A celebrated premiership coach and titan of the sport, has been told by a headline-making president that he will be forced to step aside for a Brownlow Medal-winning favourite son currently serving at the club as an assistant coach.
But rather than Mick Malthouse and Nathan Buckley being at the centre of football’s latest coaching transition plan, like they were a decade ago, this time it’s Alastair Clarkson and Sam Mitchell.
There are slight differences, of course.
Collingwood was right at the pointy end of premiership contention when Eddie McGuire created what I’m sure he would call a proud and historic day, asking Malthouse to become director of coaching and shepherding Buckley into the senior role.
Malthouse’s last two years at Collingwood delivered one premiership from two (three including the draw) grand finals. He took the club to the last day in September four times in 12 years through two rebuilds, and was famously close to his players on an emotional level.
Buckley took over, cast off Malthouse’s favourite players, and the Pies went backwards in his first six years at the helm. By the time he finished up earlier this year, he had taken his club backwards in nine of his ten seasons.
Ultimately, Buckley didn’t get remotely close to the record that Malthouse created at Collingwood, so the entire transition can only be seen as a mistake and another black mark against McGuire’s time at the Pies.
Hawthorn, by contrast, is very much not in contention. They currently sit 17th on the ladder with four wins from 15 matches and the second worst percentage in the competition tells us that position is very much a real one.
Clarkson has overseen a list overhaul after his famous premiership three-peat from 2013-15, and it has been an abject failure.
The initial plan was to stay in contention on the run, unceremoniously exiting champion veterans and trying to replace them with mature talent like Tom Mitchell, Jaegar O’Meara, Chad Wingard and Jarman Impey.
While the formula was inspired when flags were stockpiling up, it is an anchor weighing them to the bottom of the ladder now. They took a shot and they missed.
It is perfectly reasonable to acknowledge that Clarkson is without peer as a senior AFL coach, and also that his time at Hawthorn is done and the club could be better served by a fresh voice rather than extending him into a 19th year and beyond. That is the approach the Hawks have taken.
Sam Mitchell the footballer bore many similarities to Nathan Buckley, not least via their reputations as serious, considered and intelligent football brains, coupled with faultless preparation and exacting standards. They were both captains who didn’t suffer fools, and were as good as any in their respective eras on both sides of their body – this was the part that showed you how much work they did on their skills, and how important an all-round game was to them.
The generations change quicker with each passing year, and the young footballer of today is different from that which Mitchell cut his teeth when recruited 20 years ago.
The balance is to make the emotional connection and form supporting relationships while still being able to assert a way of thinking and playing that takes no prisoners and brooks no argument. Tough love is a tricky needle to thread.
We look to other transition plans in recent AFL history to see if there have been any that counteracted the disaster of Malthouse-Buckley.
John Worsfold’s handover to Ben Rutten plagued the Bombers all year in 2020, with reports of instability and confusion hounding the club, and so it played out on the field. With one clear voice this season, they are playing a more exciting brand than any team on the rebuild. What a wasted year it was, not having Rutten take the reins solo.
David Parkin to Wayne Brittain at Carlton in the early 2000s was an unmitigated disaster, with the latter replaced after two seasons. The Blues still haven’t recovered.
Paul Roos had success at Sydney, handing over to long-time assistant John Longmire at the end of 2010, who then duly coached a premiership in 2012.
Roos has certainly proven unique in AFL senior ranks, in that he was always vocal about never wanting to be a career coach – he stepped into the breach once more at Melbourne, formalising a succession plan with Simon Goodwin. That particular plan has had mixed results thus far, but no more or less than any other coach may have achieved coming in cold.
And then we look at favourite sons returning to coach the club they made their name as a player – Buckley, Michael Voss, James Hird, Justin Leppitsch in recent times – who are all failures.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, as the old saying goes.
Mitchell may turn out to be a good coach. He may even be a great one. He may end up on the scrapheap after three or four years. Or he might get an extended run due to being a club champion, afforded extra time to deliver success.
But another 12 months as an assistant isn’t going to change any of those things. If he’s the right man for the job as of October 1, 2022, then he’s the right man for the job now.
More is gained from 12 months learning on the job in the actual hot seat than 12 years of assistant coaching, and the Hawks are just treading water if they see the full succession plan through. If you’re going to do it, then do it.
Clarkson has been told his contract won’t be renewed. He is not wanted. Mitchell is.
Power-brokers at Collingwood must surely have been hitting the phones this afternoon and the smart money is currently being placed.
As always with Alastair Clarkson though, things will be on his terms. If he wants to be a senior coach at another club, then he will be, and Sam Mitchell can fend for himself immediately. If he doesn’t, then he’ll either see his current contract through or walk away if it’s not working.
Whatever the outcome, all eyes will be on Alastair Clarkson for the next 12 months at least.