Norman Walter "Norm" Smith (21 November 1915 – 29 July 1973) was an Australian rules football player and coach in the Victorian Football League (VFL). After 200 games as a player with Melbourne and Fitzroy, Smith began a twenty-year coaching career, including a fifteen-year stint at Melbourne. Recognised as the father of modern Australian football coaching, Smith coached Melbourne to six premierships and in 1996 was chosen as the coach of the AFL Team of the Century.
|Nickname(s)||The Red Fox|
|Date of birth||21 November 1915|
|Place of birth||Clifton Hill, Victoria, Australia|
|Date of death||29 July 1973 57)(aged|
|Place of death||Pascoe Vale, Victoria, Australia|
|Original team(s)||Northcote juniors|
|Height||183 cm (6 ft 0 in)|
|Weight||81 kg (179 lb)|
|Representative team honours|
|1969–1972||South Melbourne||87 (26–61–0)|
1 Playing statistics correct to the end of 1950.
2 State and international statistics correct as of 1945.
3 Coaching statistics correct as of 1972.
|Sources: AFL Tables, AustralianFootball.com|
Smith and elder brother Len (born 9 February 1912) were the sons of ironworker Victor Smith and Ethel May (née Brown). After attending Westgarth Central School, Smith completed an engineering apprenticeship and worked at Millers rope-works in Brunswick. In 1943, he took over his father's engineering business in Northcote, later relocating it to North Coburg in 1954. On 19 October 1940, he married Marjorie Victoria Ellis, at the Wesley Church in Melbourne. Their only child, Peter, was born in 1947.
A brilliant all-round sportsman in his youth, Smith played first-grade district cricket and Australian football. His first club football was for Dennis, which played in the sub-district competition, where his brother Len had started his career. When scouts for VFL club Melbourne arrived at the Smith household to sign Len, Victor Smith suggested that young Norm might make the grade as well. Melbourne were ambitiously rebuilding their side and Smith made his debut under legendary coach Frank 'Checker' Hughes in 1935. Ironically, while Norm's career blossomed at Melbourne, brother Len failed to nail down a regular place and he moved to the VFA and later to Fitzroy to further his career.
Outstanding on-field success
Smith became a regular in the first team in 1937. Usually playing as full-forward, Smith quickly developed an understanding with teammate Ron Baggott and earned a reputation as a cool-headed, "thinking" player. He favoured the pass to a man in a better position, the quick handball, the tap on and the shepherd for a teammate with the ball. One scribe commented that he "could make a forward line work around him" and he was the epitome of a team player. The Melbourne team was rising fast: they played finals in 1936 and 1937, but lost to more experienced opponents both times. The team took a step back in 1938, finishing fifth, but looked the team most likely throughout 1939.
Under Hughes, a successful former Richmond player and coach, Melbourne had remade themselves into a more professional outfit, after many years as an amateur club. Smith was one of many talented players who adhered to Hughes' doctrine. Now renamed the Red Demons (later to become simply the Demons), Melbourne went into the 1939 finals with a team based on all-out attack, with Smith the linchpin. In the Grand Final against Collingwood, Melbourne booted a record Grand Final score and set a new record winning margin, taking only their second premiership in 39 years. Another flag was won in 1940 when Smith was the star, scoring seven goals in the Grand Final. The following year, the team marked themselves as a special combination by completing the hattrick, despite missing players due to war service and injury on Grand Final day. Smith enjoyed his most productive season and finished the year as the VFL's leading goalkicker. He continued playing during the war years in a decimated Melbourne team. In 1944 Smith won The Herald newspaper's best player award.
Captaincy and the Miracle of '48
Smith was appointed captain of the club in 1945, leading the Demons to their first Grand Final defeat in 1946. Poor form and a loss of confidence led to Smith resigning the captaincy for 1948 and it seemed that, at 32, his career was winding down. Melbourne were thrashed by Essendon in the second semi final and were long odds to win the premiership. However, in something of a miracle, previously retired champion Jack Mueller was recalled to the team and in the next three games (which included a tied and replayed Grand Final) Smith and Mueller combined to dominate the scoring and lead the Demons to an unlikely premiership. Deciding that it was a perfect note on which to end his marathon career, 'Checker' Hughes retired as coach and Smith was a keen applicant for the position.
Disappointingly for Smith, the committee decided (by a single vote) to award the job to ex-Melbourne premiership skipper, Allan LaFontaine. Anxious to begin coaching, Smith made an emotionally difficult decision to transfer to Fitzroy as captain-coach. He played only seventeen games with the 'Roys before retiring as a player in 1950. His time at Fitzroy was a mixed bag: the team was competitive without making the finals. Meanwhile, Melbourne were struggling and LaFontaine resigned after three years. So in 1952, Smith returned to Melbourne as coach. Benefiting from the recruitment of some of the best players in the club's history, Smith and Melbourne dominated the VFL for a decade, during which the club won six premierships: 1955-56-57, 1959–60 and 1964.
