Luke Parker, John Longmire and Callum Mills at Sydney photo day ahead of the 2024 AFL season. Picture: AFL Photos

WHEN John Longmire and Dean Cox walked through the gates of Harvard University in October, the veteran Sydney coach expected an alarm to go off and someone to rush out to ask if they were lost. He was joking, but the trip was no joke.

As the dust settled on Longmire's 13th season at the helm of the Swans, the 53-year-old travelled to the United States with Cox for a four-day intensive course at the Ivy League institution. More than 40 CEOs and executives from all over the world joined them and it quickly became more about coaching, less about bookwork. 

Professional development trips used to be annual pilgrimages for coaches until COVID-19 squeezed the life out of the soft cap. But after enduring a season afflicted by injury that ended on the first weekend of September, before the club's most active Trade Period since 2009 – Josh Kennedy, Shane Mumford, Ben McGlynn and Mark Seaby – Longmire needed a reset. 

Swans assistant coach Jarrad McVeigh linked up with Longmire and Cox and the trio spent time inside the Boston Celtics, New England Patriots and Brooklyn Nets, gleaning information to bring back to Sydney, reinforcing ideas that were already part of the program. 

Speaking to in a wide-ranging interview ahead of next Thursday night's season-opener against Melbourne at the SCG, Longmire laid the foundations for 2024 in Massachusetts and New York City.

"I got halfway through last season and realised we hadn't gone away as coaches for four or five years because everything had been cut. What used to be a regular occurrence of professional development and learning and as much as anything stimulating yourself to come back and help the footy club and help the players, that was shut down with the cuts to the footy department, which was really sad that the industry had got to that point. We needed to go, whether it cost us personally or not, we needed to go," Longmire said. 

John Longmire poses for a photo during Sydney's team photo day on January 16, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

"It's just good to stimulate yourself and keep challenging your ideas and then you bring little bits and pieces back. It is good to refresh yourself and it's important not only for the club but for the game that coaches are able to do that. Australia has a wonderful record internationally when it comes to coaches and there are a lot of Australians throughout international sport doing great things. I think Australians in general have an inquisitive nature."

By the time Longmire landed in America, Sydney had been forced to deal with a Mad Monday incident that will leave them without one of the club's best players for the first half of the season, after Callum Mills tore his rotator cuff and required surgery

The 2022 All-Australian and Bob Skilton medallist isn't expected to be available until round 10 in a best-case scenario. But despite the optics, Longmire said the incident never swayed the club's thinking. Mills has proven himself over a long period of time that he is the outstanding leader at Sydney. That is why the Swans had no problem installing the 26-year-old as sole skipper after sharing the responsibility with Luke Parker and Dane Rampe across the past two seasons. 

"He was always going to be captain of the footy club – he was already captain, people forget that – he has been captain for a couple of years, so it wasn't as if he has been elevated. 'Ramps' said to me last year it was probably time for Mills to do it by himself. It was the natural progression. In the end, you back that in because it made sense to everyone internally," Longmire said. 

"If you just look at on-field, then yes maybe (we could have considered keeping Parker given the unavailability of Mills), but captaincy is so much more off-field. You can have an impact on a playing group and whole football club without being on the ground. More than ever it's about what happens off the field. There is so much more about captaincy and leadership than just on-field, so we felt it was time to do it even though he was going to miss a reasonable chunk of the season."

With Mills sidelined for the next few months and Parker breaking his arm in last Thursday's match simulation against Greater Western Sydney, Sydney's midfield depth will be tested in the early part of the season. Parker underwent surgery last week to have a rod inserted in his arm and will meet with his surgeon on Friday to determine his return date. He could miss a week, a month or two. Time will tell, but the Swans aren't panicking. They have two of the best young midfielders in the game – reigning best-and-fairest winner Errol Gulden and Chad Warner – plus the underrated James Rowbottom, who has finished third in the past two Skilton Medals. 

John Longmire and Callum Mills after Mills was unveiled as Sydney's captain for the 2024 season. Picture: Phil Hillyard/AFL Photos

And then there is what they did last October. Sydney went and landed Melbourne ruckman Brodie Grundy as well as unrestricted free agent James Jordon. Taylor Adams joined from Collingwood in a move that leapt from nowhere, but made sense for all parties. Joel Hamling also moved from Fremantle as an unrestricted free agent to provide coverage down back. 

Since Sydney beat crosstown rival Greater Western Sydney to secure the coveted signature of Lance Franklin in 2013 – and was subsequently stripped of a cost of living allowance 12 months later – the Swans have only recruited eight players – never more than two in one window – via trade and free agency, until last year. 

Longmire said the Swans didn't attack the Trade Period in response to a season where they drifted from reaching a Grand Final in 2022 to sneaking into the finals in 2023, after spending 16 consecutive weeks outside the top eight. Instead, finally, the Swans had the salary cap flexibility to plug some holes, allowing veteran list manager Kinnear Beatson to pick the eyes out of opposition lists, rather than just at the draft. 

"It was the first time we've been able to approach that period in 10 years," he said. "Over that 10-year period, we've traded the least amount of players in across the competition. It was just allowing us to be in a position to solve some positions on the ground that we needed to solve. Generally, we've had to do it through the draft. We've had some trades, but really not many. It's an avenue of the game we haven't been able to get amongst until last year, which felt good."

