Hey, remember that time when the super-athletic, uncommonly hairy Scott Howard led the 1984-85 Beacontown Beavers to a Nebraska high school championship in the movie Teen Wolf? Sure, we all do! But how good were the Beavers, really? Yes, the boys do eventually figure out a way to win without the wolf, by learning to believe in themselves and yadda yadda yadda. But if you were scouting that team, would you really rank them as one of the best in the state?
With the Ben Affleck-starring high school basketball movie The Way Back arriving in theaters this weekend, now may be a good time to settle a crucial question: Which high school sports movie team is the best? After looking at two dozen or so of these films (some famous and some justly forgotten), we’ve determined which of the squads are actually legit and which just happened to catch a lucky break… or hear an inspiring speech… or find a kid with magic sneakers. Football and basketball dominate this list, with a little baseball, soccer and track thrown in. But bear in mind that we’re not determining whether the Huskers from Hoosiers could beat the Titans from Remember the Titans in some weird basketball-football hybrid: We’re assessing overall excellence, regardless of the athletic discipline.
Because all games need rules, here are just a few guidelines about what — for the purposes of this list, anyway — constitutes a movie about “a high school sports team.” First off, the film has to be set in an actual high school: not a college, a summer league or some overseas academy. Also, the team element matters, as does the sports. Though some of the movies on this list are mostly about one person, the heroes’ teams and sports are still central to the plot. In nearly every case, these films climax with some kind of “big game.”
Dazed and Confused, for example, quite obviously does not belong on this list, because although Mitch Kramer plays baseball in one scene — and although one of the storylines involves the football team — no reasonable person would argue that the film is about a high school sports team. The 1983 Tom Cruise movie All the Right Moves is a tougher call, but it was ultimately off the list because it’s about what happens after a high school football player’s gridiron days are done.
Please also note that this isn’t a ranking of the films. Using the information provided in these movies, this is a breakdown of their various teams’ strengths and weaknesses: both what makes them tough, and what makes them potentially beatable.
Now, play ball!
26) The 1977-1978 Granger Stallions, Coach (1978)
Scouting report: Through a bureaucratic snafu, women’s Olympic track gold medalist Randy Rowlings (Cathy Lee Crosby) is hired to coach men’s basketball, and has to overcome a skeptical fanbase to deliver on the court.
Strengths: As is often the case in these kinds of movies, when faced with misfit players, the coach uses unorthodox training methods (hypnotism! shower speeches!) to convert her loser team into winners.
Weaknesses: Coach Randy also lives up to the double-meaning of her name by sleeping with her star. That’s… probably a disqualifying rules infraction? It might depend on the school district.
25) The 1985 Park Pirates, Lucas (1986)
Scouting report: To impress a girl, the brainy and scrawny Lucas Blye joins the football team, playing side by side with the same bruisers who push him around in the Park halls every day.
Strengths: The Pirates’ roster may be populated by bullies, but even the cruel lummoxes learn to respect Lucas’ courage.
Weaknesses: It’s never made clear how good the Pirates actually are — although any team hard up enough for players that they let that nebbish Blye kid suit up and get into a game surely isn’t headed to state.
24) The 2003-2005 Wingate Christian Crusaders, The Blind Side (2009)
Scouting report: Future NFL offensive tackle Michael Oher (played by Quinton Aaron) is the subject of this popular tearjerker, which is less about football than it is about Oher’s adoptive family helping him get his grades up so that he can become academically eligible for college.
Strengths: The Wingate Christian family will do whatever it takes to make sure their kids succeed.
Weaknesses: The extraordinary efforts taken by the faculty and alumni almost assure that the program will have to deal with league officials hovering around, making sure they haven’t violated any rules.
23) The 1964-1965 T.L. Hanna Yellow Jackets, Radio (2003)
Scouting report: Based on a true story, Radio stars Ed Harris as Harold Jones, a South Carolina football coach who risks his job and his reputation when he starts encouraging his players to befriend a mentally disabled fan nicknamed “Radio” (Cuba Gooding Jr.).
Strengths: As Radio helps out at practices, the team gradually becomes close-knit, unified by the lessons they learn about helping others.
