The 10 Best AFL Football Coaches of All Time

AFL is one of the most exciting tournaments in the world. The intense actions that take place on the ground are amazing. But the game is not all about your performance on the field.

You need a proper strategy before coming down to the ground. And that is why coaches play an important role in the sport.

Coaches in the AFL teams are responsible for managing development, creating coaching and playing strategy, and helping out players to bring the best out of them.

These are not easy tasks to do. But some coaches were masters at these skills. 

Let’s check on the 10 best AFL football coaches who defined the role of coaches and made the tournament so exciting. 

The 10 Best AFL Football Coaches

Coach nameCoaching career
Norm Smith1949 – 1972
Tom Hafey1966 – 1988
Allan Jeans1961–1976, 1981–1987, 1989–1990, 1992
John Kennedy1960–1963, 1967–1976, 1985–1989
Leigh Matthews1986–1995, 1999–2008
Ron Barassi1965–1971, 1973–1980, 1981–1985, 1993–1995
Alastair Clarkson2005–2021, 2023 – present
Kevin Sheedy1981–2007, 2012–2013
Dick Reynolds1939–1960, 1961–1963
Damien Hardwick2010 – present

1. Norm Smith

Norm Smith
Full nameNorman Walter Smith
NicknameThe Red Fox, Demon Dictator
Date of birth21 November 1915
Place of birthClifton Hill, Victoria, Australia
Coaching clubsFitzroy, Melbourne, and South Melbourne
Date of death29 July 1973
  • Won the VFL Premiership 6 times (1955, 1956, 1957, 1959, 1960, 1964)

We have Norm Smith as our number-one coach on the list. Smith became a coach after having a successful playing career in 1949. He won four premierships in his playing career.

Naturally, teams were interested in having him as the coach. He could share his experience and strategies for winning.

Smith started his coaching career with the Fitzroy Football Club. He did not stay with the team for long, though. He remained the coach of the team till 1951.

Fitzroy played 55 games under his leadership and won thirty of them. It was not a bad start as a coach for Smith.

Smith became the coach for the Melbourne Football Club in 1952. It was the turning point for both Smith and Melbourne. The team reached its golden period during this time. They won six VFL premierships under the coachmanship of Norm Smith.

Smith was always strict about discipline. He was often called the “Demon Dictator” for his strictness regarding discipline.

He also focused on team bonding and good understanding among players to make the most dominant team in the history of AFL.

Smith ensured his players were disciplined, fast, confident, and fit. He came up with his own strategies. It helped him record 253 wins from 452 games.

Coaching Career

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4522531927

2. Tom Hafey

Tom Hafey
Full nameThomas Stanley Raymond Hafey
NicknameTommy, T-Shirt Tommy
Date of birth5 August 1931
Place of birthRichmond, Victoria
Coaching clubsRichmond, Collingwood, Geelong, and Sydney
Date of death12 May 2014 
  • Won the VFL Premiership 4 times (1967, 1969, 1973, and 1974)

Next, we have Tom Hafey, also known as the T-shirt Tommy. Hafey did not get to shine much as a player. But he surprised everyone with his very successful coaching career.

Many thought he would not make a good coach since he only played 67 games in the AFL. But he proved everyone wrong.

Hafey played for the Richmond Football Club from 1953 to 1958. Then, he was offered the team’s coach position in 1966. Hafey grabbed the opportunity and quickly proved himself as one of the best AFL football coaches.

Hafey was too serious about fitness. He ensured that the players were trying their best to be fit. However, some players called his training sessions monotonous, while some said he was unsophisticated as a coach.

One can accuse him of being monotonous. But he led Richmond to four premierships within a decade. That is not his only contribution to football.

Hafey prepared players like Kevin Bartlett, Francis Bourke, Royce Hart, and many other legendary players.

After a successful run with Richmond, Hafey moved to some other teams. He eventually coached in teams like Collingwood, Geelong, and Sydney. He won more than three hundred games as a coach.

Coaching Career

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3. Allan Jeans

Allan Jeans
Full nameAllan Lindsay Jeans
Date of birth21 September 1933
Place of birthFinley, New South Wales
Coaching clubsSt Kilda, Hawthorn, and Richmond
Date of death12 July 2011
  • Won the VFL premiership 4 times (1966, 1983, 1986, 1989)

Can we make a list without Allan Jeans? The man coached in 575 games and won more than 350 matches. He also won four VFL premierships over two decades of his coaching career.

Jeans’ coaching career began with St Kilda in 1961. He had a unique training style that others wanted to copy. He prioritized team unity, created a friendly environment, and always focused on details.

Jeans is known as one of the most tactical coaches in AFL. He could read the game and make strategies to encounter the opponents.

He could also understand his players’ mentality and personality. He could motivate them to work harder to sharpen their skills.

Jeans found success in all the teams he went to as a coach because of these traits. He remained with Kilda till 1976. He won the premiership only once during this time.

This was their first and only premiership win. No wonder Jeans is respected highly by the fans for this feat.

