Australian Football Hall of Fame Legend Ron Barassi, pictured in 2014. Picture: AFL Photos

RONALD Dale Barassi devoted his life to the game he loved – Australian Rules Football. 

By virtue of his achievements as a player and coach, his name has become a byword for determination and desperation.

While not blessed with the natural gifts of many other players, Barassi's influence was infectious during a period of unparalleled VFL/AFL success under coach Norm Smith at Melbourne.


He made himself a champion by devoting himself to improving his kicking and marking skills, and with an unmatched willingness to get to as many contests as possible.

As a coach, Barassi had an innate ability to understand the complexities of each individual player and help them reach their optimum level.

He mentored, advised and encouraged some of the game's greatest players, as well as some of the most colourful identities, to have pulled on a pair of boots.

A Demons scarf hangs off the statue of Ron Barassi outside the MCG. Picture: Getty Images

Barassi recognised talent when he saw it, but there was no substitute for hard work and no room for compromise on the field as far as he was concerned – he was constantly searching for perfection.

In their heyday as players during the 1950s and '60s, Barassi and fellow Australian Football Hall of Fame Legend Ted Whitten were the VFL's biggest personalities, but it could be reasonably argued Barassi's impact was even more profound than the Footscray great, given his subsequent success as a coach and passionate involvement in driving the code's national expansion late last century.

A portrait of Ron Barassi during his playing days with Melbourne from 1953-1964. Picture: AFL Photos

Born in Castlemaine in 1936, he was determined to follow in his dad's footsteps after his father Ron Snr, the 19th man in Melbourne's 1940 premiership team, became the first VFL player to die in World War II at Tobruk.

Barassi was not zoned to Melbourne, but the Demons took advantage of the newly instituted father-son rule to secure his services. 

He started his league journey with the Demons' thirds in 1952 after playing junior football with Preston Scouts, but his storied career in red and blue almost did not happen.

Barassi was set to move to Tasmania with his mother and her new husband before Smith stepped in and allowed the youngster to live with him and his family, giving him the best opportunity of becoming a league player.

Ron Barassi on the bench with master coach Norm Smith. Picture: Supplied

While the pair developed a strong bond, Smith did not give Barassi special treatment, making him work hard for his spot which stood him in good stead later in his football journey as a coach.

Barassi started at Melbourne as a forward, but as he was too short to be a ruckman and too tall to play as a rover, Smith evolved a plan to develop him in a hybrid ruck-rover role and use his strength to break open packs.

This move catapulted Barassi to stardom and never looked back, with Richmond legend Jack Dyer labelling him the best VFL player since dual Brownlow medallist Ivor Warne-Smith. 

Ron Barassi pictured with Jamie Cooper's artwork celebrating 150 years of Australian football. Picture: AFL Photos

The second-year player was one of Melbourne's key contributors in its loss to Footscray in the 1954 Grand Final, was a member of the Demons' premiership team the following season and pivotal to their successful run in the 1950s and early '60s. 

In 1957 he overcame a series of injuries to kick a game-high five goals in the Grand Final triumph over Essendon and two years later the Bombers were on the receiving end again as he booted three goals in an inspirational five minutes just before half-time to help drag his side back into the game and eventually win another premiership.

Between these two successful campaigns, Collingwood denied Melbourne a record-equalling fourth consecutive premiership in the 1958 Grand Final on the back of a superb tagging performance by Magpie Barry 'Hooker' Harrison, who quelled Barassi's brilliance by antagonising and thwarting him at every opportunity. 

Melbourne turned the tables on Collingwood in 1960, with Barassi leading the Demons to his first premiership as captain and fifth overall. 

Barassi won his first club best and fairest in 1961, but his absence during the 1963 finals series after being suspended late in the season proved costly as the Demons bowed out in the preliminary final. 

The following season Barassi led the Demons to his second premiership as skipper and sixth overall, the narrow Grand Final triumph over Collingwood proving to be his final game in red and blue.

Frank 'Bluey' Adams and Ron Barassi with the 1964 premiership cup. Picture: Lynda Carroll, MFC Collection

By the end of 1964 Barassi was a man in demand as he sought to take the next step in his career and realise his coaching aspirations. 

Melbourne had been grooming Barassi as Smith's successor, with the skipper having filled in as senior coach in round eight, 1964, while Smith was in charge of the Victorian team, but he chose not to wait.

After resisting overtures from Richmond and initially knocking back Carlton, Barassi eventually relented to persistent requests from new Blues president George Harris and signed on as captain-coach for a reported fee of 5000 pounds over three years.

Ron Barassi pictured during his time at Carlton, from 1965-69. Picture: AFL Photos

Melbourne delayed his clearance into 1965, when he was already acting as Carlton's coach, before the Demons' committee eventually released him.

Barassi became the first reigning VFL premiership captain to change clubs and the move sent shockwaves throughout the competition. 

Adults debated the morality of the transfer, in which money was perceived to have triumphed over club loyalty while young supporters were distraught.

In his book The Coach, author John Powers wrote: “The move shattered many people's beliefs in the traditional concepts of sportsmanship and loyalty. Letters of protest poured into the papers and the Melbourne Football Club. Small boys wept.”