Weaknesses: Coach Jones believes some things are more important than winning. That could be a vulnerability.
22) The 1973-1974 Woodlawn Colonels, Woodlawn (2015)
Scouting report: Another real-life football team, the Birmingham-based Colonels struggled with deep racial divides, post-integration. A spiritual awakening — and future Crimson Tide star Tony Nathan — turned Woodlawn into a powerhouse.
Strengths: The team’s Christian mentor is played by Sean Astin. In a football movie, having Rudy Ruettiger on your side may be a bigger get than God.
Weaknesses: Astin’s preacher character also consults with Woodlawn’s chief rival. That’s all well and good for these kids’ eternal souls, but what about the game?
21) The 2003 Shiloh Christian Eagles, Facing the Giants (2006)
Scouting report: In yet another example of God taking direct interest in the results of a football game, this movie follows a luckless coach whose life — and season — turns around once he decides to start trusting in the Lord.
Strengths: Once they start giving all the glory to the big guy, the Eagles suddenly find everything from the wind conditions to the opposing team’s choices breaking in their favor.
Weaknesses: Heaven forbid these boys ever backslide.
20) The 1997-1998 Corbin Redhounds, 23 Blast (2013)
Scouting report: In the movie version of blind pastor Travis Freeman’s life story (which alters the facts fairly liberally), he’s a football star who loses his sight during his junior year. Travis converts to center at his coach’s request, inspiring his team to make a strong playoff run.
Strengths: Freeman’s faith means that he can serve as both his team’s center and its pastor. That might free up some resources to hire another assistant coach.
Weaknesses: 23 Blast’s focus on Freeman’s arc — while understandable, given that it’s (sort of) his life — means that the rest of the Redhounds are hard to assess. They register as a generic “football team.”
19) The 1993-1994 St. Tammany Lady Kats, The St. Tammany Miracle (1994)
Scouting report: Jamie Luner plays a former basketball star who reluctantly takes a job coaching at an Episcopal girls’ school, where she clashes both with a priest who doubts her commitment and with her occasional boyfriend, a young sports reporter (played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar) who credits the team’s success to God.
Strengths: Over her boss’s objections, the coach quickly moves beyond tedious drills and comes up with some innovative approaches to take advantage of her girls’ skills.
Weaknesses: Like Fleabag in Fleabag, the coach gets distracted by her attraction to a hot priest.
18) The 1985 Central Wildcats, Wildcats (1986)
Scouting report: Looking to make a name for herself, track coach Molly McGrath (Goldie Hawn) — the daughter of a football coaching legend — moves from a ritzy suburban high school to crumbling inner-city Central High, where she has to get a bunch of pigskin punks in good enough shape to beat her former employers.
Strengths: Once again, in a sports movie where a woman takes a “man’s job,” Coach McGrath’s team bonds as they learn to get over their own sexism.
Weaknesses: Because the pre-White Men Can’t Jump Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson appear in small roles in Wildcats, there’s always the chance they’ll split off from the team and start making a basketball movie instead.
17) The 1995 Sunset Parkers, Sunset Park (1996)
Scouting report: Rhea Perlman adds her name to the roster of “What if the high school men’s sports coach was a woman?” movies, playing Phyllis Saroka, a frustrated P.E. teacher who takes the job no one wants, coaching basketball at a Brooklyn high school filled with weirdos, juvenile delinquents and scrubs.
Strengths: Whether or not they can hoop, at least the Sunset Park squad competes to a killer soundtrack, featuring tracks by 2Pac, Mobb Deep and Ghostface Killah.
Weaknesses: The players distrust each other and their coach; and for any given game, one or more of them are missing due to low grades or trouble with the law.
16) The 2007-2008 Plainview Chargers, The Winning Season (2009)
Scouting report: Flipping the script on the “a woman coaches the boys,” this indie comedy stars Sam Rockwell as Bill Greaves, a boozy chauvinist who does a buddy a favor by taking over a hapless girls’ basketball team.
Strengths: Though unskilled at the start of the story, this diverse group of ladies overcome their differences — and their coach’s foul-mouthed rants — to become fairly formidable.
