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Craig still coach of the year?

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  • Craig still coach of the year?

    Although the Crows were knocked out in the semi-finals, it has been a pretty amazing effort for Neil Craig to have lifted them from what was predicted to be bottom 4 to winning the minor premiership. In particular, he seems to have taken a sports science approach to coaching, which should be applauded particularly if it leads to long-term success.

    If Roos or Worsfold wins the Grand Final then a strong case could be made for coach of the year honours for either of them. I think Roos' most remarkable year was 2003, given that he had a despised team that year and had to contend with a lot more injuries. Worsfold, although he has done a great job, also has a very talented list to work with. As for Buttress suggesting that Grant Thomas should be coach of the year, 3rd place should be just about the minimum he should be getting to with the list he has. Yes, he has had bad luck with injuries, but perhaps he should not be absolved of total blame in this area himself, as coaches dictate to the fitness and medical staff in a big way.

    Some of the article from The Age:

    The science teacher
    September 17, 2005

    In Adelaide, sports science's loss has been the Crows' gain. And, as Jake Niall reports, it appears that Neil Craig's scientific approach to football may be changing the face of the game.

    Neil Craig might have been coaching West Coast today, but there's another "Sliding Door" he eschewed that reveals far more about the man who could represent the next phase in the evolution of the footy coach.

    Leigh Matthews, Denis Pagan, Mick Malthouse and Kevin Sheedy could all be coaching other clubs had they wished, but none have forsaken a career as a sports scientist or the prospect of training Olympians. If Craig could have been in the Eagles huddle, he just as easily could have been at a faraway cycling track, preparing riders for competition.

    Or he could be ensconced at the Australian Institute of Sport, conducting research and experiments on a range of world-class athletes. Tommy Hafey wore T-shirts, Hawthorn's John Kennedy was garbed in gabardine; Craig is the first coach with the metaphoric white coat in the wardrobe.

    Before he returned to football to handle the physical conditioning of the Crows under Malcolm Blight in 1997 ? pioneering the "tapering" training regime that helped Adelaide to consecutive premierships ? Craig was a sports scientist at the South Australian Sports Institute.

    There, he assisted his friend, Charlie Walsh, the famed Australian track cycling coach who is now part of a Crows coaching panel that blends meat-and-potatoes footy tradition with high-tech brains. Craig's return to football was a blow to the sports science community where, doubtless, some of the boffins can't understand why such a bright and commanding bloke would be slumming it ? albeit on three or four times as much money ? in the primitive parochialism of footy.

    "Neil Craig was one of the leaders of the sports science community," said Troy Flanagan, a sports scientist at the Victorian Institute of Sport who talks regularly with Craig and has assisted him in developing software programs for the Crows. "It was quite a loss to the sports science industry."

    What the Crows and football have gained, via Craig's return to the game, is a new mode of thinking about how to prepare and coach players. Craig has brought the rational empiricism of science to a sport that is wedded to its own irrational chaos, romance and mystique.

    At a barbecue four or five years ago, Denis Pagan and another club's assistant coach chatted about the increasing influence of science on football. Pagan, a no-frills coach with a flair for succinct, humorous aphorisms, remarked: "I'll give you my science ? it's called Wayne Carey."

    The entirely valid point Pagan was making was that, ultimately, sheer physical ability is football's own immutable law ? you can't win without great players.

    Are Craig's Crows, the minor premiers of 2005, so talented? Well, they weren't considered much chop in the pre-season, when most of the media sentenced them to the bottom six and few pundits thought they had a prayer of making the eight.

    Under scientific leadership, these unfashionable Crows finished the season with a powerful surge and were flag favourites until they were nutted by the Pagan paradigm ? the superior talent of St Kilda ? a fortnight ago.

    Rival clubs didn't reckon Adelaide had a great list, which is why, across the competition, there is such curiosity about Craig's methods. Should they investigate Craig, his competitors will discover that, more than anything, his success this season has been a marriage of old-fashioned footy nous and the objectivity of science.

