WHAT is the key to longevity as a coach in sport?
There is resilience – managing the highs and the lows in an increasingly high-pressure role at any level and any code.
There is adaptation – evolving coaching methods as games, technology and sports science changes.
But it generally always comes back to the person, the fundamental character of the coach.
Coaching longevity is a question North Ballarat Roosters head coach Gerard FitzGerald has reflected on deeper than he ever thought he would in the past three weeks as he prepared to equal the VFL/VFA coaching record, did extensive media work in the bye round and then prepared for the game that would break a league record that has stood for 55 years.
The answer to longevity became clearer for FitzGerald in conversations with rival coaches Gary Ayres (Port Melbourne) and Andy Collins (Williamstown), both Hawthorn premiership players and both long-time friends FitzGerald has made through the game.
“It was lovely hearing them reflect on their great relationship with their old coach Allan Jeans and also what I have read and heard this week in tribute about Tom Hafey. It make me think about what makes a coach survive a long time,” FitzGerald said.
“They didn’t say too much about them as football people but what they spent ages talking about was them as people.”
Widespread media attention and interest across the state in FitzGerald and his personal coaching journey highlighted just how respected he is in the game, the Victorian Football League and wider Ballarat community.
FitzGerald said the personal phone calls he had taken leading into his record-breaking game had been enormously humbling, dating right back to those he worked alongside at the start of his coaching career in 1981.
Football, for FitzGerald, is fundamentally about people.
Many who have worked alongside him at varying stages are still working with him today.
FitzGerald researched the legendary Bill Faul before levelling Faul’s coaching record and spoke at length with Faul’s son John about the legend as a father and a man.
Indeed, John Faul will be a special guest at FitzGerald’s pre-game tribute luncheon as a sign of respect to the past and the record Faul had set.
Ask FitzGerald about Frankston coach Simon Goosey, who will coach against him in the milestone game, and FitzGerald speaks fondly of the deep understanding and respect Goosey has for the Frankston Football Club and community and the collegiate nature of Goosey’s coaching style.
Most notably, FitzGerald makes a point to know each of his players, understand their lives outside the game, and help his players become more well-rounded people.
FitzGerald says coaches have a responsibility to those they lead to act as a mentor in off-field development.
On the eve of FitzGerald’s 300th VFL game last June, it was this relationship with the coach that Roosters’ captains Shaune Moloney, Marc Greig and Michael Searl were each quick to note first when speaking about their coach.
FitzGerald is best known for his trademark handshake.
The most telling sight in the Roosters’ last outing, however, was the huge, spontaneous embrace he made on-field before the game with rival coach Chris Maple, his former protege at North Ballarat Rebels, making his first homecoming as a VFL head coach with Footscray. It was the same day FitzGerald levelled Faul’s record.
This week, FitzGerald told The Courier that as a state level coach, he approached his role to promote and develop football and coaches across the region.
The Roosters’ coaches box has always been open to the ‘coaching experience’ on game day for regional coaches, an initiative North Ballarat Rebels also mirror in the TAC Cup under-18s.
More often, it is FitzGerald’s unnoticed work and the behind-the-scenes phone calls that coaches such as Ballarat Football League interleague coach Shane Skontra say is invaluable.
FitzGerald makes no secret that he always strives for feedback and is keen to learn from those about him too, like North Melbourne head coach Brad Scott and his own staff, to stay abreast with new trends, technology and features in the game.
Longevity is not about smooth sailing. FitzGerald is a three-time VFL premiership coach – going back-to-back-to-back, the game plan evolving each year. He has also lost three VFL grand finals and has experienced the heartbreak of sackings from a coaching post.
Resilience, he says, is an important lesson in life, something he teaches to his players, and can be a key to longevity.
But good relationship are vital. Trust in the people around him and respect for those he has met along the way has enabled FitzGerald to evolve his methods for the game.
Ultimately, FitzGerald’s longevity in the game comes back to his keen and genuine interest in people.
VFL games coached: 313
North Ballarat Roosters: 1997-2000; 2007- (2008-10 VFL premierships; grand finalist 1999-2000)
Port Melbourne: 2004 (grand finalist)
Other clubs coached include Sea Lake, Mortlake, Camperdown and North Ballarat Rebels (TAC Cup under-18s)