AFL legend Ron Barassi with Melbourne's 2021 premiership cup. Picture:

Carlton was struggling when Barassi took over, having finished 10th under Ken Hands in 1964, and his methods of implementing strict discipline and enforcing team rules had immediate effect.

The Blues rose to sixth in 1965 and 1966 before making the finals the following season. They lost both finals in 1967, but the foundations for a successful era had been established.

After 49 games for the Blues, Barassi retired as a player late in the 1968 season and guided Carlton into the Grand Final against Essendon coaching from the sidelines. 

In a hard-fought encounter, the Blues triumphed by three points to break a 21-year premiership drought and give Barassi his first flag as a coach.

In 1969 Barassi made a surprise comeback – in round seven against the Demons – to complete 50 games for Carlton, ensuring any future sons would be eligible to play for either the Blues or Melbourne under the father-son rule as it stood then.

A torn hamstring in the third quarter ended his final VFL game and his son Ronnie never made it to league football.

Later that season Carlton made another Grand Final, but fell short against a committed, fanatical Richmond coached by Tom Hafey.

A year later Barassi enjoyed probably his finest hour as a coach as he presided over a remarkable comeback win in the 1970 Grand Final.

Trailing Collingwood by 44 points at half-time, Barassi implored his players to take risks and employ handball as an offensive weapon. 

He also made several astute positional changes and sent 19th man Ted Hopkins onto the ground in a forward pocket. Blond livewire Hopkins booted four goals as the Blues overran the Magpies to win by 10 points. 

Most commentators and experts recognise this Grand Final as marking the birth of the modern game, with the tactic of using handball to play on at all costs prompting a dramatic shift in the way Australian Football was played.

Ron Barassi poses for a portrait in 1996. Picture: AFL Photos

Barassi departed Carlton at the end of 1971 and made a brief comeback as a player for VFA club Port Melbourne in 1972 before being lured back into coaching by North Melbourne.

Without a VFL premiership to their name, the Kangaroos took advantage of the short-lived 10-year rule by picking up veterans Barry Davis, John Rantall and Doug Wade from other clubs, as well as big-name interstate recruits Malcolm Blight and Barry Cable.

North Melbourne narrowly missed the finals in Barassi's first season, but played off in the Grand Final the following year against Richmond.

The Roos made an inauspicious start to the 1975 season, but powered home to qualify in third position, having won 14 of their final 18 home and away games.

After losing to Hawthorn in the second semi-final, North Melbourne turned it around in the Grand Final, defeating the Hawks by 55 points to claim its first premiership.

Hawthorn exacted revenge on the Roos the following year before Barassi piloted North Melbourne to its second premiership in 1977, this time against the Hafey-coached Collingwood.

The first Grand Final was drawn with 76 points apiece, but despite playing finals on five consecutive Saturdays the Kangaroos triumphed by 27 points in a high-scoring affair in the Grand Final replay.

Barassi coached for three more seasons at Arden St including another Grand Final appearance in 1978 before returning to Melbourne in 1981. 

Ron Barassi as coach of Melbourne in 1985. Picture: AFL Photos

But going back to his original football home did not bring the success for which he and the Demons were yearning, and he departed after five years at the end of 1985.

Barassi concentrated on his media and other business commitments until he was wooed north to coach the struggling Sydney Swans in 1993.

The Swans finished on the bottom in his first two years and improved to 12th in his final season in 1995, but importantly he lifted the club's profile in the Harbour City.

Tony Lockett and Ron Barassi after a Sydney practice match in 1995. Picture: AFL Photos

As he did with the Demons in the previous decade, Barassi laid the foundation for future success by fostering talented young players. Melbourne reached the Grand Final three years after his departure and Sydney made it to the premiership decider the year after he left.

Until his death he was an ardent proponent of the national competition and football remained a lifelong passion, particularly his beloved Demons. He was regularly spotted proudly wearing his Melbourne scarf as he cheered on the red and blue.

Ron Barassi

Date of birth: 27/2/1936

Playing career: 1953-69 (Melbourne 1953-64, Carlton 1965-69)

Games: 254 (Melbourne 204, Carlton 50)
Goals: 330 (Melbourne 295, Carlton 35)

Player honours
Melbourne best and fairest 1961, 1964
Melbourne leading goalkicker 1958 (equal), 1959
Melbourne captain 1960-64
Melbourne premierships 1955, 1956, 1957, 1959, 1960, 1964
Australian Football Hall of Fame inductee (Legend) 1996
AFL Team of the Century
Melbourne Team of the Century (captain)
All-Australian 1956, 1958, 1961 (captain)
Victoria 19 games, 26 goals

Also played for Port Melbourne (VFA) 1972 (3 games, 1 goal).

Coaching record
Carlton 1965-71 (147 games, 99 wins, 47 losses, 1 draw), premierships 1968, 1970
North Melbourne 1973-80 (198 games, 130 wins, 65 losses, 3 draws), premierships 1975, 1977
Melbourne 1981-85 (111 games, 34 wins, 77 losses)
Sydney 1993-95 (59 games, 13 wins, 46 losses)