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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.

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Round 1
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RIC vs CAR 19:20MCG
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MEL vs GWS 13:40MCG
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NTH vs ADE 19:25ES
SYD vs COL 19:25ANZ
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WBU vs FRE 13:10ES
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Round 2
Fri, 01 AprTimes shown AEDT
COL vs RIC 19:50MCG
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ADE vs PTA 13:45Adelaide Oval
ESS vs MEL 14:10MCG
BRI vs NTH 16:35G
STK vs WBU 19:25ES
FRE vs GCF 19:40Domain Stadium
Sun, 03 AprTimes shown AEST
GWS vs GEE 13:10SO
HAW vs WCE 15:20MCG
CAR vs SYD 16:40ES
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Round 3
Fri, 08 AprTimes shown AEST
PTA vs ESS 19:50Adelaide Oval
Sat, 09 AprTimes shown AEST
STK vs COL 13:45MCG
RIC vs ADE 14:10ES
SYD vs GWS 16:35SCG
GCF vs CAR 19:25MS
WCE vs FRE 19:40Domain Stadium
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NTH vs MEL 13:10BA
WBU vs HAW 15:20ES
GEE vs BRI 16:40SS
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Round 4
Fri, 15 AprTimes shown AEST
WCE vs RIC 20:10Domain Stadium
Sat, 16 AprTimes shown AEST
ESS vs GEE 13:45MCG
HAW vs STK 14:10AS
BRI vs GCF 16:35G
CAR vs WBU 19:25ES
ADE vs SYD 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 17 AprTimes shown AEST
GWS vs PTA 13:10SO
COL vs MEL 15:20MCG
NTH vs FRE 16:40ES
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Round 5
Fri, 22 AprTimes shown AEST
HAW vs ADE 19:50MCG
Sat, 23 AprTimes shown AEST
SYD vs WCE 13:40SCG
GCF vs NTH 16:35MS
WBU vs BRI 19:25ES
PTA vs GEE 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 24 AprTimes shown AEST
STK vs GWS 13:10ES
FRE vs CAR 16:10Domain Stadium
MEL vs RIC 19:10MCG
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Round 6
Fri, 29 AprTimes shown AEST
NTH vs WBU 19:50ES
Sat, 30 AprTimes shown AEST
MEL vs STK 13:45ES
ADE vs FRE 14:10Adelaide Oval
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RIC vs PTA 19:25MCG
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CAR vs ESS 15:20MCG
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Round 7
Fri, 06 MayTimes shown AEST
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Sat, 07 MayTimes shown AEST
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GCF vs MEL 17:10MS
WBU vs ADE 19:40ES
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Round 8
Fri, 13 MayTimes shown AEST
ADE vs GEE 19:50Adelaide Oval
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BRI vs COL 19:25G
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Round 9
Fri, 20 MayTimes shown AEST
HAW vs SYD 19:50MCG
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Round 10
Fri, 27 MayTimes shown AEST
SYD vs NTH 19:50SCG
Sat, 28 MayTimes shown AEST
BRI vs HAW 13:45G
MEL vs PTA 14:10TIO Traeger Park
STK vs FRE 16:35ES
ESS vs RIC 19:25MCG
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Round 11
Fri, 03 JunTimes shown AEST
NTH vs RIC 19:50BA
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Round 12
Fri, 10 JunTimes shown AEST
ESS vs HAW 19:50ES
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BRI vs FRE 16:35G
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WCE vs ADE 19:40Domain Stadium
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Round 13
Fri, 17 JunTimes shown AEST
NTH vs HAW 19:50ES
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BRI vs WCE 13:40G
