Vale Ron Barassi, the man who ruled Australian rules

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Ronald Dale Barassi was the most recognised figure in Australian rules football for much of his adult life and one can make a cogent case that, aside from the game’s founders, he was also the most influential person in the code’s history.

Consider first, the prosaic facts of Barassi’s astonishing record: 10 premierships in the VFL, six as a Melbourne champion over 204 games and then a further four as coach of Carlton (two) and then North Melbourne (two). He made his prodigal return to Melbourne, which foundered despite his vaunted “five-year plan” and then did a service to the code by taking on a troubled Sydney for 59 games in the mid-1990s.

Footballing legend, former Melbourne champion, Carlton captain-coach, North Melbourne coach, and Sydney coach and board member Ron Barassi outside the MCG in 2009.Credit: John Donegan

His decision to leave Melbourne, where his late father Ron Barassi snr (who had died in the war) had played, to join and reinvent a then downtrodden Carlton as playing coach was possibly the most seismic defection the game has seen; certainly, it exceeded Buddy Franklin’s or Tony Lockett’s move to Sydney in cultural impact – as thousands of kids tore the famed No.31 from their red and blue jumpers.

That Barassi left Melbourne arguably spelled a transfer of power from Melbourne, (premier in 1964), to the Blues; it coincided with his mentor (who became a surrogate father to young Ron), Norm Smith’s contentious exit from the Demons and, judged on the ensuing decades, Melbourne needed half a century to recover.

He revived Carlton, to the point that the Blues became the competition powerhouse – his legacy, as his old teammate and player, the ex-Carlton boss and AFL’s football chief Ian Collins said, “stretched on for years” – as he handed the coaching baton to John Nicholls, who promptly won a flag in 1972 with many of the players Barassi had guided to flags in 1968 and 1970.

Barassi’s impact on North Melbourne was equally profound. Famously signed on a napkin at a hotel by North powerbrokers Allen Aylett and Albert Mantello, Barassi coached the Kangaroos to their first premiership in the premier competition in 1975, coached North to a second flag in 1977 following the drawn grand final – the first televised live – when the Roos beat Collingwood in the replay.

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

Thus, Barassi transformed two clubs by his mere presence and North became a club that consistently punched above its weight for the next 25-30 years and one that prized innovation and adhered to the instruction that Barassi had written up on the whiteboard before the 1977 grand final: “The greatest risk of all is to take no risks.”

Barassi’s AFL-endorsed presence at the Sydney Swans from 1993, too, was a watershed for that club, which had been in terrible financial and football strife. Lockett followed, as did Paul Roos, and while Barassi was no longer tactically adroit in his coaching twilight, on the measure of rescuing a submerged ship, he succeeded. Swans people from that time have long cited the role he played in the Swans’ transformation to perennial contender.

One reason the Swans wanted Barassi was that his name recognition dwarfed any other potential coach or even player at that point.

He was, as an AFL senior official observed following his death, the first nationally recognised person in Australian rules football; if you knew of no other name, you’d heard of Ron Barassi.

“He was Australia-wide before Australian rules football became Australian-wide,” said Collins, who described “Barass” the (Carlton) coach as “a hard task master” who insisted on yellow jumpers for players who showed up late and who “could be confrontational.”

He also innovated and his brand as the “super coach” was established when he coached the Blues back from a 44-point half-time deficit against Collingwood in the 1970 grand final to win the premiership, in a game that confirmed Carlton’s new supremacy and Collingwood’s subsequent “Colliwobbles” in finals.

Ron Barassi gives directions to Wes Lofts.Credit: Archives

Barassi’s half-time exhortation to play on and “handball, handball” in that game was viewed as the birth of modern, play-on football and the weaponizing of handball. If this legacy is disputed, the fact that it has been asserted for five decades is another mark of RDB’s influence.

Barassi’s full-bore approach to coaching – fiery clashes with “Slamming Sam” Kekovich and his dealings with the eccentric Brent “Tiger” Crosswell, his rousing speeches and mix of tough talk and love – was the subject of John Powers’ seminal book The Coach, which still stands at the apex of fly-on-wall books written about the game.

Cameron Schwab, who dealt with Barassi in his two stints as Melbourne chief executive and was steeped in the game’s history – Ron went back to supporting Melbourne once his service with the Sydney Swans ceased in the early 2000s – once said of Barassi’s generous, down-to-earth nature: “The thing about Ron is that he doesn’t know he’s Ron Barassi.”

This squares with my own experience of Ronald Dale, as some of us liked to call him, when I was a lowly sports journo at The Herald and then the merged Herald Sun in 1990-91. As a columnist, Ron liked to come into the office and chat to the staff, even coming to the odd lunch; far from projecting himself as important, he was always friendly, gregarious and intensely interested in whatever one was doing.

Barassi was a key figure in the first football expedition to Ireland in the 1960s, and he was, of course, instrumental in the Irish recruiting experiment at Melbourne in the ’80s that spawned the late Jim Stynes and the late Sean Wight – trailblazers to the legion of Gaelic footballers, now including AFLW players, who’ve jumped codes.

Collins recalled Barassi colluding with the Fitzroy coach Bill Stephen in 1966 to draw a centre square for a game to reduce congestion, with the teams agreeing not to enter the square for centre bounces. The league forgave them. Nine years later, the experiment became the rule.

Barassi was one of the fiercest advocates for the national expansion of a game that was obsessively followed in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, but alien to the northern states of NSW and Queensland, where rugby codes dominated.

In 1978, historian Professor Ian Turner coined the term “the Barassi line” to describe the geographic border between the Australian rules football-centric south and the rugby-centred north; this Mason-Dixon-style line ran diagonally from south-east NSW to the north-west of Queensland’s intersection with the NT.

Ron Barassi was the first football figure who transcended the line that Turner identified. And, partly due to his efforts, Australian rules football and the AFL have gained, at the least, a sizeable toehold in those territories.

Vale Ron. You have left the nation – and the only game that bears the nation’s name – much richer for your life.

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