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Ronald Dale Barassi is a legend for many reasons; incredible player, revolutionary coach, enduring media personality. For more than 50 years he has been one of the most influential people in the game, and the shadow he casts is matched by few, if any.
Even without meaning to, Barassi had changed the game without taking to the field. His father had been a premiership player at Melbourne, before being killed in action at Tobruk in World War II. Determined to follow in his footsteps at the Demons, Barassi Jnr had to bypass the zoning system of the day - which would have seen him sent to either Collingwood or Carlton.
To ensure he played with the Demons, Melbourne went to the VFL and successfully lobbied for a Father-Son rule. When the time came for Barassi to be signed up, Melbourne picked him up from Preston Scouts in 1952 and he became only the second player under the new rule.
The club had gone to great lengths to recruit the young Barassi, and coach Norm Smith - who had played with his father - took the boy under his wing. When Ron's mother moved to Tasmania, the sixteen year-old moved into Smith's backyard bungalow, and looking back on the experience, Barassi believes that sharing Sunday roasts with one of football's greatest brains was invaluable to his development.
“Norm Smith loved his footy. That suited me fine,” Barassi recalls. “His ability with young people, his strength of character, his ethics and values, came into my life at the right time.”
Melbourne was a dominant force in the 1950s and Barassi developed quickly into a talented footballer and fierce competitor. His efforts as ruck-rover paved the way for a new-style of quicker on-ball play. Barassi had eyes only for the ball, using his tremendous strength to break through packs and create scoring opportunities.
Barassi soon proved himself as an influential footballer and was quickly handed leadership responsibilities. In 1957 he was appointed vice-captain and as captain three years later. In a period of unparalleled success, Barassi helped Melbourne to six premierships - two as captain, two as vice-captain - winning the team's best-and-fairest award in 1961 and 1964.
However, Ron was about to face a dilemma. New Carlton president George Harris was desperate to have Barassi at Princes Park, and was willing to offer a lucrative contract to lure him across to Carlton as captain-coach.
Keen to test his skills as coach in a fresh environment, Barassi also knew that the new wage - unthinkably high in a time where amateurs were still common - could help with his children’s education. He joined the Blues in 1965, a decision which shocked the football world. While it might seem commonplace today, high-profile players leaving clubs for financial security was virtually unheard of at that time.
Barassi believes he made the right decision, though he was reluctant to leave a club for which he had so much feeling. “Inevitably with many decisions in life there will be a downside. It is regrettable but you have to get on with things,” he says. “You have to ensure, as much as possible, that the decision you've made turns out right. Fortunately it worked out, and I'll be forever grateful to Carlton for the start they gave me in coaching.”
Drawing from his own experience under Norm Smith, Barassi forced his squad to become more disciplined and committed to the club and their careers. He preached and played a tough brand of football and asked his charges to play a selfless, team-oriented style.
In the twilight of his playing days, Barassi oversaw the emergence of a new era of stars that included names such as Alex Jesaulenko and John Nicholls, marking his evolution from courageous and commanding footballer to astute and creative coach.
In 1968, he guided Carlton to its first premiership in 21 years. In 1970, in front of the biggest ever VFL crowd, he conjured footy's most famous comeback as arch rivals Collingwood were run down after leading by 44 points at half-time.
After the 1971 season, Barassi left the Blues to focus on his business career. Only a year later, however, he was enticed by the prospect of coaching another struggling team in blue and white.
Taking over for the 1973 season, Barassi found North Melbourne in much the same situation as Carlton had been eight years before. With a clear eye on success, administrators Allen Aylett and Ron Joseph had armed the Kangaroos with a new batch of stars through clever use of the short-lived Ten-Year Rule.
Proven champions from clubs throughout the country, including Malcolm Blight, Doug Wade, Barry Davis and John Rantall, were soon lured to the club to join the young talent already at Arden Street. However, it required a coach of Barassi's quality to pull all the elements together into a winning formula.
The miracle worker didn't disappoint, bringing a combination of tactical brilliance and ultra-disciplined coaching to the flagless Roos. Taking over the wooden spooners of 1972, he led North to their first VFL premiership just three years later.
The Kangaroos went on to win another premiership in 1977, but it very nearly wasn't, as North Melbourne gave up a late lead against Collingwood in the second ever drawn VFL grand final. Within a week, Barassi had picked his side up from this disappointment to lead North to a memorable triumph.
For Barassi, his premiership victories at North rank with the epic 1970 Grand Final as his finest coaching moments.
In 1981 Barassi returned to Melbourne which, through a lack of on-field success, had fallen into disarray. With the help of renowned under-19 coach Ray "Slug" Jordon, Barassi set about building a winning culture from the junior ranks upwards. The under-19s made three straight grand finals and won premierships in 1981 and 1983.
Barassi clearly laid foundations for what would become a revitalised Melbourne side. "In the five years we were there I think we raised the level of the club substantially. Melbourne reached the preliminary final two years after we left, and the grand final the year after that. I felt we did some of the ground work."
Barassi then turned his signature focus and determination to new business interests and media commitments. However, football's lure proved too strong, and in 1993, he returned to coaching as he took over the rock-bottom Sydney Swans.
His status as an AFL legend, savvy media ability and irrepressible coaching record made him uniquely qualified to carve out a space in the rugby heartland. In his three seasons in Sydney, he helped put both AFL football and the Sydney Swans on the map in the Harbour City.
Barassi now occupies himself with a wide variety of business, media, community and personal interests. Unsurprisingly, he's still on the speed dial of every major football organisation as his opinions and experience are highly valued and always in demand.
"My lifelong involvement in football continues," says Ron. "I am passionate about the development and expansion of our great game, whether it be at junior, regional or international level."
Footballers are often branded heroes or villains according to their team colours, but Ron Barassi is loved and respected by all. He is, and always will be, one of the all-time greats.