"WE ARE going to act like winners at all times."
Collingwood had drawn up the template for what it wanted in a senior coach, it had funnelled a list of candidates into a shortlist, and it had started the process of asking a series of applicants to provide presentations on what they would bring to the role.
But the club's coaching selection committee remained no closer to picking its next senior coach. "They were all really impressive. The dice could have fallen either way," Collingwood premiership player Luke Ball, a member of the selection panel, tells AFL.com.au.
That was until Craig McRae gave a vision of his coaching philosophy.
"Think back to that final last year, when they got beaten by a point and he was actually quite critical of his team for lying around on the ground. That's one little example, but that mindset started in the off-season," Ball says.
"It was the mindset that in anything we do, we're going to act like winners. Clearly, we're not going to win all the time. It's impossible at this level. But we are going to act like winners. We really liked that about him. He articulated that from the start."
McRae had won the job back in August 2021 in part because, when Collingwood drew up its ideal coaching candidate, it had strongly considered the size of the beast that such a person would be taking the reins of. The Magpies were the biggest club in the land. They didn't just need a football coach; they needed a leader, a winner. McRae was that.
But what else goes into selecting a senior coach? What separates a previously untried assistant like McRae, who has made a significant and instant impact at a club like Collingwood, from his contemporaries? The now-Giants coach Adam Kingsley and the ex-Crows coach Don Pyke were also in the race for the Magpies job, and yet the club turned to McRae. So, what were the attributes that won him the role?
As Richmond continues its own painstaking search for what it hopes will be its next premiership coach, AFL.com.au has investigated the clubs that have done it before, spoken to the people on the panels, and delved into the four-step process that most undertake as they begin the hunt for someone who can fill the most important job in football.
Step one: The panel
BEFORE you find the coach, you have to find the people to pick the coach.
The crew of experts charged with identifying the candidates can vary. In most cases, there will be a committee. But some have opted for external voices to be included in that process, while others have preferred to leave the decision to those inside their football club.
Carlton's selection committee when hiring Brendon Bolton in 2015 featured former Socceroos coach and the current Tottenham manager Ange Postecoglou, while Adelaide's featured three-time NBL title-winning coach Phil Smyth when it hired Matthew Nicks in 2019.
Some clubs want outsiders who have been involved in footy, but not at their club, to run the rule over a list of candidates. Two-time Hawthorn premiership star Brad Sewell helped Essendon select John Worsfold in 2015, Sydney premiership coach Paul Roos helped North Melbourne in its search for David Noble in 2020, while Carlton's four-time premiership winner Robert Walls proved pivotal in Essendon opting for Brad Scott last year.
But there are just as many cases where people intrinsically linked to the club searching for a coach return to their former homes to lend assistance. The Blues turned to David Parkin to help choose Michael Voss in 2021, the Dockers called upon Luke McPharlin to decipher if Justin Longmuir was for them in 2019, while Simon Black helped the Lions appoint Chris Fagan back in 2016.
Brisbane had also appointed its list manager Peter Schwab to its coaching selection committee when it hired Fagan, Gold Coast turned to its club psychologist Matti Clements when it selected Stuart Dew in 2017, and the AFL's then-head of coaching David Rath sat on the panel when St Kilda elected to employ Brett Ratten in 2019.
"Phil Smyth came across with an extensive coaching background. The questioning and the commentary from him were around the specifics of coaching on and off the field," premiership player James Podsiadly, who sat on Adelaide's coaching selection panel when it hired Nicks, tells AFL.com.au.
"The relationships that you build, how you deal with the sponsorship and the media sides of it … it's that expertise that someone like Phil brings to the table and then he forms an opinion. He was fantastic to work with."
The Giants, though, never wanted an external voice when appointing Kingsley last year. Forget about recruitment specialists or respected consulting and leadership firms, the club's powerbrokers left the decision to a three-person panel featuring chief executive Dave Matthews, football boss Jason McCartney and football director Jimmy Bartel. It backed in those who knew the club best.
