The game is awash with numbers, quite a few of which are meaningless to all but the many devotees of Supercoach and Dream Team games.
But then there is a number like 715, the tally of VFL/AFL games coached by Mick Malthouse once he strides out on to the MCG in his Carlton navy blue polo against Collingwood on Friday night, moustache bristling in that oh-so-familiar way.
With apologies to Crocodile Dundee, they aren’t records … this is a record.
Jock McHale, the Collingwood legend, has owned the landmark for nearly 70 years, and McHale is arguably the greatest of his brethren. He won eight premierships as coach, four in a row from 1927 if you include the 1930 flag, when he was hospitalised in Grand Final week.
You break a McHale record and you are in the space that cricket people find when they pencil out a Bradman performance.
And here’s the thing about surviving for so long. The coaching game is fraught to say the least.
Just ask Guy McKenna, who almost took his team, Gold Coast, to the finals last year. He’s out of a head coaching job, and so is Brenton Sanderson, who took Adelaide to a preliminary final in 2012, not so long ago, and Brendan McCartney has been and gone as an AFL head coach after building the Western Bulldogs for a couple of years.
Football club boards often disintegrate under the blowtorch that comes with poor results, and the supporter tumult that occurs. Coaches are plainly the most vulnerable when it happens, and Malthouse has seen this himself; he is witnessing it this very year at Carlton.
But his record speaks for itself, loud and clear. For everyone but Alastair Clarkson’s Hawthorn, premierships are tough to win (and Clarkson, of course, would demur at the notion that the Hawks have done it easily).
Malthouse acquired three – the 1992 and 1994 West Coast triumphs and Collingwood’s 2010 victory – to show that he can get the job done.
It’s true he was blessed by picking up the powerful West Coast list as he did in 1990, when the Eagles had virtually a WA state team, but that does not account for the way he lifted Footscray in his first coaching job.
Nor does it factor in what in some ways might have been his greatest coaching feat, pulling Collingwood out of the mire to two Grand Finals in 2002-03, almost toppling the might of Brisbane Lions in 2002 in a game in which the Magpies ought to have been overwhelmed.
His third premiership in 2010 was well-deserved, but based on a direct copy of the forward press implemented by Ross Lyon at St Kilda in 2009.
Malthouse called it the Roman box formation but it was straight from Lyon’s playbook, and there was an irony in this as Collingwood overcame the Saints in a replayed Grand Final.
The reality is that most tactics in the AFL are copied or modified from something before. Lyon’s forward press was dramatic but it was an extension of the zones employed by Neil Craig at Adelaide, then Clarkson at Hawthorn. The key was that Malthouse’s Collingwood did it better.
His time at Collingwood ended bitterly, and did him little credit.
Eddie McGuire’s transition deal, aimed at keeping Nathan Buckley at Collingwood while smoothing the change for Malthouse, was a stroke of genius.
But Malthouse could not keep his part of the deal despite agreeing to it; as a result he made it all about him in 2011, and it did not help the football club. These were not his finest moments.
Now at Carlton, his fourth club, he is saddled by a poor list – the product of awful recruiting and development over the past decade – and as his original coach Allan Jeans famously said, “good players make good coaches”.
Malthouse does not have the cattle but he has the traits that repeat in his football teams: notably a devotion to the cause and a belief in his method.
For all of Malthouse’s spats with the media over 30 years, he drew virtually universal love and respect from his players, and this is his greatest strength.
Outside the dressing room he had little time for imposters or interlopers, but within the confines of the coach’s room he could whip a group up like few others, and they came along with him, the greatest test of a coach.
Witness the manic approach of Fremantle and previously St Kilda under Lyon; the commitment of Hawthorn under Clarkson. Malthouse always had this ability and still has it.
For long-time journos like me, the focus on his after-match antics with one television reporter in particular are just amusing.
The public are dismayed at his dismissive and rude attitude, but Malthouse has been acting like that for decades; it is just that the broadcaster only recently began putting cameras in the media conferences so that it became public.
Malthouse has treated many of my colleagues with disrespect in the moments after matches and none of them have forgiven him. That’s why it is rare for people in the media to defend him, and he has few friends behind the camera or in the press box.
Damien Barrett, one of the best in the business, is about the only journo I know who has any sort of relationship with Malthouse.
The rest of us just battled through it and the rules at his press conferences were clear: make sure you ask a question; whatever you do, don’t make a motherhood statement and then expect an answer; prepare for battle.
Malthouse had two physical confrontations with journalists in his time at West Coast that would have drawn big headlines if they happened today.
He had Daryl Timms from the Herald Sun up against a wall by the throat, and in Grand Final week of 1991 he had to be pulled away from The West Australian‘s Luke Morfesse after pinning him against a wall.
Morfesse had criticised a media ban on the players that week, and compared the Eagles’ policy with the openness of Hawthorn, their Grand Final opponent.
Make no mistake, he was intimidating and you needed your wits about you.
But he has universal respect in the game, if not love.
His twitching moustache has been part of our living rooms for decades, and you just do not survive in the business without being good at it.
He is an iconic figure of the AFL. The record will sit nicely in his keeping.
Mick Malthouse’s life in football
1972-76. Games: 53 as a player
Recruited from North Ballarat, the tough, hard-working defender played three finals in his first season with the Saints. Eventually departed for Richmond halfway through the 1976 campaign after coach Allan Jeans told him his opportunities had become limited.
1976-83. Games: 121 as a player
Malthouse slotted into the Tigers’ defence seamlessly and went on to play in the club’s record-breaking flag-winning team over Collingwood in 1980. He famously missed out on the Tigers’ grand final side in 1982 after failing a searching fitness test administered by coach Francis Bourke and retired the next year.
1984-89. Games: 135 as a coach. Won: 67 Lost: 66 Drawn: 2
Quickly made the transition from playing to coaching at the age of 30. Guided the Bulldogs to one finals campaign, in 1985, and established a reputation as a hard-nosed authoritarian.
1990-99. Games: 243 as a coach. Won: 156 Lost: 85 Drawn: 2
Malthouse became the Eagles’ third coach in the fledgling club’s fourth season in the competition. He left a strong legacy, with West Coast winning two flags and making the finals in every season he was in charge.
2000-11. Games: 286 as a coach. Won: 163 Lost: 121 Drawn: 2
Took over from Tony Shaw, who was sacked after the Pies slumped to the wooden spoon in 1999. Guided Collingwood to two grand finals early in his tenure, with the team becoming regular finals participants before breaking through to win the 2010 flag in the grand final replay against St Kilda.
2013-present. Games as a coach: 50 Won: 20 Lost: 29 Drawn: 1
After a year in the media, Malthouse replaced Brett Ratten, who was sacked by the Blues after five full seasons in charge. He took Carlton to the finals in his first season, but the Blues managed just seven wins last year.