Allan Jeans took a break for some time in 1976. He returned as Hawthorn’s coach in 1981. This time, he had a more successful run as a coach.

The Hawthorn won three premierships in only eight years. Jean’s legacy will be remembered by the fans in years to come.

Coaching Career

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4. John Kennedy

John Kennedy
Full nameJohn James Kennedy Sr.
NicknameKanga
Date of birth29 December 1928
Place of birthCamberwell, Victoria
Coaching clubsHawthorn and North Melbourne
Date of death24 June 2020
  • VFL premiership coach 3 times (1961, 1971, 1976)

John Kenndy, aka Kanga, was a very popular player during his time. He was born in 1928. He had his AFL debut in 1950 and played till 1959.

He coached for a match in 1967 while still being a player of the Hawthorn. He became a full-time coach in 1960.

Was Kennedy a good coach? The question does not make any sense since we are talking about Kennedy. He led the Hawthorn to its first-ever premiership win in 1961.

The team had been struggling since 1925. But Kennedy made it possible within a year.

Kennedy led the Hawthorn to three premierships by 1976. He decided to take a break from coaching and returned in 1985. This time, Kennedy joined North Melbourne as a coach.

Some claim that Kennedy was unsatisfied with the Hawthorn committee and so moved on.

As a coach, Kennedy Sr. was known for his inspirational leadership, tactical astuteness, passion, and player development.

Wayne Carey, Brent Harvey, Glenn Archer, and David King are popular names he trained.

Kennedy coached for over four games and registered 236 wins to his name. With all the success and contribution, Kennedy remains one of history’s best AFL football coaches.

Coaching Career

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5. Leigh Matthews

Leigh Matthews
Full nameLeigh Raymond Matthews
NicknameLethal, Barney Rubble
Date of birth1 March 1952
Place of birthFrankston, Victoria
Coaching clubsCollingwood and Brisbane Lions
  • AFL premiership coach 4 times (1990, 2001–2003)
  • All-Australian team 3 times (2001–2003)

Leigh Matthews is one of the most iconic names in AFL. He had a long playing career of sixteen years with Hawthorn. He played more than three hundred games and scored 915.

It was obvious that the man had many things to offer to young players after his retirement.

The four-time premiership winner started coaching with Collingwood Football Club in 1986. By this time, the club’s good days had faded.

Matthews was determined to bring that back. He could motivate the players to give their best efforts.

In addition, players also had respect for him. Matthews changed the environment of Collingwood. And finally, they won the premiership in 1990. It was their first premiership since 1958.

Matthews stayed with the club till 1995 and registered 125 wins from 224 games.

After a few years gap, Matthews returned as the coach of Brisbane Lions in 1999. The Lions was a new team in the league that started in 1996.

It was a challenge for Matthews to establish a new team. And did he succeed in it? He excelled in it.

Matthews had players like Simon Black, Michael Voss, and Nigel Lappin. He made a strong game plan with them. The chemistry in the team was remarkable, too.

The club won its first premiership in 2001. But it was only the beginning. They won the premiership consecutively for three years! To date, Brisbane Lions had its best time under the leadership of Leigh Matthews.

Matthews knew how to bring the best out of players and create a strong team spirit. He could make any team champion. That is what makes him one of the greatest coaches in AFL history.

Coaching Career

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6. Ron Barassi

Ron Barassi
Full nameRonald Dale Barassi Jr.
Date of birth27 February 1936
Place of birthCastlemaine, Victoria, Australia
Coaching clubsCarlton, North Melbourne, Melbourne, and Sydney
  • Won the VFL Premiership 4 times (1968, 1970, 1975, 1977)

Ron Barassi is a legend of AFL, both as a player and coach. He won six premierships as a player. He wanted to pass his experience and excellence to the next generation.

And he certainly did that. He coached four different clubs in the AFL.

Barassi’s coaching career began with Carlton in 1965. The club was desperate to win another premiership. They offered Barassi a very high salary. Surely, it was a good investment for the club.

The club showed great improvement within a short time.

Finally, the club won the premiership in 1968. It was their first premiership since 1947. After his success with the club, Barassi took some time off from coaching.

He again started coaching in 1973. This time, he joined North Melbourne.

North Melbourne finished last in 1972. So, Barassi had to rebuild the team. He recruited some well-known players as well as trained young talents.

Who could have thought in 1972 that North Melbourne would win the premiership in the next two years? Barassi made it possible.

Under Barassi’s strong discipline and proper game plans, North Melbourne won two premierships in 1975 and 1977. Barassi also coached in Melbourne and Sydney.

The best thing about Barassi is that he was always determined to make new stars. He groomed players like  Stephen Silvagni, Greg Williams, Ross Glendinning, and Wayne Schimmelbusch.

Barassi was a game-changer, even as a coach. He helped Carlton win the premiership after two decades; he changed the history of North Melbourne.

He surely deserves to be among the 10 best AFL football coaches.

