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Why this Baby Boomer coach should change the AFL’s Gen Z thinking


September 28, 2023 — 3.30pm

Who says the Millennials and Gen Z players who today dominate AFL player lists need a young, contemporary, new-age senior coach? At the Brisbane Lions, Chris Fagan is bucking the trend.

Fagan is 62. He is the oldest of the AFL’s 18 senior coaches. He is also the only one to have never played a VFL/AFL game.

Brisbane Lions coach Chris Fagan and his players before the preliminary final against Carlton.

Brisbane Lions coach Chris Fagan and his players before the preliminary final against Carlton.Credit: Getty Images

He has defied so many preconceptions, particularly the notion that an older coach cannot relate to or communicate with today’s players. Such ageism has favoured younger candidates when recent coaching opportunities have emerged in the AFL.

Fagan’s record and resume tell more than his birth certificate.

A Hall of Famer in Tasmania, where he was a successful player, Fagan served his AFL coaching apprenticeship at Hawthorn, where he was Alastair Clarkson’s right-hand man.

He took charge of the Brisbane Lions at the end of 2016, and walked into a mess. The Lions had won just three games in 2016 and had suffered 10 defeats by 10 goals or more, including a 138-point belting from Adelaide in round 20.

The poor culture resulted in key young players such as Jared Polec, Elliot Yeo, Sam Docherty and Jack Redden demanding trades.

Fagan’s experience, calming influence and positive mindset were able to steady the ship and slowly turn things around.


After winning five games in his first two seasons in 2017 and 2018, the Lions jumped to 16 wins and second place after the home-and-away season in 2019. They have not missed the finals since. This season, they have stormed to the club’s first grand final since 2004.

He is coaching as well as he ever has; his move from the interchange bench to the coach’s box this season has had enormous benefits.

Fagan has had a much calmer demeanour from behind the glass this season. He maintained his composure during last Saturday’s home preliminary final against Carlton, even after the Blues scored the first five goals. His quarter-time address was positive rather than an old-fashioned bake. He knew what tone his message needed to get his young players to switch on, and get back into the game.

Fagan was rewarded with a two-year contract extension this year, ensuring he will be the Lions’ coach until at least the end of 2025 – when he will be 64.

Why has the AFL industry effectively shunned coaches such as Fagan, who are 60 or older? Internationally, sports such as America’s biggest game – the NFL – will celebrate such veterans.

This is a frustration for Port Adelaide premiership coach and now Melbourne assistant coach, Mark Williams.

Former Port Adelaide premiership coach and Demons assistant Mark Williams.

Former Port Adelaide premiership coach and Demons assistant Mark Williams.Credit: AFL Photos

Williams, 65, hardly maintains any social media presence, but in 2020, he hinted that he was waiting and ready should one of the AFL clubs come knocking.

“Choco”, as he is affectionately known, took to LinkedIn – the social network for professionals and companies – to pay tribute to NFL 2020 Super Bowl-winning coach Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs.

“Great to see the NFL continuing to respect experience and expertise – who would have thought a master coach over 60 (years of age) could win the Super Bowl? #liveandleearn #stayyoung #freshandready #change #oldisnew,” he wrote alongside a picture of Reid.

Reid is 65. He has worked as a head coach in the NFL since 1999. He entered the 2020 Super Bowl as the NFL’s most successful coach not to win a Lombardi Trophy. Reid today has two Super Bowl rings after claiming that title in 2020 and then repeated that this year with a three-point victory against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Reid’s legacy as one of American football’s best coaches is complete.

His triumph follows the dynasty at the New England Patriots under by the guidance of the greatest NFL coach of all time, Bill Belichick. Belichick has six Super Bowl wins. At 72, he is still regarded as one of the league’s best tactical coaches.

Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll also is 72 and is still coaching as well as ever.

In the NBA, five-time champion coach at the San Antonio Spurs, Gregg Popovich, will celebrate his 75th birthday in January. He has just signed a five-year contract extension worth $US80 million ($125 million). He will be 80 when the deal expires.

Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid.

Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid.Credit: Getty Images

In Australia, in the NRL, the league’s newest team, the Redcliffe Dolphins, had no concern with the age of their first senior coach. They hired the masterful Wayne Bennett – at 75 – to oversee the team’s entry to the big league. Bennett was lauded for his ability to ensure the team was instantly competitive.

Unlike Bennett, Williams – unfairly – was never handed that second opportunity he longed for, and his time as an AFL senior coach is probably done.

Fagan has undoubtedly helped shift the narrative that Australian football coaching is a young man’s game.

We can only hope the AFL system is prepared to finally learn the lessons of the NFL, the NBA and the NRL to put winning ahead of age.

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