Tom Hafey, a coach to last a lifetime

It's been 26 years since Tom Hafey last coached at the elite level, even before the VFL became the AFL, meaning scores of football fans can rely only on the history books to form an impression of one of the coaching caper's true legends.

But they can find plenty of footage of his sides in action. They will see that Hafey's teams consistently played with passion and commitment, as big a tribute as any to the effectiveness of a coach.

His message was simple but universal. And a record comparable with the very best coaches the game has seen is proof it worked.

Today's coaching is light years away from the environment in which Hafey coached 522 league games, the fifth-most of any man, including 42 finals (fourth-most), 10 grand finals (including a draw) and four premierships.

Hafey didn't need the help of a score of assistants. A lifelong fitness fanatic, he knew what was required. He was famously dismissive of sports science and didn't believe a psychologist could impart anything to his players that his own homespun philosophies couldn't.

But one figure says it all. A winning percentage of 64.75, behind only Jock McHale, Dick Reynolds and Frank ''Checker'' Hughes of the near 20 men who have coached 300 or more games.

At Richmond, Hafey shaped a team bristling with talent and aggression, as intimidating in the clinches as it was on the scoreboard. At Collingwood, he took four teams to the grand final, at least three of which, in terms of talent, had little right to be there.

At Geelong, he oversaw the lifeline extended to a wayward young former Hawthorn player called Ablett, along with a bloke called Williams, lured back from the country after being sent packing on his first attempt in the VFL.

In Sydney, surrounded by high-priced imports such as the same Williams, Gerard Healy, Merv Neagle, Bernard Toohey and Jim Edmond, Hafey managed to subvert any professional jealousy to have the Swans finish second then third on the ladder.

His tactics were rudimentary, in essence numbers to the ball and long, quick delivery to the key forwards. But Hafey's players continued to go and go again for him. Indeed, still there for him at the age of 82 and in his final days.

In some cases, nearly 50 years after they had last taken direction from him on the field. Can there be any more conclusive proof that Hafey the coach was a man whose message struck a chord?

The story Tom Hafey, a coach to last a lifetime first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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