JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

A man's man and coach's coach


Martin Flanagan

John Kennedy's actions on and off the field were backed by words of wisdom.

Hawthorn coach John Kennedy being congratulated on his team's 1971 grand final win.

Hawthorn coach John Kennedy being congratulated on his team's 1971 grand final win.

JOHN Kennedy is 83 now. He has pale blue eyes that sparkle with good humour and, in that spirit, he gives me his vision of his funeral. The coffin is being wheeled down the aisle of the church when a booming voice sounds out. It's the recording of him saying, ''DON'T THINK! DOOOOOOO!'' to his losing Hawthorn team at half-time in the 1975 grand final.

It is one of the most famous utterances in the history of football. It has a second, less well-known part which goes: ''DON'T HOPE! JUST DOOOOOO!'' His voice is the bellow of an old stag trapped in a forest of despair, refusing to surrender. Only with great reluctance had he agreed to wear a microphone that day: ''That was a big decision for me, because what I said to the players always stayed there!''

Kennedy is widely acknowledged as the finest orator in the history of the game. Classicists will point to the fact that he was a school principal who taught English and can still recite parts of Henry V's speech before the battle of Agincourt, as re-created for the stage by William Shakespeare.

His grandfather, James Kennedy, came from Tipperary in Ireland in the late 1800s. James Kennedy's son, the father of the subject of this story, was a cigar maker. During the depression, he was out of work and John Kennedy remembers hearing his mother say she could manage on two pounds a week. Her people, Cochranes from Dunfermline in Scotland, helped the family through.

Young John attended De La Salle College and was an industrious student. ''At school, you always try and excel and do your best.'' He played cricket and football, saying sport gave him ''the confidence to meet people''.

His father used to take him to see Camberwell in the old VFA. In the VFL, young Kennedy barracked for the Pies. ''That was a big deal, being taken to see them.'' He was at the 1945 preliminary final between Carlton and Collingwood. The grand final of that year, played six weeks after the end of World War II, is the most violent grand final in the history of the game and remembered simply as The Bloodbath. But the preliminary final was actually worse. Collingwood had brought in notorious hard man Len Hustler. ''All the talk,'' says Kennedy with his wonderful flickering grin, ''was about Len Hustler.''

He arrived at Hawthorn in 1950. The impression you get from contemporary reports is that he was a gangly, awkward ruckman who was totally uncompromising. He won the best and fairest in his first year but the Hawks lost every game. He won four best and fairests in five years but, in his words, his club was the joke of the competition. ''It drummed into me that the only success was team success.''

Early in his career, playing the Magpies, he saw a Collingwood player who was knocked down stay down. ''The Collingwood captain, Lou Richards, ran over to him and said, 'What's the matter with you?' He went crook at him. He spoke very harshly to him - I thought there's trouble at Collingwood. Then they came out and won the next week and I thought, 'This is a really tough game'.''

Melbourne was the power club of the era - Kennedy saw Barassi, the Melbourne captain, be equally demanding with one of his players who fell hurt.

As a player, Kennedy showed a remarkable ability to disregard pain, once staying on with a broken arm after the coach asked him to. As a coach, he is remembered for telling a player wiping blood from the side of his face not to worry about injuries above the neck. ''We'll point you in the right direction.''

He treated his players rigorously as a collective, rarely if ever speaking to them individually, and insisting on a radical selflessness. (I once saw him quote Karl Marx at a post-match press conference when journalists pressed him to praise a particular individual, saying: ''From each according to his ability.'')

He didn't tell his players to enjoy the game. ''Enjoyment wasn't an issue.'' He wasn't impressed with anything but winning, which he once described ''as a good feeling which lasts for an hour after the game''. Nor was he concerned whether his players liked one another. The game was about winning respect as footballers. ''It doesn't matter what you do - judge's son, bricklayer, caterer - the football field is where the respect comes from.''

Tactically, he was considered by some - most notably, Geelong coach Bob Davis - as crude. When he took over as coach of Hawthorn in 1960, his strategy was to radically increase the physical fitness of his players and then up the tempo of the game so that opposition teams were worn out.

