Humble Pie: Should Bucks stop here?
Nathan Buckley took out the Rising Star award in 1993, added a Brownlow a decade later, and was named an All-Australian seven times in between. He won a Norm Smith in a losing team while captaining Collingwood for nine seasons.
Yet for all he accomplished in his glittering 280-game playing career, the question must be asked: of all the men to coach as many games as he has and lead a team for five consecutive full seasons, have any of them been less deserving of being brought back for a sixth?
Collingwood president Eddie McGuire’s succession plan was widely hailed as a masterstroke in 2009 but it seemed a lot less genius when Buckley was eventually elevated from his role as assistant coach after the 2011 season, which culminated in the Magpies falling short of back-to-back flags when beaten by Geelong in Mick Malthouse’s final game at the helm.
While Collingwood had spent much of the season assuring the public that the transition would go ahead as planned, things did not go smoothly and Malthouse reneged on the agreement to instead take up the coaching job at Carlton.
From that moment, Buckley was always going to have a longer-than-average leash. Favourite sons are generally given their share of leniency, but Bucks was certainly never going anywhere as long as Malthouse was chasing down records while wearing the colours of their biggest rival.
Less than 12 months after the Blues sacked Malthouse last season, the Pies extended Buckley’s contract to the end of 2017. The deal made sense as a way of alleviating the scrutiny that would have come the Magpies’ way had they struggled out of the gate with Buckley set to come out of contract. But it was tough to comprehend when you consider there’s still no evidence he is any good at all when it comes to this whole coaching caper.
Keeping in mind the Pies were coming off consecutive Grand Final appearances when he took the reins, here’s a breakdown of Collingwood’s five seasons under Bucks:
2012: 16-6 (fourth), lost preliminary final
2013: 14-8 (sixth), lost elimination final
2014: 11-11 (11th), missed finals
2015: 10-12 (12th), missed finals
2016*: 5-8 (14th)
Since Malthouse departed, the Pies have won fewer games and finished lower on the ladder in each of Buckley’s first four seasons – and they look a good chance to make it five from five.
Having stolen a last-gasp win over Richmond in round two and stunned Geelong in round nine, Collingwood’s only other victories have come against the depleted Bombers, the woeful Lions and the shockingly punchless Dockers.
After a clash with Carlton tomorrow night, their run home includes a rematch with the Tigers, a home fixture against Gold Coast and six games against finals-bound teams. It’s difficult to see the Pies notching double digits in the win column from here.
What’s not difficult to envision is the club’s powerbrokers doubting their decision to ink Bucks to an extension if his team indeed slumps to a fifth straight season of decline. His deteriorating record is as much an indictment on the club for having kept him around so long as it is on him for failing to improve.
But assuming the Collingwood board stands by their man until at least the start of the 2017 campaign, would that make Buckley the most experienced yet least successful of any coach to ever be given a sixth straight season in charge?
This isn’t to say another mediocre season would make him the worst coach of all time – leading a club in more than 100 games and winning more than half of them is certainly nothing to sneeze at – but let’s take a look at how he measures up against the other coaches who can at least claim to match his number of games in charge.
After 105 games, Buckley’s winning percentage is 54.29 with a record of 57-48. Even if the Pies manage to triumph in five of their last nine this season, he’ll still have a winning percentage of less than 55 against his name.
There are 76 past and present coaches with more games under their belt, but he’ll surpass half a dozen of them if he can simply see out the rest of the year.
Of the 70 guys who have coached at least 114 games (Buckley’s projected total at season’s end), let's narrow down our comparison to those who held a head coaching role for at least five full consecutive seasons.
Of those, we won’t bother comparing Buckley to coaches who either won a flag or established a winning percentage greater than 60 (Bucks would have to win his next 15 on the trot to reach that mark) during their first five years. Those guys have got him beat.
Still with me? Good. That all leaves 23 coaches who were in a somewhat similar position to where Buckley will be after five seasons. Let’s see how he compares.
The proven commodities
We won’t waste too much time here, but it’s worth noting these three blokes all spent their first five years at a job without winning a flag or maintaining a winning percentage above the 60 per cent barrier.
Ron Barassi took over at Melbourne in 1981 and his five seasons there returned a dismal 33-77 record without a finals appearance. Fortunately for him, before crossing to the Demons he’d won premierships in his fourth season (and his sixth) at Carlton, and also claimed two more within his first five years at North Melbourne in the ’70s.
John Kennedy only twice guided the Kangaroos to the finals, recording a 55-3-55 record in his five seasons there, but he claimed a flag in just his second year at Hawthorn and went on to win two more in his time with the Hawks before ever arriving at Arden St.
And while Frank Hughes’ first five years at Melbourne were only good for a 51.61 winning percentage, his previous stint at Richmond included four Grand Final appearances in his first five years (it took until his sixth and final season there for him to finally lift the cup). Hughes would go on to lead the Dees to back-to-back-to-back flags from 1939-41 – his seventh through ninth seasons there – before adding another to the cabinet in the 1948 Grand Final replay.
So while these three each endured a few down years after taking up a coaching role, they were well-established coaches with runs on the board. It's no surprise these guys returned for a sixth season.
Believe it or not, there are nine current coaches with more games at the helm than the Magpies mentor. Alastair Clarkson is a demigod, four others have won flags – including Chris Scott, who ended up in Brisbane as a result of Buckley's trade to Collingwood – and Ross Lyon has recorded a far superior winning percentage at both St Kilda (64.46) and Fremantle (63.51), even if he hasn’t yet managed to pop his premiership cherry.