"Our view was more along the lines of finding the right fit. An external person would help you in terms of whether they could or couldn't coach, but … to us, they don't know our footy club. It was what we needed," McCartney tells AFL.com.au.
"As a head of footy, your job is to run the footy program. If you can't make an educated decision on the coach, with Jimmy Bartel as your director of footy and Dave – who had been part of the early phase, with the appointment of Kevin Sheedy into Leon Cameron – alongside you … everyone knows their stuff."
Step two: The values
THE SEARCH for Damien Hardwick's successor has been a unique one.
Richmond has asked candidates to apply for the role, rather than proactively shortlisting its own names, before sending those interested a list of criteria that will be a factor in its decision. It is essentially a job description, with the Tigers expected to favour those with experience in coaching their own side.
Interim coach Andrew McQualter has since been shortlisted for the role and is going through the final phase of interviews, while ex-Richmond captain and current Hawthorn assistant Chris Newman, fellow Richmond assistant Xavier Clarke, Essendon assistant Daniel Giansiracusa and Melbourne assistant Adem Yze are also in the mix.
But every club has a different approach. Some want immediate success; others want a coach who will grow and develop with their playing group. Some want a proven winner; others want to uncover the next diamond in the rough. Some want a motivator; others want football brains.
The job of picking an AFL coach is, after all, a rather inexact science.
But, although it's a subjective decision that is heavily dependent on circumstance, most clubs forced into the position of hiring their next senior coach begin at an identical starting point.
"The first step is understanding an evaluation framework," Podsiadly says.
"That's what you've got to come up with. Every club is different and every club is on a different journey. Identifying that is the first step. What are you going to value as a club and as a selection committee in this next candidate?"
For example, Collingwood's focus when picking someone to replace Nathan Buckley in 2021 centred around leadership and an all-club approach. The ideal candidate had to be able to guide not just a football side, but a club consisting of multiple teams and 100,000 loyal but expectant members.
"It's no secret that it's about so much more than just the Xs and Os on the footy field, particularly with Collingwood given the size of the beast. It's very much about how they manage people across the playing group, but also the broader club as well," Ball says.
"I'd experienced 'Fly' at the club 10 or so years ago as a development coach, so I think having that little bit of experience at Collingwood was a positive. It wasn't a complete unknown when he stepped into the role. He knew a bit about the club and he'd been at the club during a successful time when there was nearly 100,000 members. It's great, but he knew that came with expectation. That was a positive. It wasn't the be-all and end-all, but it was a positive."
That's not to say the football aspect of coaching doesn't play a crucial part, though. For the Giants, one of their key values when appointing Kingsley was to find a fresh and innovative coach that would introduce a modern game style to a developing young list.
"It was a combination for us. It was a combination of everything," McCartney says.
"We had a couple of informal catch-ups first, then we set a criteria on what we would like presented on. It was very broad. There was a lot of game style in there. Within all of that, it's a lot about your questioning."
Step three: The funnel
ADELAIDE had around 60 names on its list.
For the Crows, there was no preference between experienced or untried. There was no consideration given to that person's background or their journey. In the process of hiring Nicks, the selection panel's remit was to simply find the best person for the job.
So, the sub-committee wrote out the names. Assistant coaches, current coaches, past coaches, list managers, heads of football and more. No stone was going to be left unturned. "You basically start at the top of the funnel," Podsiadly says.
That top of the funnel can look different to every club, though. For example, Gold Coast's funnel when appointing Hardwick as Dew's successor didn't have 60 names on it. Nor did North Melbourne's when it headhunted Alastair Clarkson. In both cases, that funnel might have consisted of one name and one name only.
"That's the reality," Podsiadly says.