His teams, known as ''Kennedy's Commandos'', won three premierships, the first in 1961. In 1964, his VFL/AFL coaching career was interrupted by the education department appointing him principal of a school in Stawell. He coached the local team. The first practice match, one of his best players didn't turn up, instead going rabbiting. When Kennedy fronted the player and demanded to know why, the player said: ''Because I prefer rabbiting to playing football.''

Then another player left the club because he didn't like the way Kennedy addressed the players during a loss. ''They were doing their best,'' the player said.

''My job is to make them better,'' replied Kennedy.

Of his time in Stawell, Kennedy says: ''I learned a bit up there. It got me to talk to the players a bit better, to adapt to particular players.''

Our interview becomes a rambling conversation, but what an excellent man to ramble with. All the great coaches I have met have been fully aware that, ultimately, the game is only a game.

As a young player, just after World War II, Kennedy attended a tribunal where a Hawthorn player who had been involved in hand-to-hand fighting in the Pacific fronted a tribunal headed by a man who had witnessed death and deprivation as a prisoner of war of the Japanese. The idea that ''knocking someone over on the football field'' should be treated seriously by people with such life experiences causes another of his ironic smiles.

Kennedy much admired Melbourne coach Norm Smith. Often, after Hawthorn played Melbourne, the pair would end up deep in conversation about the game. ''Norm Smith was such a strict disciplinarian but his players were still daring enough to do their own thing.'' Kennedy liked that. ''Otherwise, you'll only have robots playing.''

The single game he remembers most fondly is the 1961 preliminary final when Hawthorn finally overcame Melbourne, the great team of the era. ''It had everything you could want from a game of football.''

I take him to the subject of his oratory. ''People say to me, you said this and this. I didn't prepare anything but sometimes you just explode!'' Explaining his ''Don't think'' speech during the 1975 grand final, he says that Hawthorn team had ''quite a few academics in it''. The tape of the famous quote lay in a vault for 20 years before someone discovered it during the AFL's centenary year. Now, it has ''legs of its own'' and, all these years later, he has to ask himself if he really believes what he said. ''I think I do. Actions speak louder than words.''

Kennedy's actions include a four-year term (1993 to '97) as head of the AFL Commission.

His wife, Dulcie, was born in Australia of Italian parents. Their son, John jnr, an unspectacular but highly reliable footballer, played in four Hawthorn premierships. John jnr married Bernadette Russo, whose brother Peter, a highly skilful footballer, played in two Hawthorn premierships. John jnr and Bernadette's son Josh will play for Sydney in today's grand final. John Kennedy snr says he finds it ''a bit difficult'' watching his grandson play. Sometimes he finds it easier watching the games on replay after he knows the result.

Our conversation lasts 90 minutes. He talks with great fondness about David Parkin, captain of Hawthorn's 1971 premiership team and Kennedy's successor as coach. ''As a captain, he was such a great example, taking all the physical and mental risks.'' Unlike Kennedy, Parkin spoke to his players individually and incorporated them in team decisions. Parkin's fourth premiership team - Carlton in 1995 - basically ran itself. ''As a coach, he was ahead of his time.''

Our talk doesn't end, it terminates like a tram arriving at one destination among many. ''What are you going to do with all this stuff?'' he asks, waving his big hands in the air, a grin of disbelief on his face that anyone would find it of interest. As we are parting, he adds: ''You wrote a good line about me once: 'John Kennedy is impossible to interview.' And that's how it should be.'' Why does he believe that? Because the game is not about individual recognition.

