Each week NEIL CADIGAN will look back on some of the most eventful games and most famous names in the club’s 70-year history and bring them back to life. This week, we look at Jack Gibson's time at the Blue & Gold as the Head Coach.
When Jack Gibson came to Parramatta in 1981, after having a year’s break from coaching, Eels players did not know what to expect from the man they knew had an aura, a tough reputation and a two-time premiership record.
He was coming off a season’s break for the third time since entering coaching in 1967 at Easts (now Sydney Roosters), taking them from a win-less wooden spoon in 1966 to semi-finalists in ’67.
However, his previous stint before joining the Eels – two seasons with South Sydney – was the first during which he did not take his team to the finals. And there was a bit of apprehension about whether he would be the right fit for the club.
Three years later, Jack Gibson had been elevated to greatness. His three successive premierships in his only seasons at Parramatta took him to five titles (adding to the 1974-75 crowns with an extraordinarily talented Easts).
He helped make green youngsters Peter Sterling, Eric Grothe, Brett Kenny, John Muggleton and Steve Ella into international status champions; he made ageing warriors Bob O’Reilly and Kevin Stevens into premiership-winning heroes; he developed new leadership qualities in Steve Edge, Ray Price, Michael Cronin and Ron Hilditch while spare-parts first grade squad members Paul Taylor and Steve Sharp became integral to Eels success.
And many more, like Paul Mares, Stan Jurd, Steve McKenzie and Graeme Atkins, enjoyed their best seasons under ‘The Master Coach’.
Gibson was unique. An innovator – in ideas and ideals. An odd-ball in many ways. A generous man of some wealth who generated extraordinary loyalty from his players. Before his second stint at Easts when coaching was his main emphasis, first grade coaches worked full-time jobs and received little pay or profile.
For those who were raised after his time, picture Big Jack as the Wayne Bennett of his era in many ways: the self-promoted mystique with the media, use of few words to make a point, a mentor of men off the field as much as on, and quirky. He was more innovative than Bennett, although he shared a simple approach to his craft, aware that information-overload and complicated match-plans could be a burden.
During most of his coaching career he was almost joined at the hip with his great mate and great football mind Ron Massey, who went by the title of his "coaching coordinator". They were a brilliant pairing, complementing each other to a tee.
Massey said of Gibson, shortly before Gibson died at age 79, days ahead of anointed as Australian Rugby League’s coach of the century in 2008, “Jack was the strongest bloke, physically and mentally, I've ever known. No modern-day coach should forget the platform he set for them. He changed everything. Until he came along coaches were second-class citizens. He took the job from a hobby to a profession."
Bob Fulton, who won two premierships as a coach and Australia to its greatest feats in the 1990s, once said of Gibson: "He's done more for coaching than any coach since the inception of the game. He put football coaching on the professional roll of honour."
Said Peter Wynn, an Eels player to whom Gibson became a second father, continuing his link long after Wynn retired from the game: “I owe him so much of what I have achieved in life and feel privileged to be his friend, as much as having been a player under him. I don't know anyone who has had such widespread respect.”
Massey laughed when Gibson, a tough close-to-the-win style prop for Easts and Wests who played in two grand finals and for NSW and worked in shady two-up schools and illegal SP betting establishments, told him he was applying for the Roosters job in ’67.
“He was a tough player and a rough diamond and I just couldn't see him coaching, but he said he thought he had something to offer the club,” Massey said.
Gibson went on to enjoy 16 seasons of coaching over 21 years, his teams making the finals 11 times, winning five premierships, three pre-season titles, one Amco Cup and five club championships. And every club was better for his involvement.
He cited the Eels’ first premiership of 1981 as his favourite moment and best achievement.
Eels coach of 1976-79, Terry Fearnley, also a Roosters teammate of Gibson’s in the 1950s and his coaching assistant in the early 70s, reckons he can pinpoint the day Gibson found ‘the edge’ as a coach – when Fearnley introduced him to an American 30-minute motivational film called The Second Effort in 1971.
The film relayed profound messages from legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi like “mental toughness is an essential key to success” and “fatigue makes cowards of us all” and “confidence is contagious, and so is the lack of it”.
Gibson was coaching St George at the time, and showed it to all three senior graded teams. They were unbeaten for the next seven rounds and all made the grand final.
Gibson became mesmerized by the American coaching ways. He and Fearnley were the first to conduct a study tour of the US, and he befriended legendary San Francisco 49rs coach Dick Nolan.
He was the first in Australia to introduce tackle counts, regulated weight training, more scientific fitness assessment, video analysis and more; plus he became the guru of one-liners and off-beat quotes.
Gibson the coach was the antithesis of Gibson the player, abhorring illegal play and banning his players from fighting. He made coaching defence as important as perfecting attack. He was all about the player’s overall character and insisted they all had jobs.
“He's the most influential coach the game has ever had. He changed the face of our game in how coaches were perceived and how the game was played, and approached,” is Bennett’s tribute.
“That's his greatest legacy; he brought us out of the dark ages into a credible place in sport.”
After leading the Eels to their first three premierships, Gibson again had one season’s break before embarking on his last club journey, with his hometown Sharks from 1985-87 but failed to make the finals. He coached NSW in 1989-90 for a series loss, then victory.
So, Parramatta was his last place of greatness. And no team in the league has replicated that success since.
Video courtesy of Andrew Voss’ ‘Legends’ series (edited back).