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Coaching trees are a part of American parlance that have crept into Australian sport, and none more so than the indigenous game of Australian rules footy.
The NFL, for all its history and grandeur, was only inaugurated in 1966 when the precursor league merged with a rival league, coincidentally called the AFL, to form a dual-conference national league that has undergone significant expansion yet remains largely intact today.
As with many aspects, the derivative Australian Football League has borrowed, imitated, innovated and even brought intellectual property from their American counterparts, with the draft, free agency, trades and all manner of contract law relating to player management.
Yet it has possibly been our coaches who have studied their American counterparts the most closely, looking for any advantage that can get the most out of their players and mimicking the off-field administrative set-ups that feature general managers and line coaches, which were terms unknown to the AFL in years past.
(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)
The best NFL coaching trees are like Christmas trees, shining with Super Bowl rings and Lombardi Trophies.
Bill Walsh did not become a head coach until he was 47, but his legacy was winning three Super Bowls, passing the baton to his assistant, George Seifert, who won another pair of rings for the 49ers. In just ten years as head coach, Walsh had six assistants who went on to either win a Super Bowl or groom an assistant who went on to win titles.
But Walsh also came up through famous coaching trees himself, including Paul Brown, founder of the Cincinnati Bengals, whose roots came from Brown’s sacking from Ohio’s other team, the Cleveland Browns (yes, NFL nomenclature is confusing).
Legendary coach Bill Belichick comes from the Bill Parcells tree (NFL has a lot of Bills), who he spent 12 years under at the double title winning New York Giants before moving into head coaching at the Cleveland Browns where he defeated his former mentor in a playoff game.
And in one of the most tumultuous weeks in NFL history, he was made redundant as the Browns had their franchise moved to Baltimore after being told he would be the inaugural Ravens coach. But he’s since won six Super Bowls and proven all doubters wrong.
So how does the AFL compare? Which of our coaches has had such an effect on the game in the modern era and where did they get their coaching philosophies?
(Photo by Graham Denholm/AFL Photos via Getty Images)
Undoubtedly, we can look at Damien Hardwick and Alastair Clarkson as dynastic coaches, the latter of whom has even produced AFL coaches. In fact, Hardwick is a disciple of Clarkson himself, yet both had influences from Mark Williams at Port, who is the son of the SANFL’s most successful coach in history, Fos Williams.
Leigh Matthews achieved the task of winning four premierships as coach of Collingwood and Brisbane, while Mick Malthouse coached four clubs, winning flags at two of them. However, it is both their legacy and history that tells an equally fascinating tale of where they got their AFL credentials from and how they passed them on.
Even Matthews will tell you that it was Kevin Sheedy’s four flags that were the real achievement given the eras were so far apart, so it shouldn’t surprise that the Sheedy coaching tree is already significant and his own mentors were some of the giants of the VFL.
So where do Chris Fagan and David Noble fit into all this? Both are Tasmanians, neither were successful in top-flight footy as players, yet as Bill Walsh showed in the ’80s, age is no barrier to coaching success and it would not surprise if both of those fellows had copies of Walsh’s numerous books on their shelves.
Such a rich vein of history deserves proper treatment and could never fit into a single article. This offering is mainly intended to gauge interest, mine for ideas and build up some enthusiasm for future articles that go much further into each coaching tree history.