Related Coverage

HuffPost Australia

AFL 2015

Round 1
Thu, 02 AprTimes shown AEDT
CAR 78vs RIC 105 Report Stats
Sat, 04 AprTimes shown AEDT
MEL 115vs GCF 89 Stats
SYD 72vs ESS 60 Stats
BRI 74vs COL 86 Stats
WBU 97vs WCE 87 Stats
Sun, 05 AprTimes shown AEST
STK 78vs GWS 87 Stats
ADE 140vs NTH 63 Stats
FRE 75vs PTA 68 Stats
Mon, 06 AprTimes shown AEST
HAW 123vs GEE 61 Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 2
Fri, 10 AprTimes shown AEST
WCE 131vs CAR 62 Stats
Sat, 11 AprTimes shown AEST
RIC 66vs WBU 85 Report Stats
GWS 101vs MEL 56 Stats
COL 63vs ADE 90 Report Stats
GCF 76vs STK 104 Stats
PTA 44vs SYD 92 Stats
Sun, 12 AprTimes shown AEST
GEE 60vs FRE 104 Stats
ESS 78vs HAW 76 Stats
NTH 133vs BRI 51 Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 3
Fri, 17 AprTimes shown AEST
COL 140vs STK 66 Stats
Sat, 18 AprTimes shown AEST
CAR 84vs ESS 105 Stats
ADE 80vs MEL 55 Stats
SYD 111vs GWS 90 Report Stats
NTH 105vs PTA 113 Stats
BRI 58vs RIC 137 Stats
Sun, 19 AprTimes shown AEST
HAW 127vs WBU 57 Stats
GEE 105vs GCF 96 Stats
WCE 81vs FRE 111 Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 4
Fri, 24 AprTimes shown AEST
RIC 51vs MEL 83 Stats
Sat, 25 AprTimes shown AEST
STK 81vs CAR 121 Report Report Stats
ESS 49vs COL 69 Report Stats
GWS 119vs GCF 53 Stats
PTA 99vs HAW 91 Stats
FRE 74vs SYD 60 Stats
Sun, 26 AprTimes shown AEST
BRI 65vs WCE 118 Stats
GEE 67vs NTH 83 Stats
WBU 125vs ADE 68 Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 5
Fri, 01 MayTimes shown AEST
CAR 45vs COL 120 Stats
Sat, 02 MayTimes shown AEST
RIC 76vs GEE 85 Stats
SYD 73vs WBU 77 Stats
GCF 118vs BRI 54 Stats
NTH 70vs HAW 130 Stats
WCE 120vs GWS 33 Stats
Sun, 03 MayTimes shown AEST
MEL 50vs FRE 118 Stats
STK 80vs ESS 82 Stats
ADE 91vs PTA 115 Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 6
Fri, 08 MayTimes shown AEST
COL 59vs GEE 100 Stats
Sat, 09 MayTimes shown AEST
NTH 109vs RIC 74 Stats
WBU 87vs STK 94 Stats
GWS 108vs HAW 98 Stats
GCF 78vs ADE 119 Stats
MEL 50vs SYD 88 Stats
FRE 80vs ESS 52 Stats
Sun, 10 MayTimes shown AEST
CAR 75vs BRI 84 Report Stats
PTA 68vs WCE 78 Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 7
Fri, 15 MayTimes shown AEST
ESS 82vs NTH 93 Stats
Sat, 16 MayTimes shown AEST
ADE 119vs STK 73 Stats
HAW 155vs MEL 50 Stats
CAR 57vs GWS 135 Stats
SYD 120vs GEE 77 Stats
WCE 135vs GCF 43 Stats
Sun, 17 MayTimes shown AEST
WBU 88vs FRE 101 Stats
RIC 105vs COL 100 Report Stats
BRI 102vs PTA 65 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 8
Fri, 22 MayTimes shown AEST
GEE 140vs CAR 63 Report Stats
Sat, 23 MayTimes shown AEST
STK 78vs WCE 131 Report Stats
GWS 108vs ADE 84 Report Stats
GCF 63vs COL 132 Report Stats
HAW 69vs SYD 73 Report Stats
FRE 115vs NTH 42 Report Stats
Sun, 24 MayTimes shown AEST
ESS 136vs BRI 78 Report Stats
MEL 103vs WBU 64 Report Stats
PTA 43vs RIC 76 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 9
Fri, 29 MayTimes shown AEST
SYD 122vs CAR 62 Report Stats
Sat, 30 MayTimes shown AEST
HAW 93vs GCF 40 Report Stats
MEL 54vs PTA 115 Report Stats
WBU 113vs GWS 68 Report Stats
RIC 72vs ESS 59 Report Stats
ADE 57vs FRE 68 Report Stats
Sun, 31 MayTimes shown AEST
BRI 86vs STK 108 Report Stats
COL 112vs NTH 95 Report Stats