Coaching Career

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7. Alastair Clarkson

 Alastair Clarkson
Full nameAlastair Thomas Clarkson
NicknameClarko
Date of birth27 April 1968
Coaching clubsHawthorn and North Melbourne
  • AFL premiership coach 4 times (2008, 2013, 2014, 2015)
  • All-Australian team coach 4 times (2008, 2013–2015)

Sometimes, you do not need to wait for the ending of a career to decide whether one is legendary or not. Alastair Clarkson is a prime example of it.

He has already become one of the most successful coaches in the AFL. Hopefully, he has many more years to coach.

Clarkson was born in 1968. He played in the AFL till 1997. Hawthorn hired him as a coach in 2005. He was still very young, only 37 years old.

But Clarkson had the mental toughness to build a team. He focused on culture, work ethic, and young players’ development.

Clarkson groomed many young talents and helped them become the best in their positions. Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell, Cyril Rioli, Jordan Lewis, and Jarryd Roughead are some of the players Clarkson has trained.

These players are now dominating the AFL.

Clarkson won four premierships with Hawthorn. He won the first one in 2008. Then, they had to wait for four years. The club won three consecutive premierships between 2013 and 2015.

Clarkson decided to leave Hawthorn in 2021 and join North Melbourne in 2023.

Coaching Career

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8. Kevin Sheedy

Kevin Sheedy
Full nameKevin John Sheedy
NicknameSheeds
Date of birth24 December 1947
Place of birthMelbourne, Australia
Coaching clubsEssendon, Greater Western Sydney, and Victoria
  • VFL/AFL premiership 4 times (1984, 1985, 1993, 2000)
  • All-Australian team 3 times (1985, 1993, 2000)

Kevin Sheedy had been the coach of Essendon for twenty-six years! Many players came into the team and left, but Sheedy remained a constant part of the team.

Sheedy coached the team for more than six hundred games. But he never ran out of innovation.

Essendon won four premierships in Sheedy’s tenure. He had always been a very active coach, and commentators often remarked that he had bizarre tactics.

He loved to experiment with the positions of the players. He was also open to giving a second chance to players who failed to make it big in other clubs.

Sheedy had the best time as a coach from 1993 to 2004. During this time, Essendon reached the playoffs eight times. But his career saw a downfall after 2004.

He eventually left Essendon in 2007 to join Greater Western Sydney.

Sheedy’s tenure with Sydney proved to be a disaster. The club won only three of 44 games. Despite the lackluster last few years, Kevin Sheedy is among the 10 best AFL football coaches ever.

Coaching Career

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9. Dick Reynolds

Dick Reynolds
Full nameRichard Sylvannus Reynolds 
NicknameKing Richard
Date of birth20 June 1915
Coaching clubsEssendon and West Torrens
Date of death2 September 2002
  • Won the VFL premierships 4 times (1942, 1946, 1949, 1950)

Before Kevin Sheedy became Essendon’s constant face, another man coached the club for twenty-one years. He is Dick Reynolds.

He, too, led the club to four premiership wins. The club had its golden period in the 40s.

Reynolds joined Essendon in 1939. It did not take him long to build a champion team. The club won the premiership in 1942. John Coleman and Bill Hutchison were the key players in the success.

Under Reynolds’ leadership, Essendon developed a professional environment that allowed every player to reach their full potential.

Besides, the popularity of the club spread immensely during this time. Essendon recognized his contribution and ranked him number one in the Champions of Essendon list 2002.

Coaching Career

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10. Damien Hardwick

Damien Hardwick
Full nameDamien Patrick Hardwick
NicknameDimma
Date of birth18 August 1972
Coaching clubsRichmond
  • Won the AFL premiership 3 times (2017, 2019, 2020)
  • All-Australian Team 3 times (2017, 2019, 2020)

Another active coach who has made the list is Damien Hardwick. Hardwick’s coaching career in AFL  began in 2010 when Richmond hired him as their senior coach.

Hardwick had his mission set. And that was to win the AFL premiership.

Richmond won their last premiership in 1980, more than three decades ago. Hardwick knew he could not change the team overnight.

So, he made some long-term plans and strategies. The team benefitted highly from his long-term plans.

Richmond finally won the premiership in 2017. But Hardwick ensured they did not have to wait another decade for another premiership.

He built a champion team and won the premiership in 2019 and 2020.

The team now has good balance and depth. Besides, they have a positive momentum and a very confident team. They have become one of the favorites of the tournament.

A lot of the credit goes to Damien Hardwick.

Hardwick has been coaching for only thirteen years but has already cemented his position as one of the 10 best AFL football coaches ever.

Coaching Career

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Conclusion

Coaches contribute to the team off the field. The performance you see on the ground reflects their strategies and game plans. The 10 best AFL football coaches have revolutionized the Australian football rules.

These coaches did not need champion players to win premierships. They would groom young talents and turn them into champions. They have given many great players over the years.

Fans will always remember them with respect because of their contribution.

Golam Muktadir is a passionate sports fan and a dedicated movie buff. He has been writing about both topics for over a decade and has a wealth of knowledge and experience to share with his readers. Muktadir has a degree in journalism and has written for several well-known publications, including Surprise Sports.