Essendon’s appointment of former champion James Hird as its next senior coach has been accompanied by the inevitable chorus that ‘great players don’t make great coaches’. It’s a cliché almost as old as ‘the prodigal son returns’ but does it really ring true?
Sporting history is littered with those whose genius on the field hasn’t quite been matched by a tactical nous off it, but it’s a fallacy that brilliant players never become top coaches. One needs look only as far back as Leigh Matthews, the AFL’s Player of the Century.
‘Lethal’ played for 16 years with Hawthorn for 332 games, 915 goals and five premierships, breaking records, point posts and Neville Bruns’ jaw. Matthews went to Collingwood as an assistant coach after his 1985 retirement, but just three games into the ’86 season was elevated to the top job. After a coaching career that included the Pies’ only (for a few days, at least) premiership since 1958 and later the amazing threepeat with the Brisbane Lions, he stands as the shining example of a legendary player made good in the coach’s box.
His feats marginally outstrip those of Malcolm Blight, the 1978 Brownlow Medallist and two-time premiership player. Even more naturally talented than Matthews, Blight has a memorable moments reel including an 80-metre matchwinning goal and running into an open… point (both brilliantly parodied in one of the Toyota ads). He had a short-lived stint as playing coach of the Kangarooos in 1981 before going on to coach Geelong from 1989-94 and Adelaide from 1997-99. The Blight-era Cats were wrongly seen as chokers, losing three grand finals to superior teams, while his performance in leading the Crows to back-to-back flags (the first coming a year after finishing 12th), ensured his legacy would remain relatively undamaged by the St Kilda debacle of 2001.
Blight was often on the receiving end of a spray from another legend of the game: Ron Barassi. A six-time premiership player with Melbourne, Barassi went to Carlton as captain coach, and after his playing days finished led the Blues to two flags before mentoring Blight and the Roos to another two, and setting the foundations for Sydney’s Grand Final appearance in the 90s.
Certainly these are three of the finest, but for every Barassi there are at least five like Peter Knights. The Hawthorn high-flier was the Brisbane Bears’ inaugural coach in 1987, admittedly far from the easiest of gigs, and won just 17 of 59 matches. He returned to the Hawks and oversaw the decline of the great team of that era.
Then there’s Polly Farmer, who revolutionised the game and led Geelong to the 1963 premiership, but won 24 of 66 matches as the Cats’ coach in the 70s. More recently, there was Tim Watson, the Essendon genius who won 12 of 44 as Blight’s predecessor at St Kilda.
It’s hardly a phenomenon unique to AFL. One needs only look at the Argentine team led by Diego Maradona at the most recent World Cup. Maradona the player is widely acknowledged as one of the two greatest of all time, lifting the World Cup in 1986 and dazzling crowds throughout the ‘80s in European football. As a coach, erratic and often bizarre decision-making saw Argentina almost fail to qualify for the tournament, and while coasting through the group stages, La Albiceleste was crushed by a tactically superior Germany in the quarter-finals.
Basketball fans will be familiar with the brilliance of the Detroit Pistons’ Isiah Thomas in the ’80s and ’90s, who as point guard for the ‘Bad Boys’ took home the 1989 and 1990 NBA Championships. They will be equally familiar with his tenures as coach of first the Indiana Pacers and then the New York Knicks in the 2000s. ‘Zeke’ did take the talented Pacers to the playoffs but oversaw early exits, while his time on the Knicks bench was surpassed in its ineptitude only by his performance in the front office. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Thomas could be the worst professional coach of all time.
And the list goes on and on. Perhaps the question however should not be whether star players make great coaches, but which qualities the star player must have in order to succeed on the bench.
Think of some of the most revered coaches in recent memory: Kevin Sheedy, Mick Malthouse or more recently, Paul Roos. All were defenders, but yet Matthews and Blight were not. What they possessed, however, was a quality that all good defenders must have: an ability to read the play. It’s one thing to fool a defender with unpredictable movement or freakish skills, it’s another to evade an opponent to create space when there is none.
This was something Hird always did as a player. So often he seemed to have more time than met the eye. As courageous and skilful as he was, Hird’s ability to see what was coming – with the exception of Mark McVeigh’s knee – was second to none.
Where Matthews, Blight and Barassi also excelled was in the man-management of those less talented than they had been. While the ‘hairdryer treatment’ of Barassi back in his North Melbourne days may no longer be a successful strategy with the modern footballer, there is no doubt it was effective then. The proof is in the premierships.
This could be where Hird sinks or swims. He was the captain of the greatest single-season team of all time, but Sheedy was always the dominant figure of that leadership. Nonetheless, as Sheedy’s on-field lieutenant – and, it should be added, often an injured quasi-assistant in the box – he has prior experience.
This is why so many have said that if anyone can succeed as a rookie coach, Hird can. Now all it comes down to are support staff, recruiting policy, tactical nous and luck; in other words: the things that, regardless of their quality as players, determine the success or failure of all coaches.
NOTABLE SUCCESSES AND FAILURES IN OTHER SPORTS:
Johan Cruyff – Possibly the only player that could challenge Pele and Maradona as the greatest ever football (soccer) player, Cruyff was the centrepiece of the Dutch ‘Total Football’ unit that did all but win a World Cup in the 1970s. Voted European Player of the century, Cruyff won ten league titles and three European Cups among many, many other honours and would go on to pile up the trophies as a manager also.
Jimmy Connors – An Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open champion, Connors was world number one for 160 weeks in the 1970s. In 2006 Andy Roddick appointed him as coach but the partnership lasted less than two years, Roddick unable to reach a grand slam final and remaining in the lower half of the top ten.
Tony Roche – Although he only won one Grand Slam singles crown – the 1966 French Open – Roche won another fifteen in doubles – twelve in men’s alongside John Newcombe – in an era where doubles was more prominent. This partnership was a huge part of Australia’s Davis Cup dominance in the ’60s. He has since captained the Australian team (a position more coach-like) to the 1999 Davis Cup crown, and become a prominent coach, mentoring Ivan Lendl, Pat Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer, among others.
Wayne Gretzky – Nicknamed ‘The Great One’, Gretzky is universally recognised as the finest ever to skate onto an ice hockey rink. His achievements – too numerous to list – resulted in his number 99 being retired by every team in the NHL. His five-year stint as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, however, saw him miss the playoffs every year and replaced after the team fell into bankruptcy.
Larry Bird – Another considered among the greatest ever players of his sport, Bird was a three-time NBA champion, three-time Most Valuable Player and 12-time all-star with the Boston Celtics. His battles with the Lakers’ Magic Johnson in the ’80s were a precursor to the spectacle that was Michael Jordan. In the late ’90s, Bird joined the Indiana Pacers as head coach. Running into Jordan in his final days with the Bulls, and then Shaquille O’Neal at his dominant best, Bird never won an NBA Championship as coach but remains the only man to have won both the MVP and Coach of the Year awards. His resignation ushered in the disastrous Isiah Thomas era.
Ian Botham – OK, so he wasn’t actually coach but in cricket, a game where the tactics fall squarely upon the on-field leader, Botham’s leadership was appalling. He didn’t win a single test match of the 12 in which he was in charge, resigning (effectively sacked) after two matches of the 1981 Ashes series. Relieved of the captaincy burden, he famously turned the series around as England won what is now known as ‘Botham’s Ashes’.