WCE 120vs GEE 64 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 10
Fri, 05 JunTimes shown AEST
FRE 70vs RIC 97 Report Stats
Sat, 06 JunTimes shown AEST
CAR 90vs ADE 99 Report Stats
GCF 41vs SYD 93 Report Stats
ESS 53vs GEE 122 Report Stats
PTA 100vs WBU 62 Report Stats
Sun, 07 JunTimes shown AEST
GWS 97vs BRI 67 Report Stats
NTH 85vs WCE 75 Report Stats
STK 69vs HAW 132 Report Stats
Mon, 08 JunTimes shown AEST
MEL 85vs COL 110 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 11
Fri, 12 JunTimes shown AEST
PTA 69vs GEE 92 Report Stats
Sat, 13 JunTimes shown AEST
GCF 46vs FRE 53 Report Stats
WCE 96vs ESS 46 Report Stats
NTH 75vs SYD 91 Report Report Stats
Sun, 14 JunTimes shown AEST
COL 119vs GWS 77 Report Stats
STK 85vs MEL 83 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 12
Thu, 18 JunTimes shown AEST
ADE 85vs HAW 114 Report Stats
Fri, 19 JunTimes shown AEST
RIC 70vs WCE 90 Report Stats
Sat, 20 JunTimes shown AEST
CAR 110vs PTA 106 Report Stats
GWS 61vs NTH 117 Report Stats
WBU 146vs BRI 74 Report Stats
Sun, 21 JunTimes shown AEST
GEE 89vs MEL 113 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 13
Thu, 25 JunTimes shown AEST
FRE 80vs COL 73 Report Stats
Fri, 26 JunTimes shown AEST
SYD 77vs RIC 95 Report Stats
Sat, 27 JunTimes shown AEST
HAW 114vs ESS 76 Report Stats
BRI 69vs ADE 82 Report Stats
STK 56vs WBU 62 Report Stats
Sun, 28 JunTimes shown AEST
CAR 103vs GCF 69 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 14
Thu, 02 JulTimes shown AEST
SYD 94vs PTA 84 Report Stats
Fri, 03 JulTimes shown AEST
COL 91vs HAW 101 Report Stats
Sat, 04 JulTimes shown AEST
RIC 78vs GWS 69 Report Stats
GCF 125vs NTH 70 Report Stats
WBU 64vs CAR 53 Report Stats
MEL 60vs WCE 114 Report Stats
Sun, 05 JulTimes shown AEST
ESS 52vs STK 162 Stats
ADE vs GEE 15:20Adelaide Oval
FRE 84vs BRI 48 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 15
Thu, 09 JulTimes shown AEST
PTA 66vs COL 63 Report Stats
Fri, 10 JulTimes shown AEST
RIC 71vs CAR 41 Report Stats
Sat, 11 JulTimes shown AEST
ESS 69vs MEL 60 Report Stats
WBU 95vs GCF 73 Report Stats
NTH 120vs GEE 79 Report Stats
WCE 147vs ADE 91 Report Stats
Sun, 12 JulTimes shown AEST
GWS 84vs STK 49 Report Stats
HAW 115vs FRE 43 Report Stats
BRI 49vs SYD 70 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 16
Fri, 17 JulTimes shown AEST
NTH 93vs ESS 68 Report Stats
Sat, 18 JulTimes shown AEST
GEE 72vs WBU 64 Report Stats
GCF 79vs GWS 94 Report Stats
COL 56vs WCE 87 Report Stats
SYD 57vs HAW 146 Report Stats
FRE 95vs CAR 53 Report Stats
Sun, 19 JulTimes shown AEST
MEL 60vs BRI 36 Report Stats
PTA 113vs ADE 116 Report Stats
STK 73vs RIC 89 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 17
Fri, 24 JulTimes shown AEST
CAR 35vs HAW 173 Report Stats
Sat, 25 JulTimes shown AEST
GWS 42vs GEE 69 Stats
ADE 125vs GCF 80 Stats
RIC 78vs FRE 82 Stats
ESS 116vs PTA 129 Stats
BRI 38vs NTH 110 Report Stats
Sun, 26 JulTimes shown AEST
WBU 104vs COL 86 Report Stats
MEL 46vs STK 83 Report Stats
WCE 103vs SYD 51 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 18
Fri, 31 JulTimes shown AEST
HAW 53vs RIC 71 Report Stats
Sat, 01 AugTimes shown AEST
GEE 113vs BRI 57 Stats
COL 54vs MEL 91 Report Stats
SYD 117vs ADE 65 Report Stats
