AT THE end of every game of footy, it’s the scoreboard that settles the last of the arguments that might have been running up to the final siren.
It's always been about the W and the L.
For newly elevated Legend of the Game Jack Oatey, the scoreboard is emphatic.
- Most wins as a coach in the 144-year history of the SANFL (521).
- Most premierships as a coach (10, equal with John Cahill).
More than a quarter of a century after his passing, it's undeniable Oatey was successful, but he is a Legend because he changed the way success was achieved in South Australian football, and altered the very nature of how the game was played in the state.
Skilled and tough, he was a four-time best and fairest and was named first rover in Norwood’s team of the century during a career interrupted by World War 2.
He was a five-time premiership player across his time at Norwood, and the smaller war-time league, and led the Redlegs to three flags as captain/coach in 1946, '48 and '50. From there, it was a short stint with West Adelaide that included a Grand Final loss against his great rival Fos Williams, before a 21-year association with Sturt.
It was here the direction of the game in South Australia changed forever.
The Double Blues were a down-trodden club when Oatey walked in to Unley for the 1962 season, having just claimed their fifth wooden spoon in the two decades since its last premiership during the war years. Once nicknamed 'Bull' as a child for an occasional propensity to be involved in a school 'fracas', would turn an also-ran into a powerhouse with seven premierships and an extraordinary win rate beyond 67 per cent.
Teamwork, playing the ball and perfection of all the skills were the major parts of his coaching mantra.
Kick with both feet, but kick well always to the team's advantage, not just for territory.
Use handball, not just as a last resort, but as an attacking weapon.
Years ahead of his time, everyone had to understand that a break in the game at a bounce or throw-in (re-named nowadays as a stoppage), or the resumption after a goal in the middle of the ground, was a key tactical moment every single time within a game. His players were required to establish starting positions and know exactly where they were to go and what they had to do if they had the ball, a teammate got the ball or the opposition had the ball. Every single time.
Son Peter, now rising 75, began his league career with a now-struggling Norwood still living at home while his father was about to embark on five successive premierships from 1966-70.
If that was difficult for Peter, elder son Robert, an outstanding player and SANFL Hall of Famer who was named as second rover to his father in the Norwood team of the century, was coach of the Redlegs in this period and regularly getting schooled by his father twice a year.
"Port Adelaide was the great team of the 1950s and early 1960s, a very great team, and they were powerful, tough, physical and strictly disciplined by Fos Williams," Peter says.
"Dad absolutely believed in discipline, but his discipline particularly involved teamwork and the requirement to perfect your skills.
"Whenever I played against Port, it would be a tough, hard, physical contest.
"A game against Sturt was always physical at close quarters but you always felt like you just couldn’t quite lay your hands on the ball, because they constantly moved it so quickly and so well down the ground.
"You were always a step or two behind them, or in the wrong place no matter what you tried, because their kicking and their handball skills were a step above every other team in the league."
That said, being an Oatey offspring playing at his father's former club didn’t mean of course that Peter was immune to contact from the Sturt players if they needed to be physical.
The robust Sturt captain Bob Shearman once flattened Peter in the centre square at Unley in pursuit of the ball.
When his son had made it home slowly, bruises included, and found dad already there, all he got was, 'never get in Bob's way son, never get in his way because he'll run straight through you'. Dad displayed a wicked sense of humour in the change rooms, largely held from the public, but there's little sympathy in footy.
Sturt kept winning and winning – seven flags in 11 years at their highpoint between 1966-76 – until other sides had spent the time perfecting their skills to be able to compete.
Oatey's teams would never kick deep to pockets intentionally and forwards were never to lead wide. Too hard to kick goals from there.
Always centre the ball if possible for the best chance of a goal but, if stuck in a pocket, his players were the first to perfect the 'back screwie', better known nowadays as a checkside or banana. These new kicks were practised over and over again at the end of training, whereas once all players wobbled a punt hopefully at goal from a tight angle.
