JOHN Kennedy snr, the three-time Hawthorn premiership coach and the greatest figure in the club’s history, has passed away.
The club said he died peacefully on Thursday morning. He was 91 and had just become an official Legend in the Australian Football Hall of Fame.
Kennedy joined the Hawks as an ungainly, awkward ruckman in 1950 and won the best and fairest in his first season. But it was also a winless season for the Hawks, the darkest in the club’s history and it shaped his outlook on the game for the rest of his life.
Kennedy would go on to win more best and fairest awards in 1951, 1952 and 1954 and would retire in 1959 after 164 games. He was captain of the Hawks in his last five seasons, including 1957 when the club made the finals for the first time, 32 years after its admission to the VFL.
Kennedy was immediately installed as coach and barely survived the axe when the Hawks lost their first five games in 1960.
However, they quickly came good. Years of clever recruiting both from the country and the nearby private schools, a brutal training regimen well ahead of its time, and some Kennedy fire and brimstone led to the Hawks just missing out on the finals that year but entering 1961 as one of the favourites for the flag.
Hawthorn stumbled to a 4-4 start before flying through the rest of the season undefeated. ‘Kennedy’s Commandoes’ outlasted reigning premiers Melbourne by seven points in a torrid semi-final before careering away from Footscray in the Grand Final to win the club’s first premiership by 43 points.
Dour and taciturn even at the best of times, Kennedy would only allow himself to bask in the enjoyment of the maiden premiership that night at Glenferrie Oval when reminded by the Chief Justice of Victoria, Sir Henry Winneke, whose son John played in the ruck for the Hawks that day, “There will be other premierships, John, but only one first premiership.”
Kennedy then coached the Hawks into the 1963 Grand Final, which they lost to Geelong, before a job transfer to Stawell with the Victorian Department of Education forced him to resign as coach.
He returned to the Hawks in 1967, still a strong believer in spartan training sessions and no-frills football. But with emerging stars such as Peter Hudson, Leigh Matthews, Peter Knights, Don Scott, Kelvin Moore and Peter Crimmins at his disposal, the Hawks started a steady climb up the ladder and they won their second flag in 1971 beating St Kilda by seven points in arguably the toughest Grand Final ever played.
And they won their third flag in 1976, in a Grand Final tinged with sadness with the cancer-riven Crimmins on his deathbed. He would die just three days later.
Twelve months before, Kennedy had left Crimmins out of the losing Grand Final against North Melbourne, making the agonising decision for fear that Crimmins, who was recovering from his first cancer treatment, might not get through the match.
It was during this Grand Final that Kennedy was recorded for posterity and his famous exhortation to spearhead Michael Moncrieff became part of football lore: “Do, don’t think, Mick, don’t hope, do!”
Kennedy retired from coaching after the 1976 Grand Final to spend more time with his family, but by that stage, his values of honesty, humility and sacrificing it all for the jumper were forever embedded into Hawthorn’s DNA. When he played, he hated that Hawthorn was regarded as a friendly and social club, which nobody treated seriously and it drove him thereafter.
He instilled hardness into the club, with a belief that all injuries above the neckline “didn’t count”. His was a selfless, team-first philosophy and he was quite satisfied that in his time at the club, no Hawthorn player won a Brownlow.
However despite Kennedy’s rugged outlook on how the game should be played, this classically-trained teacher was one of football’s greatest orators. As Parkin once said, “His exceptional oratory ability, where players in particular, saw at its best the way in which the Queen’s English can be used to project the philosophy of Marx, the beauty of Shakespeare, and the passion of Churchill.”
The exception was the media. When once asked about a game in which the Hawks copped a raw deal from the men in white, he reportedly said, “Normally I have no comment about the umpires. Today I have absolutely no comment about the umpires.”
Kennedy remained close to Hawthorn during his first retirement and was chairman of selectors when Allan Jeans was appointed coach in 1981. But he shocked the football world in 1985 – and saddened the Hawks – when he agreed to coach North Melbourne. He twice led the Kangaroos to the finals in his five years at Arden Street, but was also the first senior coach of an impressionable young rover from Kaniva. His name? Alastair Clarkson.
Kennedy was appointed as chairman of the AFL Commission in 1993 and remained in that role for five years. After that, he went back to watching his beloved Hawks on a weekly basis. His son John jnr was a four-time premiership player for the Hawks over 241 games between 1979 and 1991 and there was great excitement when grandson Josh debuted for the Hawks in 2008. He would then join the Swans in 2010 and played in that club’s 2012 premiership win over the Hawks.
It was portrayed as a bittersweet day for Kennedy, but he remained resolute throughout. He wanted Josh to play well – and he did – but despite the family ties, he anguished for a Hawthorn win.
Josh is set to play his 250th AFL game tonight when Sydney takes on the Western Bulldogs.
Family, faith and football were always the constants in his life.
Clarkson has now coached Hawthorn to the most premierships, but he like all at the club, walks in Kennedy’s shadow – not just figuratively, but literally. A statue of Kennedy overlooks the oval at Waverley Park, Hawthorn’s training and administration base, and the coaches and players pass it every time they step on the ground.