CAR 54vs NTH 118 Report Stats
GCF 83vs WCE 83 Report Stats
Sun, 02 AugTimes shown AEST
PTA 112vs STK 49 Report Stats
ESS 40vs WBU 127 Report Stats
FRE 84vs GWS 63 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 19
Fri, 07 AugTimes shown AEST
ADE 88vs RIC 52 Report Stats
Sat, 08 AugTimes shown AEST
COL 105vs CAR 87 Report Stats
WBU 128vs PTA 64 Report Stats
BRI 100vs GCF 114 Report Stats
GEE 95vs SYD 63 Report Stats
WCE 74vs HAW 88 Report Stats
Sun, 09 AugTimes shown AEST
MEL 92vs NTH 127 Report Stats
GWS 93vs ESS 61 Report Stats
STK 59vs FRE 96 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 20
Fri, 14 AugTimes shown AEST
SYD 87vs COL 76 Report Stats
Sat, 15 AugTimes shown AEST
ESS 59vs ADE 171 Report Stats
NTH 120vs STK 83 Report Stats
PTA 111vs GWS 90 Report Stats
GEE 85vs HAW 121 Report Stats
BRI 131vs CAR 67 Report Stats
Sun, 16 AugTimes shown AEST
RIC 138vs GCF 55 Report Stats
WBU 153vs MEL 55 Report Stats
FRE 80vs WCE 104 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 21
Fri, 21 AugTimes shown AEST
HAW 86vs PTA 108 Report Stats
Sat, 22 AugTimes shown AEST
COL 56vs RIC 147 Report Stats
GWS 44vs SYD 133 Report Stats
GCF 97vs ESS 95 Report Stats
STK 97vs GEE 97 Report Stats
ADE 131vs BRI 44 Report Stats
Sun, 23 AugTimes shown AEST
NTH 94vs FRE 83 Report Stats
CAR 78vs MEL 55 Report Stats
WCE 162vs WBU 85 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 22
Fri, 28 AugTimes shown AEST
GEE 62vs COL 110 Report Stats
Sat, 29 AugTimes shown AEST
GWS 132vs CAR 51 Report Stats
HAW 134vs BRI 62 Report Stats
NTH 73vs WBU 96 Report Stats
ESS 47vs RIC 74 Report Stats
GCF 51vs PTA 88 Report Stats
Sun, 30 AugTimes shown AEST
ADE 126vs WCE 69 Report Stats
STK 38vs SYD 135 Report Stats
FRE 108vs MEL 54 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 23
Fri, 04 SepTimes shown AEST
RIC 108vs NTH 67 Report Stats
Sat, 05 SepTimes shown AEST
GEE 119vs ADE 80 Report Stats
BRI 130vs WBU 122 Report Stats
PTA 122vs FRE 53 Report Stats
HAW 113vs CAR 56 Report Stats
SYD 127vs GCF 64 Report Stats
WCE 125vs STK 30 Report Stats
Sun, 06 SepTimes shown AEST
MEL 103vs GWS 77 Report Stats
COL 92vs ESS 95 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 24
Fri, 11 SepTimes shown AEST
WCE 96vs HAW 64 Report Stats
Sat, 12 SepTimes shown AEST
FRE 69vs SYD 60 Report Stats
WBU 102vs ADE 109 Report Stats
Sun, 13 SepTimes shown AEST
RIC 88vs NTH 105 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 25
Fri, 18 SepTimes shown AEST
HAW 135vs ADE 61 Report Stats
Sat, 19 SepTimes shown AEST
SYD 51vs NTH 77 Report Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 26
Fri, 25 SepTimes shown AEST
FRE 67vs HAW 94 Report Stats
Sat, 26 SepTimes shown AEST
WCE 80vs NTH 55 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
Round 27
Sat, 03 OctTimes shown AEST
HAW 107vs WCE 61 Report Stats
View All Fixtures
AFL 2015
Overall standings
Team P W L D % Pts
Fremantle 22 17 5 0 118.73 68
West Coast Eagles 22 16 5 1 148.22 66
Hawthorn 22 16 6 0 158.40 64
Sydney Swans 22 16 6 0 127.12 64
Richmond 22 15 7 0 123.09 60
Western Bulldogs 22 14 8 0 115.12 56
Adelaide Crows 21 13 8 0 115.71 54
North Melbourne 22 13 9 0 106.45 52
View all

Follow Us on Facebook

Featured advertisers