"There's no right or wrong when it comes to these things. You can talk about the selection process, but once you've got your criteria it might just be that there's one candidate. In some cases, it's a case of canvassing 60 at the top and seeing what happens. In others, though, you might only have one candidate."
For those that start with many names, from there comes the process of filtering that long list into a select few. That journey likely begins with a gauging of interest. The panel members, in most cases, are divided up to scope whether the appeal to coach their football club is reciprocated by the list of candidates. If they receive word of that person's interest, there might an initial catch-up – sometimes over coffee, others in a more formal setting – but if they get told no, then that name will be scratched from their list.
Background checks are also undertaken to determine the suitability of every candidate, which can just as often wipe even more names from the pool. How clubs do this can vary. It can be as simple as reaching out to people involved at their current club, but can also become far more detailed.
The Giants, for example, treated their shortlist of coaching candidates just like they would any potential draftee. Once they had whittled down the names, the club's coaching selection panel brought recruiter Emma Quayle into the mix. She then cross-checked every candidate with contacts inside the industry, both at current and past employers, just as the club does with any junior prospect before the draft, to help establish whether that person will fit the club's culture.
Psych checks can also form part of this process. One club to have hired a new coach in the last decade is understood to have matched the psych profiles of every candidate they interviewed alongside those of every member within their playing group to help assess the suitability of each applicant.
Only then, once the names have been squeezed from as many as 60, to as little as a handful of remaining candidates on each shortlist, comes the final step.
Step four: The interviews
IT CAN be like going back to school.
Once the panel has been formed, the ideal candidate has been drawn up, and the list of applicants has been funnelled down, the interview stage can begin. It's here where clubs will often revert back to step two for inspiration, as they ask those remaining on their shortlist to create and present their idea – or their project – for the future.
Clubs can ask applicants to present on any range of things – philosophical views, relationship building, mentors and leadership – with the panel able to prioritise and weight their responses based on what they value most in a candidate. Sometimes, even football itself is put on the agenda. But not as prominently as you might think.
"Gone are the days where a coach will come in, apply for the job and just talk about the Xs and Os and who they'd play where. That's certainly part of it, but it's not a huge part of it anymore. It's really about the person," Ball says.
"Each one who presented, the core of their presentation was who they are as people and what experiences shaped them and their personal values. It's such a high-pressure job, so when the pressure comes you revert back to who you are as a person and what you value.
"They still need to be able to articulate a philosophy in terms of how the team is going to play and how they see their footy team building towards sustained success. But it's connected to them as people and how they've been shaped as a person to that point."
But why? While game planning remains arguably the most important part of coaching, the gap in the tactical and technical knowledge of the candidates now applying for senior roles is shrinking. No longer are the "Xs and Os" what separates applicants like McRae from everyone else.
"Adam Kingsley had been for some roles in the past and missed out," McCartney says.
"But my view on what we saw is not that they missed out because they can't coach or weren't capable. My view was, what was that football club looking for at that time? What sort of style? What sort of personality? What I saw in game plan, throughout our process, was that this next wave of up-and-coming coaches had a lot of similarities. They all know their stuff, so that wasn't a differentiating factor."
To accommodate for the head coach's focus being placed elsewhere for large parts of their time at the club, the makeup of any candidate's backroom team has also become a significant part of the interview and presentation phase.
McRae, having set out his vision for how he wanted to run Collingwood throughout the interview stage, also listed important figures he would like to bring to the club to assist him in carrying out his plan. Those same figures now form the bulk of his backroom team at the Magpies.
"Clearly, it's not a one-man job these days," Ball says.
"You're absolutely reliant on a complementary team to allow the coach to play to their strengths. 'Fly's' strengths are the way he's able to build relationships with players, but knowing that to spend the time to do that – to genuinely commit to spending the time to do that – then you'll need help with other parts of the job. That was a big part of it."
It's only now, often after weeks and months of arduous and laborious research, do most clubs feel they have the necessary information at hand to pick the person they believe will guide them to their next premiership.