks (1992)

The premise: Winning-obsessed lawyer and former youth hockey star Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) must coach a peewee hockey team as part of his punishment for a drunk driving offense. The Ducks are a team of Minnesota misfits with attitude (including a pre-Dawson’s Creek Joshua Jackson). Can Bombay coach the Ducks to victory, perhaps eventually facing his old coach in the championship?

What’s his coaching style? Bombay focuses on fundamentals and teamwork, often using duck-related metaphors such as, “If you mess with one duck, you have to deal with the whole flock.”

Does he have a secret weapon? Bombay recruits two figure skaters, a goon, and the best player from a rival squad. He also teaches the Ducks their signature play, The Flying V.

What’s the low point before his final redemption? The low point comes fairly early, when Bombay encourages the kids to cheat during their disastrous first game. He then realizes that he has succumbed to toxic competitiveness, the true villain of any kid sports movie.

How bad is he? He endangers the players by taking his limo onto the ice at the first practice and also claims to hate kids and hockey. Not a great start, but Bombay quickly reconnects with his love for the game and turns out to be a pretty good coach. This beloved movie spawned several sequels and Disney+ is currently rebooting it for a series.



Hardball (2001)

The premise: Drunk loser Conor O’Neill (Keanu Reeves) must coach the Kekambas, a youth baseball team from the Chicago projects, as a condition of a loan which he needs to pay off his gambling debts. The players, their teacher, and the parents are dubious of O’Neill’s commitment and lack of coaching credentials. Can O’Neill help his team win even a single game, or maybe the league championship?

What’s his coaching style? O’Neill doesn’t teach the kids much about how to play, but he knows enough from watching sports movies to emphasize teamwork and outlaw trash-talking among teammates.

Does he have a secret weapon? He recruits the team’s best player, Kofi, by helping him with a book report, thus earning the blessing of Kofi’s teacher and mother. And when the team needs it most, O’Neill leads them in a chorus of Big Poppa by The Notorious B.I.G.

What’s the low point before his final redemption?  Over the course of 24 hours, several bad things happen to O’Neill. He makes a foolishly large bet and has a fight with the kids’ teacher (Diane Lane) while ostensibly on a date with her. O’Neill then quits coaching after a disastrous game during which team stalwart Jamal (Michael B. Jordan) is disqualified.

If this were a better movie, the actual low point would be when one of the players is shot. However, that incident is weirdly positioned as a moment for the coach to show what a good guy he has become.

How bad is he? O’Neill is a low-life and, throughout the movie, his actions put the kids in real danger. Yet, by the end of the movie he has a job at the school and a second chance with Diane Lane. However miscast, Reeves’ charisma is the only reason this ending feels remotely acceptable. The Kekambas deserve better.


The Way Back (2020)

The premise: In The Way Back, depressed alcoholic Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) accepts a coaching job at the Catholic high school where he was once a basketball star. Will Cunningham’s personal demons sabotage the team or can he lead them to a winning record, and possibly even the playoffs?

What’s his coaching style? Cunningham is hungover most of the time, so he makes the players run while he sits in the bleachers. He also swears a lot.

Does he have a secret weapon? In a break from tradition, Cunningham does not recruit any additional players. Instead, he goads the introverted point guard to be more vocal on the court and to believe in himself.

What’s the low point before his final redemption? After a disastrous second game in which Cunningham encourages flagrant fouls, the team chaplain chastises the coach for his use of profanity and the assistant coach (Al Madrigal) confronts Cunningham about some beer cans in their office at the school. Cunningham looks to be on the road to redemption; however, in another twist on the genre, personal tragedy sends him spiraling downward yet again.

How bad is he? Cunningham is a decent coach, but a damaged man. Buttermaker’s drinking was played for laughs in 1976, but in 2020, Cunningham’s behavior raises immediate red flags for the adults at the school. Did I expect Al Madrigal to be the real hero of a Ben Affleck movie? No, I did not. But The Way Back ultimately concedes that Cunningham has problems which can’t be fixed by basketball alone.

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Lani Gonzalez

Lani Gonzalez has appeared as a guest programmer on Turner Classic Movies and occasionally writes about what she sees at Cinema Then and Now.

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