GALLERY: Tommy Hafey, loved and admired on the Border

Tommy Hafey has died at age 82.
Tommy Hafey has died at age 82.

AUSTRALIAN football has had no greater or more enthusiastic evangelist than Tom Hafey, who died last night, aged 82.

He was coach of Richmond’s team of the century.

He coached the Tigers to four premierships in eight years, the most successful era in the club’s history. 

Subsequently, he coached Collingwood from last to first in one season, and to two more grand finals.

At Geelong, he gave football’s most famous second chances to Gary Ablett and Greg Williams.

Sydney had played finals twice in 40 years before Hafey went there; he made it twice in two. 

But he was as proud of his three premierships at Shepparton as any of his VFL/AFL exploits. 

To him, they were all one, all football people.

CLICK HERE for Tom Hafey's 2006 interview with The Border Mail where he talks about fitness, music and the one question he would ask God. 

Wherever he went, he made a point of being the most upbeat person in the place, the first to arrive, the last to leave, the benchmark in the gym. 

It was impossible not to be swept up in his zeal, so boyish, so ­irresistible. 

Almost to the day he died, if you asked Hafey how he was, he would invariably reply: “Sensational ... and getting better.”

He signed Percy Cerruty and Herb Elliott to make Richmond fitter than any other team in the then VFL. 

He fashioned a game around long kicking to advantage and hard running from contest to contest that would not look so out of place today.

But the technology was cruder: if he ever saw a newspaper photograph that showed Richmond outnumbered at the ball, he would demand to know why.

He turned every milestone — engagement, 21st, wedding — into a club event, and made Saturday nights at Tommy’s compulsory. 

Years later, he would look up his “boys” wherever he went in the country; he knew where they all were and what they were doing.

His intensity didn’t suit all players. 

His arms-length attitude to boards didn’t suit all committeemen, although his own loyalty was irreproachable. 

Some say Richmond never has fully recovered from sacking Hafey in 1976, despite another premiership in 1980.

Hafey got over it. 

When his big-league days finally were done, he became a kind of footballing special minister of state, travelling the length and breadth of the country to preach his gospel. 

One day, he drove from Mt Gambier to Omeo, stopping in at home in Beaumaris only for a cup of tea.

“I’ve never come across anyone who has a greater love of the game,” Kevin Bartlett said in 2011 when Hafey was inducted as an AFL coaches association legend. 

Bartlett and Sheedy were Hafey’s two most devoted acolytes.

Hafey did not drink or smoke. 

All his life, until very recently, he rose at 5.20am every day for a run on the beach, a dip in the bay and several hundred push-ups. 

Bartlett said he also picked up needles off the beach; one day he counted 38. 

Hafey’s motif as a coach was the T-shirt he wore, in all seasons. 

Into his 80s, he glowed with good health and preached it. 

To schoolkids, he talked about drugs, alcohol and self-esteem. 

To men, he said: “Look after your health. When you’re gone, she’s going to be running around with some other fella, spending all your money.” 

He never lost faith in sport’s affirming and redeeming power. 

The week he was honoured by the coaches association, he bubbled about having seen a team made up of nine nationalities at Roxburgh Park, arm-in-arm after a win.

“No race, no colour, no creed,” he said.

Hafey carried a business card, on the back of which was a micro-parable about a gazelle and a lion who awake each morning, each knowing they must run faster, the gazelle faster than the fastest lion to avoid being killed, the lion faster than the slowest gazelle to avoid starvation.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle,” ran the moral, “when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

But Tom Hafey didn’t greet the sun this morning, and the football world is a sadder and less sparkling place for it.