Curiosity vs Certainty, Growers vs Arrivers
I first met Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley over twenty-five years ago. At the time, he was a precocious young football talent who, in a matter of months, had become the hottest prospect in the game.
Still a teenager, he was dominating a very strong South Australian football competition, playing for the famous Port Adelaide Magpies, his season culminating with a Jack Oatey Medal for best-on-ground in a Premiership team and winning the Magarey Medal as the competition’s Best & Fairest.
As CEO of the Richmond Football Club, I was one of the many AFL club representatives beating a path to his door, trying to win the signature of this young football tyro by whatever means the player rules of the time vaguely allowed.
We fired our best shot but fell short, even with Nathan’s meteoric rise through the ranks, we were too late to this game. Lesson learned.
Nathan eventually found his way to Collingwood via a single season with the then Brisbane Bears, in which he managed to win the inaugural Rising Star award. Every step of this convoluted and complicated journey to the Magpies highlighted on the back pages of the papers in all the footy loving states.
At Collingwood, he would enjoy a storied career as one of the greatest players to represent the game’s biggest club: Captain, Brownlow Medallist, six-time Collingwood Best & Fairest and seven-time All Australian.
He was a star.
It seems entirely appropriate that Nathan Buckley is now coaching the club he represented with such distinction. It must be said, however, that many of the game’s ‘stars’, including returning club heroes, have been unable to make this transition. While generalities are often misleading, history tells us most successful coaches were ‘role-players’ during their playing days, likely self-made footballers able to build on their learnings as players when transitioning into the teacher/mentor role so fundamental to coaching.
This narrative was prominent for much of Buckley’s first six years as Collingwood Senior Coach. He failed to take his team to the finals for the previous four seasons and all the tensions and clamour that go with it, before reaching last year’s Grand Final, losing by less than a goal, in a match the Magpies led for all but a few minutes.
It was a game of moments, and for Collingwood people, it is a loss that will never get any easier.
Like many, I was taken by Nathan’s poise, humility and dignity in the scenes that followed the loss. Again, this should not surprise, but for many it did, but this is the young coach we have watched grow, emerging from the foreboding shadow of a playing career which built a perception of the person as a fiercely focused, standard-setting, perfectionist athlete.
I doubt there has been a more watched person in the history of Australian Football than Nathan Buckley. It was more than 25 years ago that he announced his arrival as a player of immense capabilities and single-minded determination with all the media scrutiny that followed. The judgement has continued unabated, monitored and opinioned by a game that cannot get enough of people like Nathan Buckley.
Much of the commentary has a ‘heroes and villains’ storyline, and Nathan has been positioned as both. Over the years, our paths have crossed only a few times, but this view did not accord with the person I found to be engaging, thoughtful and generous, even when he didn’t have to be.
Having spent a lifetime in the game, I learned that some people are into growing, but most people are only interested in arrival. The ‘arrival’ people create all the commotion that distracts from the critical work of the ‘growers’, who are playing a much bigger and far more important game, energised by all its possibilities, and significantly, not overwhelmed by its ambiguity.
It is a kind of curiosity vs certainty mindset.
Their world is not black and white. The ‘growers’ see a more nuanced world, full of greys, and they’re able to operate in it. They have crafted this capability over time as learners, being prepared to be an un-learner as part of their personal growth.
The football world has spent most of the last 25 years thinking of Nathan Buckley as an ‘arriver’, but he strikes me as a ‘grower’, and perhaps he always has been as it is easy to overestimate the role talent plays with those who can make the game look easy.
This feeling was confirmed when listening to a terrific podcast recently, “The Howie Games” where Mark Howard interviews Nathan. He talks with openness and vulnerability, such as his relationship with his father, including the letters his dad, a Vietnam Vet, wrote when he was at boarding school in country Victoria, having grown up in the Northern Territory.
The conversation moves onto that period a few years later when every AFL club is chasing him. He’s asked about a ‘brown paper bag’, an old-time recruiting technique when a player is handed cash, literally in a brown paper bag, in this case, $10,000 in a cafe in Adelaide, as an incentive to sign with a club.
They were reflecting on how times have changed, and what massive news such a move would be today had it been found out.
Nathan then reflects “I sometimes think, at times you can get caught between eras, between the old way and the new way”.
He then pauses.
“We’re always between the old way and the new way.”
The words of a leader.
The words of a grower.
I was telling this story to my wife Cecily, and she commented:
“Do you think if Nathan hadn’t had his recent success as a coach, we would have ever got to see this side of him?”
It was wonderful insight, and the answer is probably not.
Even after a quarter of a century of intense scrutiny, the world is now only getting to know Nathan Buckley the ‘grower’, a true representation of the man, at the very time we thought we knew everything we needed to know.
Photo: Michael Willson (legend photographer) captures the moment. Nathan Buckley with his son Jett after Collingwood win their way into the 2018 Grand Final.
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