A tall man smiles wearing a Melbourne scarf around his neck as he stands next to an older man in a suit.

Ron Barassi’s extraordinary life in Australian rules football helped shape the modern game

In sport, as in life, sometimes people come along who change things by their presence, their efforts and their ideas.

Ron Barassi (1936-2023)

As a player

254 games (204 for Melbourne, 50 for Carlton)
330 goals (295 for Melbourne, 35 for Carlton)
VFL premierships: six for Melbourne
3 x All-Australian
Melbourne captain
Carlton captain-coach
Victorian captain

As a coach

514 games (147 for Carlton, 198 for Nth Melbourne, 11 for Melbourne, 59 for Sydney)
VFL premierships: four (two with Carlton — one as captain-coach, two with North Melbourne)

Other honours

Inducted Australian Football Hall of Fame: 1996
Named AFL Legend, 1996
Inducted Sport Australia Hall of Fame: 1987
Elevated to Legend of Australian Sport: 2006

Ronald Dale Barassi was definitively one of those people.

In the realm of Australian football, Barassi was a person of the highest consequence — as a player, a coach, a motivator, a pundit and a presence.

Either directly or indirectly, he contributed to a number of moments and movements that made the game different — and arguably better for it.

He was a different football figure to Ted Whitten, who was the lightning rod, the galvaniser of Victorian footy through the Bulldogs, interstate games and State of Origin.

But while Whitten’s larger-than-life persona grabbed the headlines and drew the emotions of fans of football in Victoria and elsewhere, Barassi’s overall impact on the game was even bigger across Australia as a whole.

He was connected to the game from birth, through his father Ron Barassi Senior, who played for the Demons before he was killed in action in World War II at Tobruk in 1941.

Barassi wanted to play for the Demons from an early age, and the Demons wanted him. So much so that they lobbied the VFL for an exemption to the zoning rules that meant he would be eligible only for Collingwood or Carlton.

The league introduced the father-son rule in 1949, and while Barassi was not the first player taken with the new rule, his case was a leading driver of the change.

Imagine a game without Gary Ablett Senior and Junior playing for Geelong, the Daicoses for Collingwood, the Watsons for Essendon, the Silvagnis for Carlton or the Hudsons for Hawthorn.

The father-son rule has become one of the cornerstones and traditions of the game.

The numbers of Barassi’s career are striking — 17 grand finals for 10 premierships as a player and coach, a total of 768 games of league football.

Ron Barassi was a physical presence on any football ground, and his attack on the ball and long-kicking was a weapon for the Demons and Blues. (Getty Images)

But he was much more than the statistics.

He redefined the game as a player, originating the role of ruck-rover through the thinking of super-coach Norm Smith — a dynamic role for a player who was shorter than the traditional height of a ruckman, but capable of directing play and focusing the attack, causing problems for the opposition.

He was not shy about making hard decisions. He shocked many by leaving Melbourne after six flags to join Carlton as captain-coach for the final years of his playing career, in large part because of the way his former club treated his mentor Smith.

He went on to win two flags as a coach with the Blues.

In the 1970s he helped turn the previously low-lying North Melbourne team into a juggernaut, joining the Allan Aylett-led football revolution. The Kangaroos trawled interstate and Victorian football for big names who drove a star line-up including the likes of Doug Wade, Keith Greig and Malcolm Blight.

But the football mastermind was Barassi. As coach he drove his team forward to reach five straight grand finals, winning the first two flags in the club’s history.

Barassi had the ability to look beyond the obvious. In the 1980s, he cast his eyes further afield than Australia, looking to Ireland’s Gaelic football as a source of potential players to change the game.

A tall man smiles wearing a Melbourne scarf around his neck as he stands next to an older man in a suit.

If it wasn’t for Ron Barassi’s ‘Irish experiment’, the AFL might never have seen Gaelic footballer turned Brownlow Medallist Jim Stynes.(Getty Images: Quinn Rooney)

Back at Melbourne as a coach from 1981 to 1985, he set in train the talent search in Ireland by the Demons, starting with Sean Wight and Jim Stynes.

The ‘Irish experiment’, as it was known, had its detractors, but it spread to St Kilda and other clubs and years later to the second generation starting with Sydney’s Tadhg Kennelly.

By the time the experiment bore fruit, Barassi was no longer at Melbourne — but in Stynes, the Dees found a player who would go on to be the best and fairest in the league in a game that was not his own.

Without Barassi’s — and the Demons’ — willingness to take a risk, Australian rules football would have missed out on one of its greats.

Now, virtually every AFL team has at least one Irishman on their books, and everyone acknowledges the value of the Gaelic skill-set married to the Australian game.

Barassi is intrinsically linked to football, not just because of the coining of the term “Barassi line” to separate the parts of Australia that love Australian rules compared to the areas of support for the rugby codes.

A Sydney Swans AFL coach points across the ground during a team talk with his players gathered behind him on the ground.

Ron Barassi had an unenviable task as coach of the struggling Swans in 1993 — he kick-started their turnaround and helped to save the game in Sydney.(Getty Images)

The man who was a headline name in Victorian football was at least partially responsible for keeping the game alive in Sydney at the nadir of the Swans in the early 1990s.

From round eight, 1992 — when Sydney beat the Brisbane Bears — the Swans lost the remaining 15 games of the season, and then continued the losing streak well into 1993.

Coach Gary Buckenara was sacked after a round four (third game of the season) loss to Essendon. The Swans were in chaos, and a desperate call went out to Barassi to take over. He agreed a week or two later, and his first game in charge was against Carlton — a 44-point loss — in round seven.

By the time they beat Melbourne in round 13 that year, the losing streak had stretched to 26 games. It was their only win in 1993, but Barassi refused to yield — the next season they won four games and the season after they won eight.

Barassi retired at the end of 1995 with the wolves successfully kept from the Swans’ door. He was on the panel that selected Rodney Eade as his successor as coach, and the Swans made their first grand final in half a century in 1996, continuing to build a team and a club that has become a finals perennial.

It is not overstating the case to suggest that without Barassi the Swans could have gone into terminal decline, and the national AFL we now know might have looked very different.

A large statue of AFL Legend Ron Barassi kicking a football stands outside at the MCG with a scarf hanging from it.

Ron Barassi’s football presence has been immortalised in bronze outside the MCG.(Getty Images: Quinn Rooney)

As an elder statesman of the game, Barassi remained a visible link between the game’s past and present. He lived to see the first Demons premiership in 57 years since the last one he led as skipper.

It is no surprise to see the outpouring of tributes to Barassi from across football. Australian rules football owes him a debt of thanks — without him, the game simply would not be the same.




Author: Russell White