Set-ups at ruck contests were perfected with the combination of Rick Davies, Paul Bagshaw and Mick Nunan nigh on unstoppable.
Above all else, the team above the individual. Awards did not matter, premierships did.
"'On with the dance,' he'd always say," remembers Peter.
"Everything was about the unit, your role in that unit and what you could do to be part of helping the team to win. Maybe from his experiences in the war, but he always talked of 'the unit', and what 'the unit' could achieve.
"He was coaching a rival club against his sons but it was quite normal for us because that’s what we always knew and he'd always just encourage us to work on our skills and be the best player we could be, while leading his magnificent team."
The Eastern grandstand at the redeveloped Adelaide Oval is now named in his honour, while the best player in the SANFL Grand Final wins the Jack Oatey Medal, an honour instituted while Oatey was still active within the league four decades ago.
This highest honour brings back only good memories for Peter.
"Football was the central part of dad’s life outside of the family and his occupation as a News Ltd typographer manager.
"He loved everything about it – the players he played with, the young men he coached in life and in football, the work it took to achieve something as a team, and just watching games and trying to always learn and be a bit better," Peter says.
"It’s a fitting tribute for someone who dedicated his life to the game and people in football."
Oatey’s standout players
It was Paul Bagshaw and Rick Davies (both members of the Australian Football Hall of Fame). In the house, when we would talk about how Sturt went that day and how we went that day for Norwood if we weren’t playing against each other, he would speak about teamwork and use his photographic memory to recall each player’s exploits, good and bad, and Paul and Rick would get a regular mention. Paul did things that were extraordinary but made them look so simple, while Rick was just so dominant with his marking and ruck play.
His defining memory
The 1976 Grand Final, because it was such an upset. No side had ever come from losing a qualifying final to win a flag before that day. Port Adelaide was the overwhelming favourite but it was dad’s 10th premiership to set a new record, and Davies’ game was the greatest Grand Final a player has ever had in South Australia (21 kicks, 21 marks, 15 handballs, 21 hit outs).
The great regret
Conversely, the 1978 Grand Final, his last grand final appearance when former club Norwood claimed a one-point victory in the Redlegs’ centenary year. Sturt had lost one game for the season, and beaten Norwood three times previously, but horrendous kicking (14.26 to 16.15) meant a premiership slipped away. As a Norwood man, I still felt genuinely sad for dad that day because that was one of his very best teams, but they lost it by a point.
Oatey’s rules for public behaviour for his players:
- look well-shaven and well-groomed with hair clean-cut
- dress neatly with blazer and tie, especially at club functions
- not divulging tactical plans to anyone outside the inner sanctum, including, and especially, when interviewed by the media
- only drink a small beer (a 'butcher') on occasion
- conduct themselves correctly at all times and in a manner befitting the club's image.
Jack Oatey Career Record
- 162 games for Norwood, 1940-41 and 1945-52, 218 goals
- 19 games for Norwood-North (wartime league), 1942-44, 15 goals
- 5 games for South Melbourne 1944, 4 goals
- 7 games for SA, Captain 1949 and 1950, coach 1949, 1950 and 1959
- 5x Premiership player 1941 (player) 1943 (player) 1946 (player-coach) 1948 (player-coach) 1950 (player-coach)
- 4x Best and Fairest 1940 1941 1942 1945
- Captain 1945-52
- Coached Norwood 1945-56, 229 games for 148 wins, 80 losses, one draw and three premierships 1946 1948 1950
- Coached West Adelaide 1957-60, 87 games for 59 wins, 28 losses
- Coached Sturt 1962-82, 470 games for 314 wins, 152 losses, four draws and seven premierships 1966-70, 1974 and 1976
- 12x Premierships overall with 10x premierships total as coach 1946 1948 1950 1966 1967 1968 1969 1970 1974 1976
- Captain / Coach / First Rover, Norwood Team of the Century
- Coach, Sturt Team of the Century
- SANFL Hall of Fame
- SANFL Grand Final Best on Ground Medal Named in his Honour, the Jack Oatey Medal