For too long the Sports Coach has been the unsung hero of the screen, imparting life lessons in the form of sporting advice to generations of rookies and old-timers.
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15 Oct 2009 - 6:49 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

There's something very unconventional about Michael Sheen's portrayal of English football manager Brian Clough in Tom Hooper's The Damned United. For once, the coach is the lead character.

Generally speaking, The Coach plays a crucial but largely symbolic role in the greater journey of the undisputed star of the film, The Athlete (as played by a chiselled, box-office friendly name). The Coach is driven man with a heart-of-gold, and maturing stars love to show their range of character-actor skills as the requisite tough-but-fair father figure.

Back in 1925, Pat Harmon defined the archetypal coach in Harold Lloyd's melancholic masterwork The Freshman; William Wellman's 1933 College Coach featured Pat O'Brien as James Gore, the head football coach of Calvert College. And in 1944, a downbeat ex-jockey in the form of Mickey Rooney trained Elizabeth Taylor and her horse Pie to Grand National glory in the weepy-classic National Velvet.

Gene Hackman showed early promise in 1969's Downhill Racer, as Eugene Claire, the head coach of the U.S. Winter Olympics ski team. Charged with reigning in the considerable ego of Robert Redford's David Chappellet, Hackman exudes the ambition needed to rise to the top of your game but also the inherent decency required to do so honourably.

Hackman coached his way to cinematic glory again as Norman Dale in 1986 with Hoosiers, the true story of a disgraced basketball coach who takes a rag-tag group of high-school misfits to the Indiana basketball state finals in 1954. Cited as one of the great sports films of all time, it features some of the most rousing locker room scenes put to film. Hackman's last coaching gig was in the world of American football in the bawdy action-romancer The Replacements (2000), for director Howard Deutch and opposite star Keanu Reeves (who would himself become The Coach a year later in the kiddie-baseball pic Hard Ball, 2001).

Though he may be the most prolific big-screen coach, Hackman is by no means alone. The symbolic appeal of The Coach role is irresistible to actors in career transition, when the ageing star can be seen to impart Yoda-like wisdom to the next generation's recklessly-talented movie he-man.

Mr Integrity Dennis Quaid fought racism in college football in The Express (2008) and his own ageing athleticism in The Rookie (2002); Billy Bob Thornton corralled the potent combination of teenage energy and small town boredom into a winning formula in Friday Night Lights (2004) and, in the role made famous by Walter Matthau in the 1976 hit, swore a blue streak to rally wayward little-leaguers in the 2005 remake of The Bad News Bears; Nick Nolte graduated from his own onscreen sporting glory in North Dallas Forty (1979) to coaching roles – guiding NBA legend Shaquille O'Neill to success in the basketball drama Blue Chips (1994) and Scott Mechlowicz to spiritual and gymnastic enlightenment in Peaceful Warrior (2006). Other waning stars willing to swap lead status for the spit-&-grit world of locker room speeches and boardroom showdowns include James Caan (The Program, 1993), Jeff Bridges (Stick It, 2006), Samuel L. Jackson (the much-loved Coach Carter, 2005) and a scenery-chewing Jon Voigt in Varsity Blues (1999).

Tom Cruise's early career provided ample opportunity for some of Hollywood's best to dish out advice on sport's finer points. Robert Duvall taught lessons in NASCAR (and acting) to an egocentric Cruise in Days Of Thunder (1990); the late Paul Newman, who had himself been taught a lesson by George C. Scott in The Hustler (1961), reigned in the obnoxious personality and supreme pool-playing talent of The Cruiser in its sequel, The Color of Money (1986):

Craig T. Nelson did the same to a cocky Tom in the steel town football saga All The Right Moves (1983). Nelson would go on to flourish in a different arena, applying his prowess and artistry to the back-stabbing world of men's pairs figure-skating in Blades of Glory (2007). And on the small screen, Nelson took the ball and ran with it, as the eponymous coach of a long-running Emmy-award winning TV series.

The crowd-pleasing elements of the sporting flick are pure Hollywood, and no sport offers as much the faux toughness and film-friendly glitz of American football. Inevitably then, the Pigskin Parade has offered up some memorable coaches; rough, rowdy, game-smart educators, who talk tough about what it means to play as – and for – a team. Denzel Washington had one of his biggest hits with the sudsy drama Remember The Titans (2000); Ed Harris brought the intellectually-disabled Cuba Gooding Jr. fame in the true story of Radio (2003); Jack Warden scored a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his role as Warren Beatty's trainer in the football-fantasy Heaven Can Wait (1978); Matthew(s) Fox and McConnaughey try to keep a college football team afloat after many of its athletes are killed in a plane crash, in the male-weepy We Are Marshall (1986); and Goldie Hawn consolidated on trailblazing efforts in Private Benjamin (1980), to go after another bastion of blokedom – the high-school football coaching position – in the hit comedy Wildcats (1986). That film inspired the similarly-themed Eddie, Whoopi Goldberg's 1996 journey into the locker rooms of the NBA.

It is widely-regarded that the best portrayal of the beleaguered, old-school coach, enslaved to the big business ethics that now rule American football, is Al Pacino's Tony D'Amato in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday (1999). Pacino is restrained for the first time in a long time, in a film not known for its subtlety. He is mesmerising as the quintessential top-tier coach, who struggles to maintain his integrity when the game's slithery administrators (wonderfully embodied by Cameron Diaz) have long since abandoned the concept.

