Coaching's kooky monsters
Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.
WHEN Alastair Clarkson and John Longmire first posed together with the premiership cup at a function on Tuesday night, a sudden and unexpected solemnity descended upon them. A witness swears it was because both realised in that moment that one of them must lose today, with all the implications. The happy chatter of the other guests suddenly seemed far away.
Here was the coach's lot, frozen in a moment. ''We're weirdos, coaches,'' Clarkson had said half an hour previously, addressing a roomful of peers and proteges.
Longmire, named coach of the year that night, agreed. ''It's quite a unique job,'' he said. ''There's not a minute of the day you don't think about it.''
John Kennedy, coach extraordinaire and pedant royale, uncomfortably back in the spotlight this year because of the Kennedy-versus-the-Kennedys dynamic in the grand final, doubtlessly corrected him about ''quite unique''.
This year, especially, grand final week was a carnival of coaches and their kookiness. If not talking, they were talked about; talk is a coach's metier. Two of the most legendary were further cast in immortality - Norm Smith in bronze, Ron Barassi in an eponymous play.
Slowly, a rough job description emerged. A coach needs presence. Kennedy is now 83, but when he rose to speak to the AFL Coaches Association dinner, the room fell pin-drop silent.
Damien Hardwick played in two under-19 premierships under Denis Pagan at North Melbourne, and said: ''I'm still scared of Denis today.'' Hardwick, incidentally, was speaking at one of two riotously good-humoured functions at the MCG on Monday. In a monumental historical shift, as the rest of the sports world takes itself increasingly more seriously, it is the MCC that is maintaining the irreverent balance.
A coach is a fatalist. Watching Lewis Jetta bound down ANZ Stadium last week like a dog suddenly freed from his leash, all Longmire could think was: ''I hope he doesn't bloody well fumble.''
David Parkin, inducted as a legend by the coaches' association this week, said all he ever felt at the final siren on grand final day was a ''massive sense of relief'', even if his team had won by 15 goals.
A coach must think laterally (a synonym for kooky). One Anzac Day while he was at Essendon, Hardwick remembered, Kevin Sheedy drew a wheelie bin on the whiteboard. ''Where's this going?'' he thought. Sheedy's point was that the greatest inventions are simple, and so is winning football.
Another time, he upheld Olympic taekwondo gold medallist Lauren Burns, saying that her career was a long journey, but in Sydney in 2000, she had only 2½ minutes to validate it. It was her grand final.
But Hardwick also told of how once when he was an assistant at Hawthorn, Jason Dunstall tried to straighten Lance Franklin's run-up by corralling him between poles. ''The poles kept hitting him in the head,'' he said. ''He threw away the ball and walked off.''
Dunstall never did become a coach.
A coach must be a schemer, a dreamer and a workaholic. Since it falls always to the coach to give voice to the moment, he also needs his sayings. In a recording of Frank ''Checker'' Hughes' address to Melbourne after it had won the 1948 grand final replay, he declares that the Demons prevailed over Essendon because of their greater ''sentiment''. Now, we would say ''passion''.
''It's later than you think,'' Kennedy would thunder to Longmire and Clarkson. ''Don't piss on my back and tell me it's raining,'' Pagan would declaim. Noted Hardwick: ''I still don't know what it means. But I use it on my kids.''
A coach needs a thick hide. The gentlemanly Longmire, overlooked for the 1996 grand final, damned Pagan in language that he said was ''not quite appropriate''. ''I might hear some of it this week,'' he added.
A coach must be able to get his message across, said Barassi, to improvise in a crisis and to think ahead of the game.
Kennedy, having summarily handed reigning premier Hawthorn over to Parkin one pre-season morning in 1977, noticed witches hats at training the next week, and that Parkin was talking to players individually.
It was not that Kennedy was mindless. It was simply that contemporary theory was that to function as a team, everyone had to work identically. Parkin's idea was to function as a team, each part had to be maximised in its own way. By 1995, before the term ''leadership group'' was coined, Parkin said Carlton coached itself to the flag.
Above all, a great coach will be impassioned. Sculptor Lis Johnson, not seeing in fading pictures of Norm Smith the fervour of which she read, added a few artful furrows to his brow. Addressing his confraternity, Parkin began sedately but soon his voice rose, his eyes blazed, his hands began to fly about and the ardour in him so overflowed that veterans began to look out for what was once - when someone had to lose every week - the game's most alarming pulsating jugular vein. The undying coach in him escaped.
He was only saying thank-you.