AFL: How Sydney Swans coach John Longmire rose to ‘top of the mountain’

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North Melbourne had John Longmire in its sights – and not for the first time.

It was 2019, and Brad Scott had stood down as the Kangaroos’ coach after almost 10 years in the job.

They were on the lookout for a new senior coach, so who better than 1999 premiership player and club great Longmire, who had gone on to become one of the AFL’s best coaches at Sydney?

North asked about Longmire before it appointed Scott but the Swans already had him earmarked as Paul Roos’ successor, although the Kangaroos’ approach arguably accelerated that process.

The problem this time was Longmire was under contract until the end of the next season – but that didn’t stop then-North chief executive Ben Buckley from inquiring about his availability.

Buckley’s first call was to Liam Pickering, Longmire’s agent, former teammate, close friend and best man at his wedding to childhood sweetheart, Shelley.

Pickering negotiated by stealth the famous Lance Franklin trade that saw the 1000-plus goal superstar depart Hawthorn for the Swans. The big difference was “Buddy” was out of contract.

The high-profile manager’s message was simple for Buckley: you will have to speak to Sydney, namely chairman Andrew Pridham.

Pridham was dining at a restaurant overlooking Sydney Harbour when Buckley’s call came in.

He listened intently, then delivered an analogy that left no doubt on his thoughts about the Kangaroos’ bold pursuit.

Pridham’s response went something like this: “I’m looking out at this magnificent, 60-foot yacht and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I would love to have that’, but you know what? I can’t.”

Buckley and North Melbourne ploughed on and reportedly offered Longmire a deal worth about $1.6 million annually for five years, but Longmire stayed in the Harbour City.

As a result, the Swans handed him a lucrative three-year extension until the end of 2023 and he’s gone on to lead the powerhouse club in and out of a brief rebuild that now has it one win from this year’s grand final.

Sydney won the 2012 premiership and made the 2014 and 2016 grand finals in Longmire’s 12 years in charge. It has only missed the finals twice under his stewardship, in 2019 and 2020.

His longevity and success are rare in a cutthroat industry in which coaches are sometimes chewed up and spat out before their first contract expires.

Longmire’s Kangaroos premiership teammate-turned-West Coast coach Adam Simpson said the AFL coaching fraternity rated him “right at the top of the mountain”.

“Obviously, winning a premiership and having longevity helps, but it’s his standing (that sets him apart),” Simpson said.

“When he talks, it’s with real conviction and he has a real presence.”

Their old coach, Denis Pagan, concurs, considering Longmire to be one of the competition’s best “two or three” coaches.

THE PLAYER

Longmire was a teenage prodigy famed as an enormous physical specimen, hence his “Horse” nickname.

He already sported a hulking frame as a 16-year-old, when, in his first season of senior football with Corowa-Rutherglen, he booted 82 goals to be one of the Ovens and Murray league’s leading goalkickers.

The hype was so great that even Paul Roos, already an established VFL star at Fitzroy by then and who Longmire later succeeded as Swans coach, had heard about the “next big thing in footy”.

North Melbourne’s talent scouts swooped, and Longmire was playing at the highest level by the next year, 1988. Pickering arrived at the club the same year.

“He came into North Melbourne with a big, flash SS Commodore or whatever he had, while I was driving a little Nissan Bluebird,” Pickering said.

“He was the big, highly rated recruit and I was just a s—kicker from Stawell, but we hit it off from the get-go.”

Longmire kicked 98 goals in his third season as a 19-year-old, then backed it up with 91 the next year playing under Kangaroos great Wayne Schimmelbusch.

Pagan took over ahead of the 1993 campaign and remained at the helm until the end of 2002, before coaching Carlton for five seasons.

“In his prime, he was very quick out of the blocks on the lead and formed a critical part of the team in the early-to-mid-90s,” Pagan said.

“Having Wayne Carey, John Longmire and Corey McKernan all at their top in the same forward line was a pretty hard nut to crack.”

Simpson, who played 306 games and in two premierships, was the No.14 pick in the 1993 AFL Draft, with another future champion Roo, David King, selected 32 picks later.

“‘Horse’ was a bloody good player,” Simpson said.

“My experience with him was when I was young, so he was at the back-end and I was at the front-end. He was a bit intimidating and very serious – or at least that’s what it looked like from my point of view.

“He was someone you looked up to for his standards and how he always did the right thing at the right time. When you were making decisions, it was like, ‘What would ‘Horse’ do?’”

But a serious knee injury had significant repercussions on Longmire’s career, causing him to miss the entire 1996 season and North Melbourne’s first flag with Pagan as coach.

Pagan still remembers Longmire’s crestfallen expression on grand final day and how the injury robbed him of many of his physical assets despite him operating with barely any body fat.

He kicked only 17 goals across 45 games in his final three seasons, as opposed to 494 in 155 matches before that.

But Longmire was in the Kangaroos’ side that triumphed in 1999, even if only in a limited role off the bench in the grand final.

He walked into Pagan’s office on the Monday afterwards and told his coach, while still months shy of turning 29 but with 200 games behind him, that he was “cooked” and had played his last match.

THE COACH

Pagan didn’t expect Longmire to become a coach, let alone one of the game’s best.

“It took me by surprise. I’ve seen a few things in him (as a coach) that I didn’t see as a player,” Pagan said.