Two-time All-Australian ruckman Grundy has made a seamless transition since moving to the Harbour City after a challenging 18-month period that has stalled a career that once looked destined for the Hall of Fame. Collingwood traded him to Melbourne despite being contracted for five more seasons in 2022, before the Demons opted to leave him out of the senior side late in the year, rather than pairing him with Max Gawn. By September, Grundy could have the last laugh. 

"I haven't thought if he can get back to that [All-Australian form], I've just thought about what he can deliver for us. I didn't have any preconceived ideas when he turned up about his footy. I just knew he was a good player," he said.

"He has turned up and trained really hard and has a big presence around the ball. His work at ground level is so impressive. He is such a competitor around the footy and we've noticed that. He has been really consistent with his training, showing us what he can do around the ground, particularly in the midfield."

Brodie Grundy poses in his new Sydney colours for the first time at Coogee on November 30, 2023. Picture: Phil Hillyard

Longmire knows the Logan McDonald questions will come this year. That's the nature of the beast. But at this age and stage, the coach isn't fazed by the noise. The two West Australian clubs, and other ambitious list managers around the country, will circle the 2020 pick No.4, who is out of contract at season's end. After kicking 32 goals in his third season last year – Jamarra Ugle-Hagan (pick No.1 that year) kicked 35 goals from 23 games, while Riley Thilthorpe (pick No.2) finished with 18 from 21 appearances – the 21-year-old showed some of the gains he has made across the summer when he slotted four goals against the Giants at Tramway Oval last week.

"I think he has been growing every year. He is a young key forward who has come into the competition and played a lot of games. I think he is tracking as good as the other young key forwards around the competition," he said. 


"The thing about Lance is Lance was able to take the best defender for a while, which has allowed Logan to come in and physically develop and grow into his body, which is what key position players do. He has played a fair bit of footy for us now. He is a smart player; he works hard and I think he is tracking really well for us. We view him as an important player for us and we'd love him to stay for as long as he can and make the forward line even better and make this footy club as good as it can be. Hopefully that can happen."

Longmire has been part of the furniture at Sydney since the end of 2001. He spent his first nine seasons as an assistant coach, replacing Paul Roos ahead of the 2011 season, following that famous succession plan. He is the longest serving coach in the Swans' history with 307 games next to his name – one of only 25 men to coach 300 VFL/AFL games – and has led Sydney to a premiership in 2012, as well as three other Grand Final appearances. 

The North Melbourne premiership player and 1990 Coleman medallist knows he is closer to the end than the start, but with two years to run on his contract, Longmire isn't preparing for this to be his final deal. He isn't wired that way. Sydney is one of the best run clubs in Australian sport and has traditionally planned for the future. When the time is right for him to pass the baton, Longmire aims for the club to be well placed for continued success, in all areas of the business. 

"What I plan for long-term is to have this footy club, on and off the field, in the best possible position. I'm almost, not obsessed by it, but it is the thing that really drives me, to get this footy club in a really strong position on and off the field. I know my job is largely on the field, but I see it plays an important role off the field," he said.

"When you take a broader view, it's not about me, it's about the footy club. I've been here for 22 years and I love trying to make the footy club as good as it can be. That's what drives me. Every day I come to work with that being front of mind. I'm also very fortunate – and I don't take this lightly – of Andrew Pridham and our board, of Tom Harley, Leon Cameron, we have some fantastic football people here. I think the combination of that keeps me really stimulated and living in the moment. If that's at the front of my mind, that's what I think about. What happens outside of that will take care of itself."

John Longmire looks on during Sydney's team photo day on January 16, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

One of the key changes inside Sydney's state-of-the-art headquarters in Moore Park is the departure of experienced assistant coach Don Pyke, who moved to West Coast as CEO in November, and Charlie Gardiner's decision to relocate to the Melbourne office in Albert Park. Former Giants coach Leon Cameron has moved just down the hallway and around the corner, from head of the Swans Academy to head of football. Finding experienced football coaches and administrators in New South Wales – or recruiting them – has proven hard at both clubs, but the Swans have always injected the program with quality operators. 

Longmire has witnessed the evolution of the AFL in Sydney up close, from the progression of the Academy to the introduction of Greater Western Sydney and the impact of Buddy on a city where the NRL attracts the most eyeballs and newspaper copy. The Swans have eclipsed 60,000 members three times since 2018, setting a new record of 65,332 in 2023. The introduction of Opening Round is another step in the right direction, but Longmire knows the game can't take its foot off the gas. The Swans might have the highest average attendance of any team in town – 32,824 in 2023 – but Longmire knows NRL clubs, plus Sydney FC and the NSW Waratahs, aren't going anywhere.

"I think Opening Round is a start," he said. "One-time events help, but I think over a longer period we've got to be sustainable. We've got to be open-minded to Gather Round in future. This is the most competitive sporting market in the world as far as professional sporting teams. I've seen it through kids, I've seen it through competing for the best athletes and there is still so much growth in that space. I think it's a great opportunity for the code if we get this right, but we need to work at it, because as soon as we take the foot off the accelerator there are so many other sports that will take your place."

More than two decades into his time at the Swans, Longmire is still all-in on Sydney – not just his team, but the code in this city – and still chasing that elusive second premiership.