Chris Fagan celebrates Brisbane's preliminary final win over Carlton on September 23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

JUST like clubs expect players to improve the longer they're in the AFL, it's fair to expect the same from coaches.

Now in his seventh season in charge, Chris Fagan's development this year has been instrumental in Brisbane's surge to the Grand Final.

Fagan has had to mould and evolve since getting to Brisbane late in 2016, when he took over a team floundering at the bottom of the table and with just the bare bones of a finals list in place.

He was initially a nurturer, a motivator, someone to sell hope to the players and public after years of beatings.

"You need to get the people things in place first so this is a really good place to come to so the players feel like they're improving every day and the Brisbane footy club can become a team that people respect and look forward to watching play," Fagan said at his first press conference in 2016.

"Players sacrifice for each other and they care for each other. From a cultural perspective, they're the sort of values we're trying to build into the team."

Chris Fagan poses for a photo during a Brisbane training session on December 16, 2016. Picture: AFL Photos

He got the team believing in themselves as individuals and as a collective.

Former skipper Tom Rockliff credited Fagan for helping him rediscover his love for the game.

Ahead of the final round in 2017 when the Lions hosted North Melbourne in a battle to avoid the wooden spoon (a game they lost and drafted Cam Rayner at No.1 as a result), Dayne Zorko told the media he didn't want the season to end he was having that much fun.

Fagan had executed step one of the resurgence, despite winning just five games.

Over the ensuing years the list improved, the players improved, and the belief improved as Brisbane went to finals series after finals series without getting to the final game.

Harris Andrews and Charlie Cameron look dejected after Brisbane's preliminary final loss to Geelong on October 17, 2020. Picture: Getty Images

And despite having the cloud of the Hawthorn racism investigation hanging over his head from the corresponding time last year, Fagan has found a way to improve.

He's tinkered with his gameplan and part of a philosophy that has helped him to regular top-four finishes. He's navigated difficult conversations with trusted players and above all else, it's his composure and calmness that's shone through.

Always a man to wear his heart on his sleeve, Fagan has rarely looked stressed this season.

Even after poor losses to Hawthorn and Gold Coast, or the late collapse against Melbourne in round 18, his instinct wasn't to be aggressive in defending his team, but just roll with the punches that happen in a long season.

Veteran Ryan Lester says the team and coach have been good for each other in this regard.

"He's more calm," Lester told

Ryan Lester greets Brisbane fans after the team's preliminary final win over Carlton at the Gabba on September 23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

"Our maturity as a playing group allows him to be.

"Also, the fact we've had pretty much every experience in the game over seven years – we've had close wins, we've had close losses, games we've been ahead, games where we've come from behind, so whatever position we're in, we've seen it before, and that brings a sense of calm. 

"There's nothing unknown anymore."

Fagan has had to negotiate some potentially tricky man management situations in the past 12 months. 

He and Dayne Zorko have a special relationship. When Dayne Beams lost his father to cancer in 2018 and stood down from the captaincy battling mental health issues, it was Zorko that stepped up.

Chris Fagan and Dayne Zorko embrace after the Lions beat the Tigers in week one of the 2020 finals. Picture: AFL Photos

But as with any leader, his tenure eventually comes to an end.

Fagan said earlier this season he had spoken to Zorko for two years about the captaincy and that one day, down the track, he'd either have to step aside or get the tap on the shoulder.

After falling at the penultimate hurdle in 2022, Zorko would have been tempted – he's as competitive as any Lion – to dig the heels in and want to captain again, but after Fagan planted the seed, the veteran stood aside.

The coach didn't want to unseat Zorko as captain, and might not have, but their relationship ensured a smooth exit and transition to Lachie Neale and Harris Andrews.

And although 'the Magician' won't have the 'C' next to his name on Saturday, he'll run out in his 250th game as crucial as he's ever been.

Then there's veterans Daniel Rich and Jack Gunston.

Daniel Rich handballs during a Brisbane training session on September 29, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

Rich is the longest-serving Lion on the list and Gunston was brought to Brisbane for exactly this reason, to help take it the extra two steps to a premiership.

However, with both struggling in the middle of the year, Fagan negotiated a way the players could leave the team to undergo a training block, and at the same time avoid the ignominy, for veterans, of being dropped.

Gunston returned a month later, but after re-injuring the knee, has not been sighted again, despite being fit.

Aside from his loyalty, this would have been a difficult decision for Fagan because for as long as he's been at the club, he's wanted to play with three tall forwards.

Leaving Gunston out meant a change in philosophy. Two tall forwards, and often just one when Joe Daniher goes into the ruck and Oscar McInerney has a spell on the bench.

Jack Gunston kicks a goal during Brisbane's clash against the Western Bulldogs in round three, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

There was a stage last year when Fagan was so eager to play a tall line-up, he had Daniher, Eric Hipwood and Dan McStay starting forward with McInerney in the ruck, and still opted for Darcy Fort as his substitute in case one of them got injured.

The flexibility in team selection has added another layer to a big off-season change – prioritising team defence.

Brisbane has been among the heaviest scoring teams in the competition for five years, but when it came to the crunch in the previous few seasons, it'd leaked too many points.

The forwards bought in, and the midfielders bought in, helping the Lions improve from 10th in 2022 to sixth this year for points conceded.

At 62 years of age, Fagan might be the oldest man to coach in a Grand Final, but in the past 12 months, he's also shown you're never too old to learn and improve.