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Let These Cinematic Coaches Fire You Up for the NCAA Tournament


The NCAA tournament is in full swing, which means plenty of games — and presumably, plenty of pregame and halftime speeches.

Coaches invariably rally their players with inspiring words, although it seems to happen far more often in movies. And so, here at MEL, we started thinking about the best cinematic motivational speeches, a task I personally found pretty hard because, to be honest, most of them are terrible. Maybe that’s why I really like the one Kurt Russell gives before the big final game in 2004’s Miracle. By comparison, it’s relatively low-key. He avoids fireworks because that’s not the type of guy Russell’s playing.

The film dramatizes the U.S. men’s hockey team’s implausible road to the gold medal during the 1980 Winter Olympics. No one thought they had a chance, especially because the Soviet team was considered to be far superior. (And, as Miracle demonstrates, the Americans had gotten their asses kicked by the Russians relatively recently before their pivotal semifinal Olympic game.) But Russell’s Herb Brooks believed in his guys and — at least in the movie — knew exactly how to get them fired up pregame:

What I love about this speech is the relative modesty of it. Brooks essentially acknowledges that the Soviets are a better team. But better teams get beat all the time, so why not tonight?

Another thing: Look at the reaction shots from the players. At first, they don’t quite buy what Brooks is selling. They seem skeptical. But Brooks appeals to the chip on their shoulder and their frustration at always losing to the Russians. And Brooks gives them not so much a pep talk as an invitation: You can change all that by winning right here and right now.

Most motivational speeches are about whipping the players into a frenzy so they go out and kick ass. Brooks doesn’t do that. If anything, he appeals to their common sense and work ethic. He’s not trying to give them a lot of rah-rah bullshit. He just wants them to be great. And they oblige, in one of the best sports-movie finales in recent years.

Below, other members of the MEL team offer their picks for the best cinematic motivational speeches. Some of them are from coaches, some are from wrestlers and one is from the President of the United States.


‘Friday Night Lights’

I never played high school football growing up. My parents were far too cautious about letting me do so, even though I begged that I could be a cornerback without getting killed out there. What I craved wasn’t just the mechanics and experience of the game, but the culture of it, too — the camaraderie, the shared fatigue and pain and the mentorship. I wanted a moment like the kids have in the climax of the 2004 film Friday Night Lights, when they’re facing a deficit at halftime of the state championship game.

Gary Gaines is a real person who coached the 1988 Permian High School football team, and Billy Bob Thornton portrays him with a steely-eyed calm that matches the matter-of-fact way in which he dispenses life advice. And there’s a lot of it, especially in that halftime moment when he faces a locker room of discouraged teenage kids. Gaines takes a breath and tells the team that they’ve discussed the idea of perfection all season. Then he delivers a money quote that rings true to me today, 15 years after I saw FNL for the first time: “To me, being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. It’s about you and your relationship to yourself and your family and your friends. Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down, because you told them the truth. And that truth is that you did everything that you could.”

That 1988 Permian team ended up losing that game, and the epilogue shows that only one of the players received a Division I scholarship to play in college. But Gaines made sure that his kids — and we, the audience — knew that was okay, as long as they tried to be perfect. Eddie Kim, Staff Writer

‘The Wrestler’

Mickey Rourke’s star turn as washed-up grappler Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 near-masterpiece The Wrestler has very little to do with the main character’s purported background in wrestling. Rourke, who more or less admitted he took steroids to beef up for the role when he emphasized to an interviewer how he “behave[d] as a wrestler” while “liv[ing] like a wrestler,” was far less convincing as a squared circle burnout than the late “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s “Da Maniac,” a deranged old bum who subsists on acorns stashed in his station wagon and breaks pay phones during arguments with bill collectors about the overdue repayment of a mere $15.

Rourke, a dedicated if unorthodox character actor, could no more simulate the day-in, day-out toll that a wrestling career takes on the body than any other non-wrestling thespian could — even one who had a thoroughly mediocre professional boxing career filled with fixed fights. But that isn’t the point, because the speech “The Ram” gives before ignoring his doctor’s advice about his heart condition and participating in what could potentially be his death match is essentially Mickey Rourke telling viewers why Mickey Rourke keeps acting in spite of shattered teen-idol looks and long stretches of inactivity during which time his star power had diminished. “You know, in this life, you can lose everything you love and everything that loves you,” he tells the cheering crowd. “As time goes by, they say, ‘He’s washed up,’ ‘He’s finished,’ ‘He’s a loser,’ ‘He’s all through.’ You know what? The only one that’s going to tell me when I’m through doing my thing is you people here.”

The speech is affecting precisely because it will eventually describe us and everyone else around us. My own father, a college football has-been and bankrupt ex-millionaire for nearly every single year of my life, was always lamenting his great fall and kept trying to rise from the ashes until cremation and confinement in an urn put an end to those plans. And as I lurch unsteadily into my 40s, my past abilities have begun to fade, and my window for social-media stardom has closed like so many brick-and-mortar stores in the age of Amazon.

But none of that matters, because Rourke, old Hollywood trouper that he is, shows us that we can always “juice up” for an epic curtain call. My dad used to tell me that I should treat every goodbye as if it were final, as if I were always uttering or writing my last words, and this speech could serve as Rourke’s epitaph. Before he pretends to drop one final headbutt in front of a bunch of extras, he demonstrates that he still has a firm sense of where he is and what he stands for. Oliver Lee Bateman, Contributing Writer

‘Any Given Sunday’

Al Pacino’s speech at the end of Any Given Sunday still gives me goosebumps. It reminds me of my years playing high school football, and the speeches our coaches gave us about going into battle together and playing for one another. And how afterward, just by making eye contact with my teammates, we’d know that we’d do whatever it took for each other. I love it, too, because it’s relatable in a real-life sense. That is, Pacino talks about his own life and all the mistakes he’s made and how football is the same way. They’re both a game of inches. The whole thing is poetry. — Bryan Jones, Staff Designer

‘Independence Day’

These other entries are great and all, but is there a more inspirational speech than the one President Bill Pullman gives in the third act of Independence Day?

Forget the fact that it’s not, strictly speaking, a motivational “sports” speech. Or that one of the film’s screenwriters basically jotted the thing down on the back of a cocktail napkin “in about five minutes.” Or even that it wasn’t meant to be the final copy, just a placeholder for a better speech later on. The speech slaps.

I remember seeing the movie in the theaters the summer between fifth and sixth grade, and after Pullman yells, “Today is our Independence Day!”, the entire audience stood up, cheered and started hugging on each other. I saw strangers handing out high-fives in the aisles. Shit, maybe we should play it on a loop on every channel on every cable service as the way of mending of current incredibly broken political moment. It’s that good. — Jeff Gross, Social Editor