From Clarko to Goodwin, the turning point for AFL coaches

Hawthorn coach Alistair Clarkson stands with a beaming smile, singing, with his arm around the shoulder of one of his players.

There is conventional wisdom for AFL players that once they hit 50 games their trajectory goes up, as they accumulate the experience to react to most football scenarios.

But what about AFL coaches? Does the graph look the same? Where is the point of a career where things accelerate for coaches?

Interviewed on AFL 360 last week, Stuart Dew — in his fifth season at the Gold Coast — spoke about the connection, the experience gained and the synergy between players who are hitting the 50-60-70 game mark.

Then Dew — currently on 93 games coached and out of contract at season’s end — was asked if he was confident he would get a renewal of his tenure at Carrara.

He replied that he was: “I feel … I’m a bit like the players, I’m getting towards that 80 to 100 game mark. I feel really comfortable in my own skin.”

But is he right? What is the turning point?

If we look at coaches from the recent past and present, can we make some predictions based on the first 50 games, games 80 to 100 or a different key period?

The classic path: Clarkson, Worsfold, Roos … Cameron

Hawthorn coach Alistair Clarkson stands with a beaming smile, singing, with his arm around the shoulder of one of his players.
Alastair Clarkson is one of the great modern coaches — but it took time for the Hawks mentor to hit his stride, wins-wise.(Getty Images: Mark Dadswell)

Alastair Clarkson is seen as the best coach of his generation and one of the best of all time, through his work at Hawthorn.

He won four flags, including a stunning grand final upset of the all-conquering Geelong in 2008 to kickstart his career. But his first 50 games were nothing huge — Clarkson won just 18 games in his first 50.

If you look at John Worsfold at West Coast, and Paul Roos at Sydney, there is a similar trajectory — even if they took over teams at different stages of the cycle.

Worsfold would win one premiership at West Coast after two as a player. He took over in 2002 with the Eagles coming off a five-win season.

He had a strong start, with 25 wins from his first 50 games and taking West Coast to finals in each of his first six seasons, including two grand finals.

Roos came in as Sydney’s caretaker coach following Rodney Eade’s resignation after round 12, 2002.

It was a Swans team six years removed from a grand final. Re-energised by the new coach, Sydney won 30 of Roos’s first 50 games, including a prelim final in his first full season.

Roos then won 20 of his next 30 games, leading to a grand final win.

Taking Clarkson, Worsfold and Roos as a trio, all three had 11 wins between games 51 and 69, and two had 10 wins, one loss from games 70 to 80 (Roos had nine).

The real turning point for these three came in this 11-game stretch — by game 80, all three were on their way to a first grand final (Clarkson game 93, Worsfold game 94, Roos game 84).

The other name to mention is someone in a very different space, who inherited a third-year expansion team — Leon Cameron at GWS.

Cameron’s Giants struggled early, with eight and six-game losing streaks in year one, 2014. After that, however, his longest run of losses in his first 100 games was three — between rounds 11 and 14, 2015.

Cameron won 21 of his first 50 games but, as the accumulated draft talent of the Giants began to mature, he hit his acceleration point earlier. He won 13 of his next 19 — better than Clarkson, Worsfold and Roos — then had 9 wins out of 11 from 70-80.

Giants coach Leon Cameron looks relaxed as he stands in the rooms with his players after a finals win.Giants coach Leon Cameron looks relaxed as he stands in the rooms with his players after a finals win.
Leon Cameron moulded a talented GWS squad into a winning team, earning his first finals win over the Swans in game 67.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Michael Willson)

Two prelims and a grand final resulted (in games 68, 93 and 143 respectively). Cameron would not win a flag with GWS, but he was in his 10th season when he left the club earlier this month.

One step forward, two back: Buckley, Hinkley, Pyke, Goodwin

There are other coaches who step into situations that are more solid, or have a fast start — only to then go backwards.

Nathan Buckley looks on at the 2018 premiership cup in the foreground with West Coast coloured ribbonsNathan Buckley looks on at the 2018 premiership cup in the foreground with West Coast coloured ribbons
Nathan Buckley reached a prelim in game 25 for Collingwood — but it took him another 137 games to get the Pies to a grand final.(Getty Images: Scott Barbour)

Nathan Buckley took over a premiership side in Collingwood from Mick Malthouse. He picked up 16 wins in his first home and away season, on the way to a prelim final.

The following season, the Pies lost in an elimination final and after 50 games, Buckley had 32 wins under his belt.

However, Collingwood missed finals in his third, fourth, fifth and sixth years as the pressure grew for the Pies’ favourite son.

Year seven was make or break and Collingwood made it, winning 15 games to finish top four, before reaching a grand final in Buckley’s game 162.

Ken Hinkley didn’t have a premiership side handed to him, but he made a great start at Alberton — he won 29 of his first 50, getting the Power to a prelim in year two. From there, he matched the likes of Clarkson, Roos and Worsfold with 11 wins between games 51 and 69, but then he just about broke even between 70 and 100.

A series of missed finals and eliminations followed until Hinkley and Port Adelaide got back to a prelim in his eighth year at the club.