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ESS vs GWS 16:40ES
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Round 14
Thu, 23 JunTimes shown AEST
ADE vs NTH 19:50Adelaide Oval
Fri, 24 JunTimes shown AEST
COL vs FRE 19:50MCG
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RIC vs BRI 13:40MCG
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Round 15
Thu, 30 JunTimes shown AEST
WCE vs ESS 20:10Domain Stadium
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Round 16
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PTA vs HAW 19:50Adelaide Oval
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GEE vs SYD 19:50SS
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GCF vs BRI 16:35MS
WBU vs RIC 19:25ES
MEL vs FRE 19:40TIO
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WCE vs NTH 15:20Domain Stadium
ESS vs STK 16:40ES
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Round 17
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SYD vs HAW 19:20SCG
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NTH vs PTA 16:35ES
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STK vs MEL 15:20ES
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Round 18
Fri, 22 JulTimes shown AEST
COL vs NTH 19:50ES
Sat, 23 JulTimes shown AEST
SYD vs CAR 13:45ANZ
GCF vs FRE 14:10MS
WCE vs MEL 16:35Domain Stadium
WBU vs STK 19:25ES
GEE vs ADE 19:25SS
Sun, 24 JulTimes shown AEST
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HAW vs RIC 15:20MCG
PTA vs GWS 16:40Adelaide Oval
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Round 19
Fri, 29 JulTimes shown AEST
GEE vs WBU 19:50SS
Sat, 30 JulTimes shown AEST
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HAW vs CAR 14:10AS
COL vs WCE 16:35MCG
BRI vs PTA 19:25G
NTH vs STK 19:25ES
Sun, 31 JulTimes shown AEST
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FRE vs SYD 15:20Domain Stadium
ADE vs ESS 16:40Adelaide Oval
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Round 20
Fri, 05 AugTimes shown AEST
RIC vs COL 19:50MCG
Sat, 06 AugTimes shown AEST
SYD vs PTA 13:45SCG
MEL vs HAW 14:10MCG
GCF vs GWS 16:35MS
WBU vs NTH 19:25ES
ADE vs BRI 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 07 AugTimes shown AEST
CAR vs STK 13:10MCG
GEE vs ESS 15:20ES
FRE vs WCE 16:40Domain Stadium
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Round 21
Fri, 12 AugTimes shown AEST
WBU vs COL 19:50ES
Sat, 13 AugTimes shown AEST
BRI vs CAR 13:45G
HAW vs NTH 14:10MCG
GWS vs WCE 16:35Spotless Stadium
STK vs SYD 19:25ES
PTA vs MEL 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 14 AugTimes shown AEST
ESS vs GCF 13:10ES
RIC vs GEE 15:20MCG
FRE vs ADE 16:40Domain Stadium
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Round 22
Fri, 19 AugTimes shown AEST
WCE vs HAW 20:10Domain Stadium
Sat, 20 AugTimes shown AEST
NTH vs SYD 13:45BA
RIC vs STK 14:10MCG
GWS vs FRE 16:35Spotless Stadium
COL vs GCF 19:25ES
PTA vs ADE 19:40Adelaide Oval
Sun, 21 AugTimes shown AEST
CAR vs MEL 13:10MCG
BRI vs GEE 15:20G
ESS vs WBU 16:40ES
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Round 23
Sat, 27 AugTimes shown AEST
HAW vs COL 12:00MCG
STK vs BRI 12:00ES
ESS vs CAR 12:00MCG
GCF vs PTA 12:00MS
SYD vs RIC 12:00SCG
NTH vs GWS 12:00ES
GEE vs MEL 12:00SS
ADE vs WCE 12:30Adelaide Oval
FRE vs WBU 14:00Domain Stadium
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AFL 2015
Overall standings
Team P W L D % Pts
Adelaide Crows 0 0 0 0 - 0
Brisbane Lions 0 0 0 0 - 0
Carlton 0 0 0 0 - 0
Collingwood 0 0 0 0 - 0
Essendon 0 0 0 0 - 0
Fremantle 0 0 0 0 - 0
Geelong Cats 0 0 0 0 - 0
Gold Coast Suns 0 0 0 0 - 0
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