Rugby League

The Coach: Ron Barassi’s former players speak about the man behind the legend

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There will be a new addition to the premiership coaches club in a fortnight.

Each of the four owes a significant debt of gratitude to Ron Barassi, who died on Saturday aged 87.

Barassi lived the first three seasons with Norm Smith, the greatest coach in Melbourne’s history, if not the league’s, and played his 204 matches at the Demons under him.

Coaching from the grandstand was a Barassi innovationCredit: The Age

He learned well and taught even better to become the coach above all coaches, the Australian Rules football icon who won six flags as a player at Melbourne, and four as a coach at Carlton then North Melbourne.

Barassi, the colourful orator with the tactical nous, stepped into colour television in the ’70s with flair and flares and created teams with larrikins and lairs that won flags.

From Brent Crosswell to Mick Nolan, to Bruce Doull to Sam Kekovich, to Robert Walls to Malcolm Blight, the coach – who was immortalised in The Coach, John Power’s seminal book on North Melbourne’s march to a flag under Barassi in 1977 – made them into premiership players.

Walls had played in two premierships at Carlton under Barassi before he had even turned 21 and loved the man.

“You were on your toes all the time…he had your attention and he could give you a fearsome blast, but he was always honest and fair,” Walls said.

Wayne Schimmelbusch, a North Melbourne champion who played in the club’s first two flags in 1975 and 1977, once said it was Barassi’s attention to detail that stood out to him as a coach.

“They would call them one-percenters now,” he said.

Ron Barassi consoles Mick Nolan after losing the premiership to Hawthorn in 1978.Credit: Archives

That attention to detail didn’t always extend to worrying about whether he hurt a player’s feelings too much. After the Kangaroos’ 1977 qualifying loss he famously accused his forwards on television the following day as “waltzing around like a lot of prima donnas” and said they were “a disgrace to the club”.

North Melbourne won the flag less than a month later.

“He never sugarcoated things, but that was in the days they did not do that,” Walls said.

To paint Barassi as a fire and brimstone coach, however, is as misleading as to describe his playing style as all-brawn. He was as tactically brave and innovative as a coach as he was skilful as a player.

He told Power in The Coach that “Practice makes perfect is bullshit. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

The handball, handball, handball mantra delivered at half-time of the 1970 grand final when the team was 44 points behind Collingwood ran in parallel with the hard decision to replace Bert Thornley with Ted Hopkins at half-time in that game.

“You were on your toes all the time…he had your attention and he could give you a fearsome blast, but he was always honest and fair”

Hopkins kicked four goals, the Blues finished the game with 40 handballs (Geelong had 142 handballs in the 2022 grand final).

The Carlton flag in 1968 was the Blues’ first since 1947. The 1975 North Melbourne flag was the club’s first. Both teams won another one two years later. Melbourne and Sydney did not experience finals success, but soon after he left they did.

Barassi’s recipe for transforming clubs became clear in The Coach too.

“Any club worth its salt will clean out its no-hopers … you’ve got to weed out people who breed an atmosphere of non-professionalism. They’re there for the bloody joke, for the social life, for the prestige. They are not there to win,” he said.

The premiership teams Barassi coached were never minor premiers but timed their run to perfection.

He growled and grumped, but then moved people with a disarming grin, operating as coach with professionalism in a non-professional era. He gave media a glimpse inside the club’s four walls and still won. He said, when induced into the Australian Football Hall of Fame, he was never scared to try untried things.

As he grew older his wisdom shone through as he was the first to coach from the grandstand, to recruit Irish players, to ease congestion with a centre square, to call for four goal umpires, to take the game overseas.

“As the years went by ‘Barass’ mellowed, and he saw the big picture with things and he was just a genuinely good person,” Walls said.

“Everyone was in awe of him, but he was never a big-noter, he was never full of himself. People felt good in his company”.

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