THIS is a story about coaching - what it takes to be the best, how it feels to get sacked or to wield the axe yourself, why a man would ignore the scars and put his head on the block again, and again. In seeking a member of the fraternity to present the Jock McHale Medal to the sole successful coach of 2012, the AFL chose well.
Every time he goes against his better judgment and agrees to do a footy club ''speaky'', his introduction reminds Tony Jewell who he is: Richmond's last premiership coach. He insists he fell into the job in the first place with no great ambition, and went back for strikes two and three for the wrong reasons.
He knows the euphoria, the ache of loss, the bitterness of being cast out, the addiction that draws you back. As a director, he has sacked coaches as many times as he was knifed himself. This is simply the game. Above all, Jewell knows how primitive football once was, and how it was a coach who changed the landscape from black-and-white to glorious colour.
His first, as an 11-year-old playing Caulfield under-15s, was Carlton's legendary goalkicker ''Soapy'' Vallence. He saw him kick five in his last game, ''aged about 53, with shorts down to his knees and a pyjama cord holding them up''. Training consisted of watching Vallence slot goals from all angles. ''I was fascinated.''
At 15, he was playing seniors under Bill ''Polly'' Perkins, a Richmond premiership player of the Jack Dyer era. Wide-eyed, he waited for the coach to dispense words of football wisdom. ''[But] there was no instruction, it was all about guts and determination.''
At 16, he crossed to Oakleigh and played under Alby Pannam, Collingwood great, uncle of Lou Richards, and a coach who inspired his players by punching raw meat hung around the change rooms, splattering the walls with blood. ''I didn't learn much about football off Alby, either.''
One day, in a moment of self-preservation, Jewell pulled out of a contest. Pannam went through him. ''How could you let the jumper down?'' he roared. Jewell looked down, saw ''this horrible purple jumper with holes in it …''
Picked up by Richmond, a light came on in his football world. On his Dandenong office desk sits a dog-eared folder containing 37 faded, typewritten pages. On the front in small block capitals is written ''LEN SMITH'S COACHING NOTES''. ''This is the Holy Grail of coaching,'' says Jewell.
While Smith's more celebrated brother Norm was winning premierships at Melbourne, Len was coaching paupers Fitzroy and, when Jewell arrived at Punt Road in 1964, Richmond. He wrote down his gospel of the game while convalescing after a heart attack; someone typed up the notes, and Jewell treasures them as the original game-changer.
''Tommy [Hafey], Allan Jeans, [John] Kennedy, it flowed through Leigh Matthews, down to the Scott brothers today - all his views, the simple science of the game, it all came from Len,'' he says, noting that Mick Malthouse teams play Smith's ''kite fashion'' of attack - from defence to boundary wing, then heading for goal.
Jewell recalls Smith taking his Tigers to the MCG to watch a Melbourne game, each armed with a notebook, and telling them to mark down how many marking contests there were in a quarter. Next quarter, how many of those featured actual marks being taken. And then, ''where did the ball fall?'' and ''what happened when it fell?''
''He was the first who could tell you the story of a game through stats,'' Jewell says. Those numbers arrived at a bottom line: if every player's first thought on taking possession was to handball, and his mates knew this and ran to offer support, the opposition would be ground to a standstill.
Smith died young, Hafey stepped in and added fitness, aggression and tackling to the blueprint, and in 1967 Richmond fielded one of the greatest premiership teams of all time. It is no coincidence that seven of that 20 - Francis Bourke, John Northey, Barry Richardson, Royce Hart, Mike Patterson, Kevin Bartlett and Jewell - went on to coach.
And, of course, to be sacked coaches.
Jewell left the Tigers at 26, recently married and needing the money, to coach a bunch of misfit mates at Caulfield. He returned in charge of Richmond reserves, and saw the Smith doctrine at work, where the seniors, seconds and under 19s all sang from the same hymn sheet. ''You could pluck a bloke from any grade and they fitted in.''
Out of a reserves flag came the senior job, then the 1980 flag, and a year later his first sacking.
''It took the wind out of my sails, I lost my appetite for it,'' Jewell says, recalling being summoned to a dawn meeting and sniffing the breeze. ''There's only one reason a club calls a 6am meeting.''
Sensing that St Kilda was about to pull the trigger on him in 1984, he phoned a journalist and told him he was quitting at season's end. Lindsay Fox was waiting for him at training, ''to tell me I wasn't staying that long after all''. A second stint at Richmond coincided with the club in near-terminal decline.
Why go back for more? ''Mainly because you're asked. It's the bloody ego really,'' he says. ''And it is a drug.''
As a board member and director of football, the boot was on the other foot. Robert Walls' dismissal was tough (''I was a big Wallsy fan''); Jeff Gieschen and Danny Frawley followed.
Brett Ratten's demise brought it all back. ''It's such a public hanging, it's shocking.''
Son Nick, a one-game Tiger and 10-year Victorian cricketer, knows the lure of the caper too, his summers filled with coaching Premier club Frankston Peninsula, while he has just finished a stint as playing-coach of Heatherton in the Southern footy league.
''He bounces things off me, and he's serious about it - he's not a lunatic like I was,'' Jewell says.
He loves the game as much as ever, can't abide ''when we were kings'' talk, and feels fortunate to have such fond football memories. Coaching, he says, is the biggest improvement in the game. ''But the good sides are still simple sides. You can still see Len Smith.''