Weaknesses: A winning team isn’t necessarily a championship team. And it doesn’t help either that the Chargers only have six players. That’s a pretty short bench.
15) The 2005 Illyria Armadillos, She’s the Man (2006)
Scouting report: Soccer meets Shakespeare in this rom-com, in which skilled female soccer player Viola Hastings (Amanda Byrnes) poses as her own twin brother Sebastian so she can join a top-rank boarding school team — and eventually get closer to its star, Duke Orsino (Channing Tatum).
Strengths: The team’s coach (played by Vinnie Jones) has an eye for talent, and quickly promotes the diligent “Sebastian” to starter status.
Weaknesses: What if the team gets so preoccupied with playing out the convoluted plot of Twelfth Night that they forget to hustle back on defense?
14) The 1978-1979 Columbia Cougars, Gracie (2007)
Scouting report: Based in part on the actual childhood experiences of the movie’s co-producer Elisabeth Shue — as well as on what she wished had happened to her — Gracie is about young Grace Bowen, who joins the boys’ soccer team as a way to honor the memory of her recently deceased older brother.
Strengths: Like many of the best high school movie sports teams, the Cougars play at a championship level once they learn to make the best use of their diverse roster of players.
Weaknesses: The Cougars wouldn’t have allowed Gracie to play in the first place were they not forced to by Title IX… So how woke is this team, really?
13) The 1984-85 Beacontown Beavers, Teen Wolf (1985)
Scouting report: This team has a werewolf on it.
Weaknesses: Sometimes he’s not a werewolf?
12) The 2001-2002 Patriots, The Red Sneakers (2002)
Scouting report: In this made-for-Showtime family film, a basketball-loving bookworm named Reggie is given a pair of vintage Chuck Taylor high-tops, which turn him into a phenom — and ironically, make him the target of a shoe company exec who wants him to wear the latest overpriced sneaks.
Strengths: Inspired by Reggie’s brains and persistence, the rest of the Patriots get their grades up, using basketball drills to learn math.
Weaknesses: The players are also riven by jealousy toward their new star. (And frankly, how strong can a team be if their fortunes rise and fall based on the availability of enchanted shoes?)
11) The 1991 Coldwater Bears, Touchback (2012)
Scouting report: In this football-themed spin on Peggy Sue Got Married, a failing Ohio farmer (played by Brian Presley) goes back in time 20 years for a do-over on the moment that changed his life: when he broke his leg in the state championship game and lost his scholarship to Ohio State.
Strengths: Their quarterback is almost literally magic.
Weaknesses: Their quarterback is essentially 38 years old.
10) The 1987 McFarland Cougars, McFarland USA (2015)
Scouting report: In this heavily — and I mean heavily — fictionalized version of the life of track coach Jim White, Kevin Costner plays the beloved teacher, who in the movie moves his family to a largely Hispanic neighborhood in California, where he nurtures his students’ speed and endurance.
Strengths: Coach White defies skeptical parents and self-doubting kids to forge champions.
Weaknesses: Nearly everything about McFarland USA has been fudged for no real reason — from the year he moved to McFarland to when and why he started coaching track. Can you put your faith in a real life team that’s mostly fake?
9) The 1998 West Canaan Coyotes, Varsity Blues (1999)
Scouting report: When the Coyotes’ star quarterback goes down with a debilitating injury, the bookish backup QB Jonathan “Mox” Moxon (James Van Der Beek) takes over and leads the team to the district championship, though he rebels against the authoritarian style of Coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight).
Strengths: Though Mox is Ivy League-bound and can really take or leave football, his unorthodox leadership style and his willingness to run trick plays — against the coach’s orders — makes the game fun again for his teammates.
Weaknesses: There are only so many trick plays one team can run.
8) The 1991 Norway Tigers, The Final Season (2007)
Scouting report: When the local school district decides to close a small-town Iowa high school, its perennial championship baseball team pulls together for one last title run, led by a novice coach played by Sean Astin.
Strengths: Once again, you can’t discount the “Rudy” factor when it comes to any sports movie starring Sean Astin.