    The Craig manifesto is that much of what happens on the field can be quantified or tested. According to Adelaide insiders, the scientist-coach is often heard asking his assistants: "Is there a measure on it?" If a meaningful test exists, Craig will use it. Objective data is the currency of the scientist.

    ... Craig has established, with the assistance of AIS sports scientist Damian Farrow, a "decision-making program" in which players are tested, via a projected image on the wall, for their capacity to pick the right options.

    Decision-making is a capacity thought to be largely intrinsic ? a trait that is part of a player's DNA and can't really be taught. Craig, knowing that the AIS thinks otherwise and trains basketballers and netballers to improve on-court decisions, is trying to reduce the clanger ratio through his corrective program. His players are tested in their reactions to life-sized projected images on the wall (they handball at the targets) and out on the track.

    On a given day, the Adelaide coach's box will include Craig, Charlie Walsh and Kevin Norton, an academic from the University of South Australia who has studied the speed of the game and other seemingly arcane subjects that Craig pays more heed to than his peers. The Adelaide coach also believes in tracking the movements of the opposition and sees to it that this is plotted on a laptop computer, via a software program that, as Flanagan put it, helps the coach understand "how you should set up against the opposition".

    Other clubs use laptops and tracking software, but none have managed to implement a defensive system as effective as Adelaide's. The Crows finished 2005 with the lowest points-against total since 1968, out-negating even the West Coast teams of the '90s. It's well known that Craig likes to have his wingmen, principally Brett Burton and Martin Mattner, behind the ball, yet no club has really managed to bust the Great Wall of West Lakes.

    Some of Craig's ideas have been thrown around clubs in the past, but never so embraced because there has not been a well-resourced coach so open to science. One club's former conditioning coach, well acquainted with Craig's background, said clubs struggled with anything that broke with tradition. "Football culture," he said, "is an excuse for not pursuing excellence."

    Science would be impotent, however, if it were not a tool of a coach with a knowledge of the game, the respect of his players and communications skills. The latter, according to South Australian football insiders, was an attribute Craig acquired after his early days coaching Norwood (1991-1995), when he was harsher and more confrontational with players.

    Craig, who played 321 games in the SANFL for Norwood, Sturt and North Adelaide, blends science with his traditional football upbringing, the difference being that his roots are from a particular strain of SA football.

    The Adelaide style of play, with its emphasis on handball, running from defence and skill, is inherited from Jack Oatey. Oatey, coach of 10 premierships with Sturt and Norwood, established a uniquely SA style that countered the dominance of Port Adelaide, which relied more on Hafey-esque long kicking, toughness and mongrel; Oatey teams were skill-based, rather than brutality based.

    Robert Oatey, the son of Jack, is among Craig's closest confidants. Oatey, who coached Norwood from 1968-72 (and against his father at Sturt), recruited a 13-year-old Craig from the family farm on the Yorke Peninsula. Oatey says Craig had never wanted to become a teacher ? hence his journey into practical sports science ? but ironically, as a coach, Craig had become an excellent teacher. "Very few people are good teachers," Oatey observed.

    Another hallmark of Craig's AFL career has been his willingness to share knowledge. For a club that pursues all manner of innovation, there is remarkably little secrecy at Adelaide ? his sports science colleagues guessed this openness derived from science, where information and discovery were expected to be circulated.

    The question of why Craig, as assistant to Gary Ayres, withdrew from his pursuit of the West Coast coaching position in 2001, allowing John Worsfold to take the prized job, is one piece of information that hasn't been shared. The party line from the Crows has been that Craig, who was West Coast's preferred candidate until he pulled out, withdrew because of his desire to stay in Adelaide, where his daughter Petria was getting to the business end of secondary school studies.

    It is clear there was more to it than family. Oatey said Craig was mindful that Worsfold, as a club icon, would be better placed to deal with the tough decisions on older players at West Coast, but hinted that there was something personal, too, and that it was not the nudge-nudge promise or prospect that he might get the Adelaide gig post-Ayres.

    Oatey would not elaborate, which is better in the sense that it keeps some mystery around Craig. Thankfully, there is a question at the heart of Neil Craig that science can't answer.
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