7 Coaching Lessons from The Bad News Bears

If you can get past the the booze, cigars and shockingly unacceptable language, there’s a lot to learn from Coach Buttermaker and his underdogs

Ben Sherwood

| 7 min read

Getty

Morris Buttermaker is a bum. In the 1976 classic “The Bad News Bears,” the grumpy baseball coach played by Walter Matthau guzzles seven different brands of beer, smokes countless cigars and spews profanity. He even drinks a martini mixed and served by one of his underage players. 

“That’s superb,” Buttermaker says admiringly of the kid bartender and cocktail.

But while Buttermaker is hardly a role model, he really knows baseball. Once upon a time, as a minor league ballplayer in spring training, he supposedly struck out Ted Williams, the Red Sox slugger, with the score tied 0-0 in the bottom of the ninth and the bases loaded.

Youth sports are filled with Buttermakers — cranky guys (and gals) who once tasted athletic glory and find themselves coaching kids for all the wrong reasons (and with bad attitudes to boot). In Buttermaker’s case, he’s paid to coach by another busy, competitive dad. 

While there’s no fairytale ending here, there are lessons to be learned as Buttermaker turns this rag-tag group into championship contenders.

1. Kids have X-ray vision.

Let’s start with the fact that kids can see right through you. Indeed, you aren’t fooling anyone if you think they don’t see your problems, your stress, your distractions or your mobile phone.

When the Bears are losing badly in their first game to the mighty Yankees, their foul-mouthed shortstop Tanner Boyle is injured, lying in the dirt.

“Tanner. You OK?” asks Buttermaker — who has shown little to no interest in the kids before this moment.

“Look, you crud, just get back to your beer,” says Tanner. 

Your kids know what you really care about — whether it’s booze or work or your own athletic glory.  So try to focus on them, and not your own baggage.

2. Your job is to help your kids see what they can become.

After a humiliating 26-0 loss, right fielder Ahmad Abdul Rahim runs from the field, strips off his uniform and climbs a nearby tree.

“How come you’re not wearing your clothes?” Buttermaker asks.

“Don’t deserve to wear no uniform,” Ahmad says.   

Buttermaker climbs up into the tree to join Ahmad for a talk.

“I’m lousy at football, lousy at basketball and I’m lousy at baseball, and I’m quitting the whole damn thing,” Ahmad says.

“Thank God Hank Aaron didn’t act like this,” Buttermaker replies, invoking Ahmad’s home-run hitting hero. 

Buttermaker reminds Ahmad that Hammerin’ Hank committed 42 errors as a 9-year-old starting out in sandlot ball.

“He damn near quit,” says Buttermaker. “Thank God for us he didn’t.” 

Buttermaker goes on to tell Ahmad how he’s got big plans for the youngster to become a switch-hitter.

“With your speed,” he says, “you’d be a tough out.”

“I am kind of fast, huh?” Ahmad says, slowly coming around to the idea.

“You’re very fast,” says Buttermaker.

And with that little bit of coaching magic in a tree, Ahmad is back on track with a newfound purpose.

3. There’s no quitting (or crying) in baseball.

After a brutal opening day defeat, the Bears vote unanimously to call it quits. But like any good coach, Buttermaker isn’t having it.

“I can understand how you guys feel. I haven’t been much of a manager… or much of anything else, for that matter,” Buttermaker says. “And I’m sorry. But this quitting thing, it’s a hard habit to break once you start.”

4. Acknowledge what’s working, even when you’re losing.

After losing another game, Buttermaker tries to keep his team’s spirits up.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he says.

“It took several hundred years,” one of his players quips.

Buttermaker won’t let go. “Snap out of it, will ya? No one said it’s going to be easy. Don’t look so glum.”

Alfred Ogilvie — the team’s stats savant — tries to see the bright side of a game in which the Bears committed 24 errors and the opposing pitcher threw a no-hitter.

“Two of our runners almost managed to get to first base,” he says. “And we did hit 14 foul balls.”  

“That’s the spirit!” says Buttermaker. “Come on guys. Cokes and hotdogs on me.”

(Take note, Coach: When in doubt, Cokes and hotdogs are miracle cures for everything.)

5. Level the playing field. 

Girls play ball — the filmmakers knew that way back in 1976. But we also know that youth sports are still disturbingly unequal today. For one, girls drop out six times faster than boys. 

As a coach, your role is to give everyone the opportunity. 

You might be pleasantly surprised.

Buttermaker knew that 12-year-old Amanda Whurlitzer (Tatum O’Neal) was better on the mound than the boys. And despite hurling every crude insult in the book, no one ever says a word about her gender after she joins the team and shows her stuff. She’s the secret weapon that gives the Bears a shot at the championship, thanks to her curveball.

A great arm is a great arm. Period.

6. Everybody wins when everybody plays.

It’s the championship game, the pressure is on and Buttermaker puts Timmy Lupus — arguably his worst player — in the outfield, much to everyone’s distress, including the player himself. 

“Mr. Buttermaker,” Timmy says. “If I go in, we lose the game. As it is now, we still have a chance.”

“A damn good chance, so be on your toes,” Buttermaker answers. “Now get the hell out of here.”

When Timmy balks, Buttermaker insists. “Listen, Lupus, you didn’t come into this life just to sit around on a dugout bench, did you? Get your ass out there and do the best you can.”

It’s a sign that Buttermaker hasn’t surrendered to the win-at-all-costs mindset of his opponent and his own team’s parents.

Then, lo and behold, Timmy Lupus makes a miraculous catch at the right field fence, robbing the Yankees of a home run.

The lesson? Everybody plays — because you never know what’s going to happen.

7. It’s all about next year. 

In the end, the Bears don’t win the championship, but they come together as a team.

If fun is the most important dimension of youth sports, returning next year is the best indicator.

While Buttermaker may be a bum, the kids still want to play for him. Ace pitcher Amanda says after the final game: “Buttermaker, maybe next spring you’ll teach me how to hit.”

“You bet,” he says.

 

Author’s note: Let’s face it: “The Bad News Bears” didn’t age well. Racial and ethnic slurs and backward stereotypes that went unchecked in the ‘70s have absolutely no place in popular media or culture today. Before you watch it with your family, be sure to check out the Common Sense Media review. “Parents need to know that ‘The Bad News Bears’ is a rough-edged kids’ baseball comedy with some profanity” — including pervasive racial epithets —  “and really iffy behavior (kids smoke, gamble and ride motorcycles). During the end celebration, the coach gives beer to the 11-year-olds. One character is an alcoholic. The parents push their kids to win at all costs, and the kids are often bratty and mean.”

 

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