The Coaching Caper

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

By Ashley Browne
AFL Record


In the ideal world, every new AFL coach would have landed his job in identical fashion.

There would be development coaching, teaching the kids and learning to coach. Throw in some line coaching and perhaps a practice match or a NAB Challenge encounter as the senior coach just to get a taste for the big chair.

At some stage, perhaps at the start or somewhere along the journey, there would be a period as standalone coach at under-18 or state league level, where with every decision made, the buck stops with you.

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Coaching pathways have become a trendy topic, as illustrated by Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson in his remarks about the difficulties faced by James Hird during the Essendon supplements scandal.

The point Clarkson tried to highlight was whether Hird might have handled things better had he not been thrust into the job at Essendon without following a traditional pathway into senior coaching.

This is a job, after all, that one senior coach told the AFL Record is five per cent coaching and 95 per cent the myriad of other duties that come with managing a staff of up to 40 full-time employees, not counting the players.

What should reassure anxious supporters of the four clubs with first-time coaches at the helm in 2014 is that their appointees have ticked most of the boxes along what is now the preferred pathway.

Alan Richardson started in suburban footy and worked his way through five AFL clubs in various capacities before becoming coach of St Kilda. Leon Cameron and Justin Leppitsch left their longtime playing homes to experience life elsewhere in order to round out their coaching education. West Coast’s Adam Simpson started down his road to becoming a senior coach before his playing days even ended.

“They’ve all had really good, thorough apprenticeships and all been in really strong programs,” AFL Coaches Association CEO Danny Frawley said. “From our point of view, they have all shown a distinct passion to become senior coaches.”

Frawley is well versed on the merits of the new AFL coaches. His role dictates that he identifies prospective coaches well before they finish playing, as he did with Simpson, who was learning at the feet of David Parkin, Leigh Matthews and coaching specialist David Wheadon while still captaining North Melbourne and before becoming the first graduate of the AFL Players’ Association’s Next Coach program.

“Adam’s playing CV was this high,” said Frawley, raising his hand to his forehead. “But when clubs saw his coaching CV, it went through the roof. He had a distinct plan to get into coaching.”

Simpson spent four years at Hawthorn coaching the midfield and then the forwards and the early signs at West Coast are that he has brought Hawthorn’s highly skilled, high-possession game-plan with him.

Frawley had identified Cameron as a future coach as far back as the early 2000s when, as coach of Richmond, he left it to the immaculately skilled defender to take care of the defensive kick-outs.

“I didn’t realise I was getting an on-field coach. He obviously had a good feel for footy,” he said of Cameron, who started as an assistant coach at the Western Bulldogs under Rodney Eade in 2005.

Frawley believes Cameron’s pathway to senior coaching is almost perfect because of his experience with the Bulldogs, Hawthorn and now the Giants.

One club was under-resourced, the second was well-resourced and high-performing while the third was just starting out, albeit with the masterful Kevin Sheedy at the helm.

Cameron and Simpson’s appointments mean the Clarkson coaching tree is firmly taking root. Damien Hardwick was the first of Clarkson’s lieutenants to win a senior job when he took over at Richmond in 2010 and the Hawthorn coach sees similar potential in his latest protégés.

“I knew all along that if they kept tracking as we expected, that they’d become senior coaches,” Clarkson said. “They have an unbelievable passion for the game and for teaching the game.

“We’re a little bit sad when they up and leave and go to other clubs, but when it’s all about being the best they can be in their chosen field, we know too well that when we get them into our club it’s not their ceiling.”

As Clarkson spawned Hardwick, Hardwick then spawned Leppitsch, a triple Lions premiership defender who coached at the club before joining Richmond. But it’s not merely a case of the prodigal son returning home.

“He’s come back a completely different person after his time at Richmond,” Frawley said.

“That will make him ideal for Brisbane because they’re on the rebuild just like the Tigers were when he got there and he walks back into the club as Justin Leppitsch the coach, not the former premiership player. He brings a completely different skill set.”

Of the four new coaches, only Richardson has experience coaching his own side. That was at East Burwood, in Melbourne’s Eastern Football League, where he landed back-to-back premierships in 1999 and 2000, followed by two years as coach of Coburg in its early days as Richmond’s VFL affiliate.

Since then he has been a development and assistant coach at the Western Bulldogs, Collingwood, Essendon and Carlton, with last year spent as Port Adelaide’s director of coaching.

“Like Ken Hinkley at Port, he’s done the hard yards, so there’s no surprise that when the Saints needed someone at the 11th hour, they looked at a guy like Alan,” Frawley said.

Richardson was not installed at St Kilda until the middle of November, which is about six weeks later than most coaches are appointed. Given that pre-season training was already underway, Richardson had to move with great haste to put his plans in place, while at the same time reflecting an aura of calm and authority at a club in a state of flux.

“Our whole game is about people,” Clarkson said. “You talk about systems and facilities and philosophies, but it’s about the people you have in your program.”

Ultimately, the win-loss ledger will determine the job security of the new coaches. The examples of Mark Neeld and Scott Watters teach us there are no guarantees of success, no matter how outstanding their body of work was in the lead-up to becoming senior coaches.

But the grounding these four new coaches bring with them should give them every chance of success.

1 WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST ‘HEY, THE BUCK STOPS WITH ME’ MOMENT?

Leon Cameron: A week into our-pre-season you have about seven assistant coaches coming to you with questions and then you realise that they are relying on you for the answers.

Alan Richardson: Just making sure I had the right people, meet the people that were there and make decisions on others we need to bring into the club.

Justin Leppitsch: Every moment the senior coach is always thinking that way, that everything is his responsibility.

Adam Simpson: Planning the first training session when the boys came back from the break.

2 HAVE YOU HAD TO DELIVER A SPRAY TO THE PLAYERS?

LC: We had a couple of sessions over summer that were sub-standard. It was interesting to look back and see whether I said the right thing to the players, but it’s funny giving that first spray.

AR: Yes.

JL: Not yet, thankfully. But I’m sure I will at some stage.

AS: I haven’t delivered a spray and it’s not the way I intend to coach. There are better ways to illustrate your point.

3 DO YOU PLAN TO WEAR A HEADSET OR TALK INTO A PHONE?

LC: I’ll be talking into a phone.

AR: I plan to wear a headset.

JL: I’ll just use the phone.

AS: Probably the phone, but I’ll try both and see what works best for me and the other coaches.

4 IS THERE A COACH/LEADER FROM OUTSIDE THAT YOU HAVE DRAWN INSPIRATION FROM OVER THE JOURNEY?

LC: Outside the AFL I have read a lot of books on Vince Lombardi (NFL coaching great).

AR: Leigh Matthews was my coach for nine years and is someone that I have stayed in contact with since I’ve been coaching.

JL: Leigh Matthews has been a mentor of mine, but also Wayne Bennett (veteran NRL coach) and Gil Reyes (former fitness coach to Andre Agassi).

AS: Aside from the senior coaches who I have learned from, I was mentored by David Wheadon at Hawthorn and have great respect for his thoughts and insight into the game.

5 FINISH THIS SENTENCE: TEAMS COACHED BY YOU WILL …

LC: Never give in.

AR: Be very hard to score against.

JL: Be competitive and consistent.

AS: Be united in everything they do and aim for consistency of performance.

Download PDF of Article from AFL Record

This article first appeared in the AFL Record - Round 1 of the 2014 Toyota AFL Premiership Season.

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