The Great American Pastime, baseball, has also given cinemagoers a vast array of sporting mentors, of varying degrees of respectability. For every Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley's crusty, lovable dugout-boss from the Robert Redford's 1984 fable, The Natural) and Lou Brown (James Gammon's gravel-voiced old-timer from Major League, 1989), there is a dishevelled alcoholic has-been like Jimmy Duggan (Tom Hank's tour de force comeback role in A League of Their Own, 1992).

Winter sports have provided the backdrop to some of cinemas great sporting films and offered up some of the silver screen's most iconic coaching performances. Paul Newman's Reggie Dunlop oversaw the Charlestown Chiefs ice-hockey team in the crude yet hilarious Slap Shot (1977); Kurt Russell played Herb Brooks, coach of the giant-killing 1980 US Olympic ice-hockey team in Miracle (2004); Matthew Johns played the classic '80's rugby league coach in the moving and criminally-underseen Aussie flick, The Final Winter (2007); and the blind figure-skater Lexie (real-life champion Lynn-Holly Johnstone) fulfils her dreams thanks to the love and support of her boyfriend/coach (Robby Benson) in the triple-hanky guilty-pleasure, Ice Castles (1978).

Emilio Estevez added 10 years to his career and millions of dollars to his bank balance as reluctant, court-ordered coach Gordon Bombay in Disney's hugely successful teenage ice-hockey franchise, The Mighty Ducks 1-3. The formula appealed to the Disney brass, who repackaged the coach-out-of-water concept in a slew of similar films, including Kevin Bacon's African-set basketball comedy The Air Up There (1994) and, most successfully, the Jamaican bobsled romp Cool Runnings (1993) starring John Candy in the role that made him a global star.

For every great cinematic sport there have been great onscreen coaches. From George Tobias' unscrupulous Tiny (a trainer so unscrupulous that he bets against his own fighter!) in Robert Wise's The Set-Up (1949), to Burgess Meredith's iconic role of Micky in Stallone's Rocky (1976), to Clint Eastwood's grumbling mentor in Million Dollar Baby (2004), boxing coaches have commanded the screen. The sport of kings, horse-racing, has given us great strappers as personified by Tom Burlinson's Tommy Woodcock in the story of Australia's champion, Phar Lap (1983) and Chris Cooper as the beloved trainer of depression-era champion Seabiscuit in Gary Ross' 2003 film. Ian Holm was memorable as the working-class coach of Ben Cross' public school sprinting protégé in the Oscar winning Chariots Of Fire (1981); and Bill Kerr turned Mark Lee's legs into steel springs that hurled him down the track in Peter Weir's Gallipoli (1981).

And if you believe all that you see in the movies, tennis coaches have all the fun – from Bert Convy's randy pro-tennis pantsman in Racquet (1979) to Seann William Scott's shameless off-court romeo in Balls Out! The Gary Houseman Story (2009), the stamina to last five sets has little to do with tennis. It should be noted that when tennis coaches go bad, the consequences can be deadly – Jonathon Rhys Meyers (who proved so winningly dishy as the soccer coach in Bend It Like Beckham, 2002) turned a love match into a murderous plot in Woody Allen's Match Point (2005).

Great coaches certainly aren't confined to the sports movies that dominate English-speaking culture. In the Indian hit Iqbal (2005), the title character (played by Shreyas Talpade) is coached by Mohit (Naseeruddin Shah), an alcoholic ex-cricketer who finds salvation in the young Iqbal and guides him into contention for the Ranjee Trophy, India's biggest one-day cricket prize. The French-Canadian hit Men With Brooms (2002) features the little-known sport of hurling and stars Paul Gross as Chris Cutter, a man determined to honour the memory of his team's late coach by taking them all the way to the finals. And the game otherwise known as 'The Bully's Best Friend' – Dodgeball – provided one of the most cantankerous and merciless coaches in Patches O'Houlihan (Rip Torn), a disgusting shadow of the former champion he once was, who promises to coach Vince Vaughan's Average Joes into national dodgeball champions.

How does Michael Sheen's performance as Brian Clough in The Damned United measure against the great soccer film coaches? He lacks the martial-arts dexterity of Stephen Chow's Mighty Steel Leg Sin in Shaolin Soccer (2001) or the brutal approach Brian Glover's Mr Sugden takes to team selection (the training field, bare shin hack) in Ken Loach's Kes (1969) and he's nowhere near as funny as Will Ferrell in Kicking And Screaming (2005) or Rodney Dangerfield in Ladybugs (1992).

But Sheen does embody perfectly the spirit, drive and wisdom needed to guide the careers and dreams of the young sporting stars upon whose destinies he will influence profoundly. This is the essence of The Coach and the reason it lends itself so perfectly to the cathartic nature of films. Sheen's Clough, or Pacino's Tony D'Amato or Hackman's Norman Dale might say it differently, but one of cinema's great coaches, Mr Miyagi, summed up The Coach's mantra best of all – “Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything”.

Footnote: In a slightly ironic twist, the freshly-appointed coach of English Premier League giants Chelsea, Carlo Ancelotti, has a history as a bit player in Italian movies from the early 1980's. The most high-profile film was Don Camillo, starring blue-eyed Italian idol Terrence Hill, and featured Ancelotti as a mean bad guy. Other credits of Ancelotti's include Mezzo destro Mezzo sinistro and L'Allentore nel Pallone.