Monday, July 18, 2011

Malthouse, Buckley and Collingwood: The New Leno vs. Conan

Mick Malthouse was one of the AFL's first ever career coaches. With nemesis - and Richmond back-pocket predecessor - Kevin Sheedy, he began leading teams to victory in the early days of AFL professionalism and continues doing so to this day. So then, are his recent strong implications that he's not done coaching any surprise?

After retiring from Richmond in 1983, he quickly took the reins of Footscray and led them to their highest finish in years - a tough Preliminary Final loss to the outstanding Jeans-era Hawks. After six years with the Bulldogs, he moved to Perth and the Eagles to instantly bring the then-new club into respectability. Two years later, the Eagles claimed their first Premiership. A decade of success on the other coast followed before a highly-publicised move to Collingwood.

Where within two years, he had led Collingwood to a Grand Final berth against competition powerhouse Brisbane. Last year, his eleventh in the black and white, brought their first Cup for twenty years. It also brought the promise of his imminent demise as Senior Coach when club President Eddie McGuire negotiated a handover of power at the club to take place at the end of 2011. Malthouse's former captain - and respected coaching prospect - Nathan Buckley will take power as Senior Coach while the boy from North Ballarat moves into a Director of Coaching role.

It never felt like Mick was at ease with such a role, no matter how much he protested. He feels he is a head coach, rather than a coaching coordinator and very few people would argue. The situation became moderately more controversial when on last week's episode of "The Footy Show", he claimed he'd been performing this role for twenty-eight years and didn't think he could just "turn the tap off". The implication being that he would prefer to continue coaching Collingwood, but would probably pursue other AFL coaching opportunities once he handed control of the Pies to Buckley.

While other such transitions of power have taken vogue around the league, this one involves three league icons and a departing coach who doesn't feel like it's his time to leave. Where Paul Roos had reached near burn-out stage and Leigh Matthews realised his time had passed before handing on to valued lieutenants, the competitive fire in Malthouse still smoulders.

The situation is starkly reminiscent of the 2010 "The Tonight Show" affair. NBC's The Tonight Show, formerly hosted by Johnny Carson, was the subject of much debate when the current host, Jay Leno, was replaced by Conan O'Brien. In 1999, to prevent O'Brien being poached by another network, NBC offered the redhead a ten-year contract to stay as host of The Late Show, whereupon at that contract's conclusion he would succeed Leno as host of The Tonight Show. Leno agreed to the deal and was "bumped" earlier to the 10.30 EST slot.

When ratings didn't boom, NBC executives tried to move Leno back to 11.30 - with Conan and the Tonight Show airing just past midnight, disturbing the decades-long 11.35 run the Tonight Show franchise had made its own. The result: O'Brien left NBC for TBS with $33 million dollars, Leno took over the Tonight Show amidst a hurricane of criticism for knifing his former colleague and the Tonight Show and NBC Late Night brands were damaged by constant barbs traded between the comics.

The parallels are quite apparent and McGuire must use all his considerable public relations skills to either move Malthouse aside quietly or impress upon him the damage he could inflict to Collingwood by remaining so open to the media. There will be no shortage of suitors - anywhere from Port Adelaide to Melbourne could be looking for a new boss and, should he be prepared to sit out a year from football, could well have his pick of almost any coaching position in the league.

McGuire must also realise all that glitters is not necessarily golden. While James Hird has achieved success at Essendon, Michael Voss has had completely the opposite effect in Brisbane. Earmarked from his early twenties as a coach in waiting, Buckley has a wonderful pedigree - as had the Brisbane champion. All Malthouse has are the wins on the board.

It was the same for NBC, who moved Leno into a less-prominent position only when results turned, to bring him back. With the support structures in place at Olympic Park such a dramatic turnaround in fortunes is unlikely. But it appears by enforcing change primarily to retain the services of Buckley, the Pies may be crossing bridges before they need to.

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