On the other side of Adelaide, Don Pyke made a very fast start at the Crows, going 16-6 in his first season as his team made a semifinal. He backed up with a grand final (game 49), although the Crows hit a dead end against the Tigers.

After winning 34 of his first 50 games, Pyke and Adelaide missed finals in the next two seasons — the coach won five of his last 13 games before leaving the club at the end of 2019.

Then there’s Narrm’s Simon Goodwin, who had a strong first 50 games for the Demons, winning 28.

In game 48, Goodwin’s team was smashed by the Eagles in a prelim. The Demons coach then won five of his next 19 games, before just five victories from games 70-80.

However, the club’s board held firm and the key for Goodwin came between games 81-100 — he and the Demons won 15 of those 20 matches to set the team on the way to a first grand final and a drought-breaking flag in the coach’s game 112.

Clarko’s crew: Hardwick, Simpson, Beveridge and more

One of the biggest groups of senior coaches in the current cohort is made up of former assistant coaches under Alastair Clarkson.

Damien Hardwick claps his players in encouragement after the conclusion of the national anthemDamien Hardwick claps his players in encouragement after the conclusion of the national anthem
Alastair Clarkson protege Damien Hardwick won his first grand final with Richmond in game 182. (Getty Images: AFL Media/Ryan Pierse)

We’ve already covered Cameron, but aside from him, there are a number of proteges of Clarkson who made grand finals — and won them.

If Dew is looking for inspiration, he could do far worse than looking at Hardwick, who was an assistant coach under Clarkson when Dew and the Hawks won the flag in 2008.

Hardwick went on to coach the Tigers, but he had a slow start, winning 16 and drawing 1 of his first 50 games. He won 11 games from 51-69, but only 6 of the games from 70-80.

What Hardwick did have was finals — his Tigers made and lost elimination finals in years four, five and six — but then the Tigers missed out on the eight in 2016, and the drums were beating, suggesting his time might be up.

Richmond kept the faith and they were immediately repaid as the Tigers rolled to a grand final and a first flag in 37 years — in Hardwick’s 182nd game for the club.

Adam Simpson took over from Worsfold at West Coast in 2013 and he took them to a grand final by game 47.

The loss to the rampant Hawks didn’t stall the momentum, as Simpson won 14 times between games 51 and 69 and another 17 times between 70 and 100. His West Coast side made two elimination finals before breaking through for a flag in 2018, beating Collingwood in Simpson’s game 118.

Luke Beveridge made a big start with 34 wins from his first 50. By game 49, he had lifted the premiership cup with the Bulldogs.

Chris Fagan started slowly, with the Brisbane Lions at the lower end of the ladder. He won 14 of his first 50, but built steadily — he won 12 of his next 19, nine more between games 70 and 80, and then showed it was no fluke as Brisbane won 15 of 20 up to his game 100.

Not all of Clarkson’s assistants would make it, however. Brendan Bolton lasted 82 games at Carlton, winning just 21.

The latest two are just starting out — Sam Mitchell at Hawthorn and Craig McRae at Collingwood — but the early results are promising.

The current crop: Dew, Nicks, Longmuir, Noble and Rutten

For Dew, it has not been a smooth run. The Suns are in their 12th season in the AFL and are yet to make finals.

An AFL coach looks around his group of players speaking at quarter time, as the players look at a board.An AFL coach looks around his group of players speaking at quarter time, as the players look at a board.
Season five is key for Stuart Dew at Gold Coast — and things are improving with wins over Carlton, Sydney and Fremantle. (Getty Images: AFL Photos/Russell Freeman)

Dew took over in 2018 and has already had to preside over a big rebuild, after the departure of key position players Tom Lynch and Steven May before the 2019 season.

The Suns won just 10 of Dew’s first 50 games as coach. He then won 5 and drew 1 of his next 19, before winning 3 from games 70 to 80.

This season shapes as pivotal and wins over Carlton, Sydney and Fremantle have given hints Gold Coast may be turning a corner.

Game 93 was a close loss to the Western Bulldogs in Ballarat, but the last seven games of his first 100 — which include a series of winnable contests — will go a long way to making a call on Dew’s time at the Suns.

Dew is the most senior of the newer crop of coaches in the AFL amid a string of changes by clubs in the last two to three years.

Of the group of coaches in the 10-50 game bracket, the jury is still out about most of them long-term, although Justin Longmuir’s success with Fremantle this season strongly suggests that he is here to stay, while Ben Rutten at Essendon is coming under increasing heat amid his side’s poor 2022.

The takeaway

The time allowed for coaches to prove themselves differs from case to case, depending on a number of factors including ladder progression, the patience of the board and who might be out there as a replacement.

The presence of Clarkson — who has been recharging his batteries post-Hawthorn, picking up intel from the NBA’s Golden State Warriors in the US and is now home deflecting questions about his coaching future — is an intriguing and potentially destabilising factor in any number of clubs’ set-ups.

The figures suggest that for many, the 50-game mark is not sufficient to run the rule over a coach — and that it’s the 70-80 or even 80-100 games that are better points for judgement.

Whether they all get that amount of time is quite another matter.



Author: Ivan Robinson