Requiem for Big Jack

Filed in Other by on December 9, 2010

“We all know you’re soft cause we’ve all seen you dancing
We all know you’re hard cause we’ve all seen you drinking from noon
Until noon again”
-“The Boy with the Arab Strap”, Belle and Sebastian

There is something about a great coach that ensures the eminent sports mentors are revered in almost beatific tones. Perhaps it has something to do with longevity. Players have a limited lifespan on the field whereas coaches can remain in charge for decades. Maybe it has something to do with the paternal characteristics the best coaches tend to exude. Players are held captive by structures of the team whereas coaches have the freedom to allow their natural humanity, personality and innovation to flow through. It could be the responsibility of the coach. Where players, even the best, are chess pieces, the coach is the hand that steers them.

There is a special aura that surrounds the exceptional coaches, the ones that not only transcend generations but define eras.

Greatness, though, is not a fixed construct. The measure of same changes over time and for great athletes, it tends to diminish. The reverse is true for coaches where reputations grow with time and the true impact of their achievements are more fully grasped.

The great coaches, through their careers, become the faces of their sport, protectors of its past and pioneers of its future. They are students of history with an eye for the future. They are also, of course, well versed in the book of success. John Wooden, Dean Smith and Bob Knight in college hoops. Bear Bryant, Bo Schembechler and Joe Paterno is college football. Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry and Bill Walsh in the NFL. Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Red Auerbach in the NBA. Casey Stengel, Tommy Lasorda and Sparky Anderson in big league baseball. Alex Ferguson and Matt Busby. Jock McHale, Norm Smith and Kevin Sheedy. Wayne Bennett, Tim Sheens and Chris Anderson. They were all historians and innovators, winners and mentors, advisors and creators.

Jack Gibson, of course, sits comfortably with the finest coaches to ever run a sports team. He also sits contentedly amongst the great thinkers. One would not be surprised if Big Jack was holding court, enthralling and inspiring with pithy one-liners and sage words of wisdom.

His coaching record speaks for itself and that alone would be enough for him to be considered the greatest coach rugby league has ever known. One of the wonderful things sports offers is measurability. At its purest level, players and coaches and teams are compared based on wins and losses, premierships and wooden spoons. Success and failure are more easily identifiable in sport than in other fields. When it comes to rugby league in Australia, few have the resume of success that Jack Gibson did.

After a solid if unspectacular career as a rugged front row forward, feared by many in an era where on-field violence was par for the course, Gibson’s elevation to rugby league sainthood began at Eastern Suburbs in the days when the decade of Dragons dominance was drawing to a close. The year was 1967 and the Tricolours were going through a most unpleasant trot, failing to win a game throughout the entire 1966 season. When Easts made the finals in 1967 and 1968, the first signs of brilliance were there and the ascension had begun.

As would become his hallmark over his career, Gibson did not hang about. He was aware of the staleness created by lack of change and always figured it best for himself and for the club to move on while on top. He sat out 1969 before taking over a Dragons side that was expected to be in rebuilding mode. He took the Saints to the finals in 1970 before guiding them to the Grand Final in 1971, where they lost to a classy South Sydney outfit. It was the only Grand Final Jack Gibson would ever lose. He was always one to learn from his failings.

After a year at Newtown, where he led the perennially struggling club to their only ever club championship, Gibson’s canonization began. Like the Prodigal Son, Gibson returned home. And with him came glory, riches and immortality. Easts had not won a premiership in nearly three decades and had become a sad cover of the one-time pride of the league. Gibson fixed all that. In 1974, the first season of Gibson’s second stint at Easts, the team was simply unstoppable and rampaged their way to premiership success. 1975 was no different with Gibson’s Easts winning a still-record nineteen straight matches while taking the premiership.

After another season at Easts and a couple of unsuccessful years at Souths (a place where only a precious few taste victory), Gibson took control of Parramatta. The closest Parramatta had come to premiership glory was consecutive Grand Final defeats in 1976 and 1977. They were not renowned for winning. Under Big Jack, Parramatta won three straight premierships, the last team to do so. With the salary cap now in force, it is doubtful that it will be achieved again.

Like Moses, Gibson led both Easts and Parramatta from the wilderness to the bountiful kingdom of magnificence. Not only was premiership glory attained but immortality. The Eastern Suburbs team of the mid-seventies and the Eels team of the early eighties are both regarded as two of the most brilliant teams ever assembled. And it took Gibson to get them over the line. His impact can be measured as much by his five premierships as it can be by the fate of each team after Gibson had moved on. Easts would not win another premiership for nearly three decades and even that was tainted. And the Eels would win again in 1986 with the legacy of Gibson still fresh but have never been able to break through since.

After Parramatta, Gibson had a three year stint at Cronulla and history tells us that even Jack could not take them to the top. Though the porch light was left on, neither Harold Holt nor a premiership arrived in Jack’s time, or anytime since for that matter.

He took New South Wales to a series victory in 1990 and that was to be his farewell. He has been given every honour possible since, from being named the coach for Australia’s Team of the Century to being awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia and the Australian Sports Medal to being slapped with the moniker Supercoach.

All the accolades and glowing references, all the medals and the monikers, all the titles and awards, Jack deserved. Not only was he a winner, he was a pioneer and his impact on rugby league can still be seen today. Professionalism started with Jack. He was the first to give the role of the rugby league coach credibility and that was due to his insistence discipline and his introduction of professional training techniques and procedures. Video analysis, the use of statistics, weight machines, fitness tests and assistant coaches all started with Jack. In a rugby league sense, at any rate. In his tactics, he was always willing to try new things as well. The bomb, the most lethal scoring weapon in rugby league today, is a product of Gibson’s innovation, as were such vaunted moves as the flying wedge and the wall. The best are always prepared to break barriers and tread new ground and Jack was never fearful of what lay through the looking glass.

There was, of course, more to Jack than just his rugby league deeds. He was a character and a wise one at that. He had time for kings and queens and pimps and whores. All those who came into contact with him speak of his unassuming learnedness and his willingness to share his knowledge. They didn’t come much harder than Jack Gibson. And they didn’t come much softer either. A lifetime is a long time yet few accomplished what Jack did. He mixed in high circles and in low and was adored by most and revered by nearly all.

Few prophets of the game have contributed as much. To rugby league and to people.

It is somewhat fitting that in the Centenary season, we are celebrating the life, the achievements, the brilliance, the compassion of Jack Gibson.

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