Weaknesses: Insufficient property tax revenue.
7) The 2005-2006 John Ehret Patriots, Hurricane Season (2010)
Scouting report: Basketball-playing New Orleans teens, displaced by Hurricane Katrina, are thrown together by circumstance and turned into champions by Coach Al Collins (Forest Whitaker) in this inspiring true story.
Strengths: If these kids can make it through one of the most devastating storms in American history, they can certainly handle a full-court press.
Weaknesses: Like a lot of underdog sports dramas, Hurricane Season really pushes the “Can these troubled athletes learn to play together?” angle — to the point where the players really do start to seem like a lost cause.
6) The 1964-1965 St. Augustine Purple Knights, Passing Glory (1999)
Scouting report: Andre Braugher plays activist New Orleans priest Father Joseph Verrett in the fact-based made-for-cable drama, directed by Steve James (best-known for helming the documentary Hoop Dreams). Rip Torn plays Father Perry’s superior Father Robert Grant, who — in the movie anyway, though reportedly not in real life — balks when his impassioned underling wants to schedule the first integrated basketball game in the city’s history.
Strengths: The Purple Knights are the best team in the New Orleans school district’s “black league” before they take on Jesuit High, an undefeated white team.
Weaknesses: One of the preconditions of the game was that it had to be played with no spectators and no record-keeping, so while everyone acknowledges St. Augustine won, the actual strength of their team remains something of a mystery.
5) The 1988 Permian Panthers, Friday Night Lights (2004)
Scouting report: Before the acclaimed TV series, Buzz Bissinger’s acclaimed 1990 non-fiction book Friday Night Lights was adapted into a movie, which sticks closer to the actual details of what a perennially successful Texas high school football team went through the year they lost their star running back to injury.
Strengths: Even without “Boobie” Miles taking the handoffs, Permian is a powerhouse.
Weaknesses: The community’s expectations are so high that after even one loss, there are rumblings about firing the coach. That’s a lot of pressure!
4) The 1951-1952 Hickory Huskers, Hoosiers (1986)
Scouting report: In this fictionalized version of an Indiana sports legend, Gene Hackman plays Coach Norman Dale, who leads a small town’s undermanned basketball team to the state championship by focusing on fundamentals and unselfish play.
Strengths: Though the Huskers have a legitimate star in Jimmy Chitwood, they also have a balanced attack on the court, valuing every asset they have: be it a tiny player who shoots free throws “granny style” or an alcoholic assistant coach with a talent for play design.
Weaknesses: As Huskers-esque squads like the Princeton Tigers have learned in the past to their chagrin, this kind of grind-it-out, pass-heavy style only works if you sink your shots. Get them out of their rhythm and you’ve got a chance to dominate.
3) The 1971 T.C. Williams Titans, Remember the Titans (2000)
Scouting report: The South’s struggles with school integration also play a major role in this popular melodrama, which stars Denzel Washington as a coach who reluctantly takes over a Virginia football team, then gets his white and black players and assistants to look past their prejudices.
Strengths: If Denzel was your head coach, wouldn’t you run through a wall to make him proud?
Weaknesses: The racism in Remember the Titans runs deep: Late in the movie, the referees start conspiring to make bogus calls against the team.
2) The 1999-2000 Richmond Oilers, Coach Carter (2005)
Scouting report: Already a talented team before Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) takes the helm, the Oilers achieve a rare excellence after Coach Carter begins insisting on academics, rule-following and drills, drills, drills.
Strengths: The Richmond squad is easily the best-conditioned bunch on this list.
Weaknesses: You may not be able to beat them on the court, but if you can find some way to mess with their GPAs or get them to break curfew, Coach Carter may get so mad that he forfeits the game.
1) The 2003-2005 De La Salle Spartans, When the Game Stands Tall (2014)
Scouting report: Though the Spartans set a record with a 151-game winning streak that ran from 1992 to 2003, this film is about the challenges of maintaining excellence, and what happened after these California gridiron greats finally lost.
Strengths: Uh, they were, like, literally unbeatable for 10 solid years.
Weaknesses: As the Spartans have already proven, everybody’s gotta lose sometime.