A stickler for team discipline, Smith was variously called the 'Demon Dictator' and the 'Martinet of Melbourne'. His canniness and brushed-back auburn hair earned him another nickname: the 'Red Fox'. Smith built his success on an espirit de corps, creating close-knit teams during Melbourne's years of greatness that were the envy of the other eleven clubs. Many sought to emulate his methods and create a similar atmosphere for their own clubs. Norm and Len Smith (who coached Fitzroy from 1958 to 1962) led the move toward a quicker, play-on style of football. Melbourne sides under Smith were fast, disciplined, fit and confident. The only real lapse of discipline came in the 1958 Grand Final when, attempting to equal Collingwood's great four in a row record, the Demons were baited into losing their concentration by a fanatical Collingwood team.
From 1964 tension began to build between Smith and several influential figures at Melbourne. One factor was the decision by Melbourne's star player, Ron Barassi, to move to Carlton in 1965 as captain-coach. Barassi lived with Smith and his wife from the time he was 15 – Barassi became the older man's protege and the two enjoying a unique relationship. Smith supported Barassi's aspirations, offering to stand aside so Barassi could coach Melbourne. When Barassi rejected this proposal and insisted on a clearance to the Blues, some Melbourne officials unfairly accused Smith of ridding himself of a potential rival. Another factor was Smith's sometimes acid tongue, which he sometimes turned on committeemen he felt were interfering in his domain. This facet of the Smith personality put him in a difficult situation when he was sued by an umpire for defamation. In defending the action, Smith found no support from the men running his club.
Finally, the situation exploded on the Friday night before the round 13, 1965 match with North Melbourne. A courier delivered a termination notice to Smith at his home. When the news leaked to the media, it created a sensation, arguably the most dramatic news story in Australian football history. Smith made an emotional appearance on television on the Sunday and speculation was rife that he would replace his ill brother, now coaching Richmond. Although he was reinstated within a week, he never again enjoyed his old relationship with the club. The Demons won only one more game for the year and missed the finals for the first time in eleven years. In a matter of a few dramatic months, Melbourne's dominance was dismantled. The Demons wouldn't make the finals again until 1987, and have not won a premiership since the dismissal.
A brief return to the finals
After two more disappointing seasons, heart disease compelled Smith to resign from Melbourne at the end of 1967. It was a sad year for the Smith family, as brother Len had succumbed to a heart attack just months before his adopted club Richmond won the premiership. Feeling sufficiently recovered, Smith surprised many by accepting an offer to coach South Melbourne in 1969. At Albert Park, Smith pulled off what was considered one of his best coaching performances by taking the down trodden Swans to the 1970 semi final, their first finals appearance since 1945. However, the under-resourced and under-confident Swans couldn't sustain the effort and finished last and second last in the next two years. Smith resigned after the 1972 season.
Death and legacy
Meanwhile, Ron Barassi was creating a stir in the football world. After his immensely successful stint at Carlton, he had been lured to work his magic on North Melbourne, the only team without a premiership. Smith planned to assist Barassi at North when his health again deteriorated. He died of a cerebral tumour on 29 July 1973 in his home at Pascoe Vale, survived by his wife and son.
Smith's influence was wide-ranging. He increased the importance of the coach in Australian football with innovations such as using a runner for sending messages to his players (in 1955). He raised the standards of fitness and team discipline, which enable the evolution of the so-called "running game" in the 1970s. Although his blunt manner of speaking and intolerance for fools sometimes led him to conflict, he was universally admired and respected for his insightful thinking on the game and his mantra that teamwork was all. Although he was known as a great orator and a stern taskmaster, he was a quiet and retiring man away from the game. Paradoxically, he played and coached largely for the love of the game yet did as much as anyone else to move it forward from a semi-professional sport.
Norm Smith Medal
See main article: Norm Smith Medal
In 1979, the VFL instituted the Norm Smith Medal, awarded to the best player in the Grand Final. The first winner was Norm Smith's great nephew, Carlton player Wayne Harmes (Len Smith's grandson). He received the medal from Norm's widow, Marj.
- Burgan, Matt (19 July 2007). "Norm Smith – now officially a legend". Australian Football League. Retrieved 30 July 2009.
- "Smith, Norman Walter (1915–1973)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 30 July 2009.
- Lalor, Peter (29 July 2009). "Coaching pact too much for Barassi". The Australian. Retrieved 30 July 2009.
- "Ron Barassi". GNT Profiles. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 18 March 2004. Retrieved 30 July 2009.
- Sheahan, Mike (11 July 2008). "Melbourne's Norm Smith a coach ahead of his time". Adelaide Now. Retrieved 30 July 2009.
- "Norm Smith is reinstated". The Age. 28 July 1965. Retrieved 30 July 2009 – via Google News Archive.
- McFarline, Peter (30 July 1973). "Norm Smith Dies". The Age. p. 22.
- "Son of Norm Smith to play for Demons". The Age. Google News Archive. 5 May 1966. Retrieved 10 August 2012.
- "Norm Smith recognised as an AFL legend". The Age. 19 July 2007. Retrieved 30 July 2009.
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