HAWTHORN faces a delicate contract negotiation with unsigned assistant coach and favourite son Sam Mitchell that is likely to hinge on the future of senior coach Alastair Clarkson.
Mitchell's three-year deal with the Hawks is due to expire at season's end, with the four-time premiership hero set to be inundated with offers from rival clubs.
While Mitchell has taken the reins of the Hawks' VFL affiliate Box Hill this season as part of his development to become a senior coach, he will seek clarity on the club's long-term future – which includes Clarkson – before recommitting.
Clarkson holds a contract until the end of 2022, with president Jeff Kennett last week reiterating the Hawks would wait until the end of 2021 to discuss Clarko's next moves.
It is an outcome that will directly impact Mitchell who is seen by many as a coach-in-waiting but remains without any formal timeline from the Hawks as to whether that will be fulfilled at Waverley Park.
Hawks chief executive Justin Reeves again moved to clarify that there was no unwritten Clarkson-Mitchell succession plan in place when speaking on 3AW on Monday night.
Recent examples at other clubs include John Worsfold's handover to Ben Rutten at Essendon for 2021 and Simon Goodwin's replacement of Paul Roos at Melbourne in 2017. Both assistants signed long-term deals, which included time in the second chair, before taking the top job.
Clarkson has been forthright in his assessment of the Hawks' current situation, insisting that the club was entering "a new frontier" in 2021 when speaking to AFL.com.au on the eve of the season. The Hawks' 2-7 start to 2021 is their worst standing after nine rounds in Clarkson's now 17th year at the helm.
Clarkson also praised Mitchell's "sacrifice" in steering Box Hill this year in a move he believes will only enhance his former champion midfielder's coaching resume.
"Whether he's going to do that for 12 months, two years, three years, I don't know," Clarkson told the Your Coach podcast.
"But all I do know, that evolution, whether it's at Hawthorn or another club where he gets that opportunity, he's going to be a much better-rounded coach at the end of this process than he would've been if he had not done it.
"The real difficult part for any coach with aspirations to coach AFL is that both the financial implication as well as an ego one in a sense, (dictate an assistant to say) that 'I want to be involved with the big stuff, the AFL, that's where I'm going to learn the most'.
"Without a doubt, in my view, the most beneficial role anyone can do in their preparation to be a senior coach is to coach your own team somewhere along the journey.
"He's got to call the shots, he's got his own club, he's got his own president, he's got his own general manager of footy, his own head trainer, own runner and all the things that go along with that and the management of it. But part of it with (wife) Lyndall and his three kids is to learn how to be the family of a senior coach and he's on that journey right now."
As well as coaching Box Hill and being a hands-on assistant at training during the week, Mitchell has been working on Clarkson's bench at AFL level when the VFL and AFL matches haven't clashed this season.
Mitchell delivered a shock when he departed the Hawks as a player at the end of 2016 to take up a coaching/playing role at West Coast.
It is a move he had been long preparing for after completing the Next Coach course (a program Simon Goodwin, Ben Rutten and Adam Simpson among others have done) under long-time AFL assistant David Wheadon in 2014.
The now 38-year-old played 22 matches for the Eagles in 2017 while helping mentor the club's midfield before stepping full-time into the coaches' box to oversee the engine room during the 2018 premiership.
Despite two years remaining on his contract in the west, Mitchell moved back to Victoria at the end of 2018 and accepted a three-year deal under Clarkson. The first two seasons were spent as the Hawks' midfield coach.
Reeves, new football boss Rob McCartney, football director Richie Vandenberg and Kennett, whose current term runs until 2023, are expected to be the key decision-makers in Hawthorn's next key football moves.