That leaves three of the current crop: Brad Scott, Damien Hardwick and Rodney Eade.
Scott and Hardwick each have six full seasons under their belts after taking the reins of North Melbourne and Richmond, respectively, in August 2010.
Scott had returned a winning percentage above 55 until last week, when North Melbourne dropped their third on the trot. Still, the Kangaroos have never had fewer than 10 wins in a season on his watch, have played in back-to-back prelims and are 10-4 this year. He may be yet to reach a Grand Final but he had built up enough momentum in his fifth season to warrant going around again – a decision he has justified by winning at a 65.71 clip since the start of his sixth year.
Hardwick, meanwhile, is a curious case. If Richmond can knock off Port Adelaide tonight, he’ll square his career coaching ledger at 67-2-67. He’s kind of like the anti-Buckley in that his first six seasons saw steady improvement rather than decline – returning win tallies of six, eight, 10, 15, 12 and 15 games – but his well-documented three finals appearances have resulted in goose eggs.
I’m not going to fight anyone who thinks Bucks has been the better coach since he has at least won a final and had a higher winning percentage after five years. But I lean towards Dimma since his September appearances came at the back end of his first five years with the team he had built (after taking over a five-win outfit), as opposed to in his first two years with a team he inherited (which was coming off consecutive Grand Final appearances and arguably on the brink of a mini-dynasty).
And then there’s Rodney Eade. He’s less than two years into a tumultuous stint on the Gold Coast, but let’s not forget he had previously led Sydney to the finals in each of his first four years there (including a Grand Final in his rookie season), then lifted the Bulldogs into the eight in his second year before falling short in three successive prelims in his fourth, fifth and sixth seasons. Fun fact: not including draws, Eade's win-loss record during his first five seasons at Sydney (66-50) was identical to his first five with the Dogs.
Compared with Buckley, it's pretty safe to say these guys were all more attractive options heading into their sixth seasons than he will be in a few months.
Wally Carter, John Northey and Neale Daniher all made Grand Final appearances in their third year at the helm, while Ted Whitten and Ken Hands got there in their fourth.
While the five of them had varying degrees of success, they all progressed deeper into September in their first four seasons than Buckley will have in five. And for the fact they gave their fans a chance to dream on the biggest day of the year, they all get the nod from me.
Consistency was the key for this next group, who all led their teams to multiple finals appearances. But then again, so did Buckley.
Taking over a Bulldogs team that won five games the year before (three of them with him as the caretaker), Terry Wallace was leading the charge as the Doggies rocketed up the ladder to clinch three top-four finishes and four consecutive finals berths in his first four full seasons. Hard to argue he hadn't done enough to deserve his sixth season.
Like Buckley, the trio of Chris Connolly (Fremantle), Dean Laidley (North Melbourne) and Mark Thompson (Geelong) all led their clubs to multiple finals series in their first five years – but all of them had inferior winning percentages. What works in their favour, however, is that all three advanced to a prelim in their fifth seasons.
Who would you feel better about bringing back for a sixth year: a coach who just got your team within one win of playing for all the marbles, or a guy who had just put the finishing touches on a fifth straight season of decline? No-brainer.
Finished at five
Gary Ayres and Stan Alves both made it into Grand Finals; Grant Thomas and Brett Ratten played September footy in three of their five years; and Robert Walls did the same at Fitzroy before winning a flag at Carlton and then struggling with Brisbane.
What do these five men have in common? They all completed five full seasons at a club (in Walls’ case, two clubs), but did not return for a sixth. So assuming Buckley survives into 2017, he’ll have started more consecutive seasons than any of these five – all of whom had achieved more. success.
The long-time battlers
Twenty coaches down and it’s fair to say Bucks is at the back of the pack. But not for long.
Bill Stephen held the unenviable position of Fitzroy coach from 1955-57 before taking back the job for six seasons starting in ’65. He only had a 40 per cent success rate over his nine seasons, with far and away his two best win-loss records in that time being 7-10 and 9-13. Having said that, the Lions saw fit to bring him back for a third stint in 1979, in which he led the club to a surprising finals campaign in his only winning season. He stood down in 1980.
And then there’s Jack Hale, who spent one-and-a-half miserable seasons at South Melbourne before an eight-year run with the Hawks. He won at marginally better than a one-in-three rate in his first five years and only had one season in which he won more games than he lost.
Last man standing
Ironically, this final category is reserved for just one former coach: the one Buckley usurped at Collingwood.
Malthouse, the all-time leader in games coached, avoided recording a losing season in his first five years with the Bulldogs, but also failed to produce a premiership and only once featured in the finals.
Of course, he then went on to preside over 10 consecutive winning seasons and two flags at West Coast, before eventually clinching his third premiership at Collingwood in 2010 – several months after agreeing to the once-brilliant succession plan.
But despite all his success, let's not forget why Malthouse is in this group all on his lonesome: because the numbers from the first five years of his coaching career more closely resemble Buckley's than those of anyone else on this list.
Unfortunately, Buckley’s many triumphs as a player have thus far failed to carry over into the coaches box.
When he reaches his 114th game in round 23, there will be 70 other men to have coached at least as many games and survived at least five straight years in the same job. And save for Stephen and Hale, there's a pretty solid case Buckley is the least-deserving of the other 68 to warrant returning for a sixth season.
However, one man who is right there in the discussion, the man whose Magpie throne he seized, is a man who went on to coach more games than anyone else in the history of the sport. So who knows what Buckley's future holds.