“He can be a bit assertive and demanding at times, which all good coaches have in them.”

Others, such as John Blakey, a teammate of Longmire’s at North Melbourne who also shared a Sydney coaches’ box with him for 14 years, always believed he had the makings of a coach.

But Longmire’s first post-football foray was in player management at IMG, where his clients included Justin Koschitzke, Daniel Cross, Darren Glass, Leon Davis and Chance Bateman.

That stint didn’t last long before he joined the Swans’ coaching panel in 2002, initially to look after Sydney’s ruckmen and forwards.

Rodney Eade was the Swans’ coach that year, before Roos replaced him the next season.

Interestingly enough, IMG hired Pickering, who was coaching under-18 team Western Jets at the time, as Longmire’s replacement.

Longmire’s star rose quickly and he was Roos’ right-hand man by the time Sydney won its drought-busting 2005 flag.

“When Rodney left, we were sitting around and we actually discussed whether we just rotate or do it collectively,” Roos said.

“We were both involved, along with the group of players who were there in 2003, in creating the Bloods culture … so that’s the big difference between what he’s done and what other coaches have done taking over certain clubs.

“People don’t give him enough credit for the ’05 grand final.

“It’s not that he’s looking for credit or needs credit, but when you look at his history, it’s not just the 12 years he’s been senior coach. His legacy goes well beyond that.”

Pagan’s influence on Longmire was evident, Roos said, in how he always kicked the ball to centre half-forward during Swans intraclub games when they were short on players – a tactic that went against their game plan at the time.

“He thought Wayne Carey was there. He was so indoctrinated in the North Melbourne way, but always ended up apologising to me,” Roos said.

“The North Melbourne boys loved Denis so much and had such a defined game style, and our 18-on-18 games showed how coachable ‘Horse’ was and how he was brought up on a system.

“That’s also what made him such a great coach.”

Blakey, who has returned to North Melbourne as a senior assistant coach, knows Longmire the coach and person as well as almost anyone.

They worked alongside each other at Sydney as assistants, then once Longmire ascended to the top job.

“If you ask players that he’s coached over time; they have an enormous respect for him,” Blakey said.

“He’s a workaholic. He works around the clock and leaves no stone unturned to better himself, better the club and better the individual.

“His loyalty is outstanding, too, and the players probably look up to him as a father figure as well, because that’s the sort of influence that he has, on not only their football but their life.”

THE PERSONALITY

Pickering often jokingly accuses Longmire of being “boring” in his media appearances.

Sometimes, the leading player agent even has to remind him that he’s not interviewing him when they talk footy over the phone.

Longmire’s 2012 premiership captain, Jarrad McVeigh, explains his coach’s public persona best of all.

“He generally plays a straight bat and doesn’t get caught up in the hoopla of everything,” McVeigh said.

“He knows when to have fun with the players and if it’s a great win, fantastic, but if it’s a poor loss, we understand that, too.

“He stays on an even keel either way and doesn’t get caught up in the nonsense.”

But don’t be fooled. Longmire presents a very different, lighthearted side of himself to those who know him best, from his players to fellow coaches, best friends and, of course, family.

Pickering knows the “real” Longmire and calls him “great company”, while Roos describes him as “the sort of guy you would love to go out for dinner with”.

Blakey and McVeigh speak of how Longmire goes out of his way to get to know his players, from picking them up from the airport to showing them around Sydney or even inviting them to his home for dinner.

Most of all, the resounding message is they can trust him with their most fiercely guarded secrets.

Simpson knows him at a different level, because of the way their playing careers overlapped and their association now as coaching peers on opposite sides of the country.

But they worked together on a paper two years ago during the Covid-impacted season about why the soft cap should not be severely reduced, which was presented to the AFL.

“‘Horse’ is really big on mental health and the health and wellbeing of our staff,” Simpson said.

“The paper didn’t end up doing a lot and we probably both got scarred from that, from an AFL point of view, but I spent a bit of time with him and that just reaffirmed the same position I had of him back in the day.

“He’s strong in his convictions and you know where you stand. That’s something I admire. He doesn’t have an opinion on every single thing but when he’s got a passion for something, you better be ready.”

Longmire’s other special characteristic is his empathy, which has possibly been the key to his incredible longevity and ability to evolve from coaching a veteran squad to the current youth-laden one.

McVeigh rose from high draft pick to star player and eventually captain before retiring and joining Longmire in the coaches’ box.

Longmire was one of the first people at the hospital to offer support when McVeigh’s late daughter, Luella, became sick and eventually passed only four weeks into her life in 2011.

Then eight years later, when McVeigh told Longmire he was retiring, the coach organised for he, Adam Goodes, Michael O’Loughlin and Jude Bolton to go around to his place to celebrate his career.

“I know he’s done a lot of stuff for ‘Bud’ (Lance Franklin) to ‘Joey’ Kennedy and ‘Ramps’ (Dane Rampe) as well,” McVeigh said.

“He just understands the significance of players’ careers, or something that might be going on in a staff member’s life. He understands that stuff really well.

“‘Horse’ is a great coach but he’s a good person as well, and that’s more important.”

Originally published as AFL 2022: John Longmire’s closest allies and ex-teammates reveal the man behind the Sydney Swans coach


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