Supercoach, The Life and Times of Jack Gibson, by Andrew Webster

As a fan of sports biographies I was looking forward to Andrew Webster’s portrait of the late Jack Gibson as much for the account of his association with Sydney’s underworld as I was to learn about what made him different to all the other rugby league coaches of that time.

In 1951 Gibson got a job working the door at Thommo’s,  an illegal two-up card club in Surry Hills owned by Sydney underworld figure Joe “The Boss” Taylor, when former boxer Bobby Lee was shot five times while on duty at the door.  Gibson was associated with Thommo’s for 12 years and ran an illegal SP (Starting Price) bookmaking business for much of his life.  Webster recounts an amusing story of Gibson settling with customers who had bet with him at Cronulla Surf Club every Sunday morning and sticking wads of cash into his swimming trucks.

“The only problem with that system arose when Jack forgot about it when he went for a swim, and the $20 and $50 paper notes would wash up onto the sand.”

Another interesting story concerned the outcome of a dispute between Rupert Murdoch and Sir Frank Packer, father of future billionaire Kerry Packer.  In June 1960 Murdoch bought Mirror Newspapers from John Fairfax, leaving Packer’s Consolidated Press with no outlet to print its regional newspapers.  Packer’s son Clyde tried to strong-arm the Anglican Press into printing their newspaper.  When editor Frank James refused to allow them to do so Clyde and Kerry along with a bunch of gorillas commandeered the building.  James called Murdoch who, through an associate, offered the doormen at Thommo’s, Jack Gibson among them, some “extra work.”  They evicted Packer’s goons from the building leaving Kerry badly beaten up.  Incidentally, afterwards Kerry Packer never seemed to hold the incident against Gibson when their paths frequently crossed through their mutual association with Eastern Suburbs.

Gibson was quite the gambler himself.  When John Quayle, the son of an Anglican priest and a man who would later head up the Australian Rugby League, moved to Sydney to play for Eastern Suburbs during Jack’s first stint there as coach, Gibson drove him to a restaurant in a Cadillac.  The next time he brought Quayle to a restaurant it was in an EJ Holden.  Gibson had lost the Cadillac in a card game.   “It took a while” according to his wife, Judy, “but he got it back.”

Alongside his career at Thommo’s, Gibson was building a reputation as a tough and no nonsense rugby league forward for Eastern Suburbs.  A forward who wasn’t afraid of getting his retaliation in first.  Before a match against Western Suburbs, Easts had identified Neville Charlton as a threat.  Gibson is reputed to have said the following:  “I’ll make sure he’s carried off today…he’s got a glass jaw.”  Sure enough Charlton retired from play on a stretcher.

In his twelve-season first-grade career with Easts, Newtown, and Wests, Gibson never won a Grand Final and later regretted the fact that he hadn’t achieved more as a player.

“The only thing I regretted when I played is that I did have a tendency to look back over my shoulder and think ‘you could have been a better player.’  I regretted that I never gave it the time that I should have.”

Gibson continued to miss out on a Grand Final win during his embryonic coaching career with short spells at Easts, St. George, and Newtown, but built a coaching philosophy that was initially founded on strong defence and excellent fitness.  Gibson liked what he saw in the coaching methods of the Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi and, thirty years before Clive Woodward would with the English rugby union side, insisted that his players were on “Lombardi time” by arriving at all meetings ten minutes in advance.  He struck up a friendship with San Francisco 49ers coach Dick Nolan and travelled to the States to examine their set-up  and conditioning methods.

Australia has long been either the source, or else the conduit from the US, of revolutionary coaching and conditioning methods for

Andrew Webster

both rugby codes.  It took close on 15 years for the Wallabies, under Alan Jones, to focus on the fundamentals espoused by Gibson.  Australia, assisted by the brilliant Mark Ella at outside-half, steamrolled the Home Nations on the Grand Slam tour of 1984 in a manner similar to the famous and ground-breaking Kangaroo rugby league tour two years previously.

An interesting aspect of his coaching philosophy, which many saw as hypocritical, was his insistence that his players desisted from cheap shots or retaliation when assaulted on the field.  When questioned on this he replied that “coaches coach what they couldn’t do.  I couldn’t play the game clean – but my teams have to.”

The more I read about successful coaches the more obvious it is how similar they all are.  Gibson’s “interesting” career outside of football meant that he had a network of contacts willing to pick up the phone and let him know which of his players were out on the tear after hours.  The following tale sums up Gibson’s power in a nutshell, and it’s not surprising that there are similar tales out there about Alex Ferguson and Kevin Heffernan, the legendary Dublin Gaelic football coach.

“When two of his forwards, Ian Baker and Kenny Jones, had a skinful and then started to fight each other on the footpath outside the Phoenix Hotel in Woollhara like Old props do, Johnny Peard high-tailed it out of there but was nabbed by the police for speeding on the way home.  Peard phoned Jack straightaway, knowing the coach would rather hear it from him than his network. 

‘Jack, I got done for speeding tonight.’ ‘Were you breathalysed?’ Jack asked.  ‘Yes, but I wasn’t over the limit.’ ‘Good, I’ll see you at training on Thursday night.’  A pause, just before the receiver was clunked down.  ‘By the way, Peardy,’ Jack said.  ‘Who won the fight?’

Andrew Webster

Jack went on to win two Grand Finals coaching Eastern Suburbs (1974,’75) and three on the trot with Parramatta (1981,’82,’83).  The hat-trick with Parramatta hasn’t been repeated and only Wayne Bennett, a man heavily influenced by Gibson, has won more premierships.  Bennett won six during a twenty one year career at the Brisbane Broncos  and one during his recent three year stint at St George- Illawara.   Gibson’s stint at South Sydney ended in acrimony when he fell out with the board – a common occurrence – and was knifed by his eventual successor, Billy Anderson, who Gibson had appointed as reserve grade coach.

His final spell as a coach was a three year term at Cronulla, which ended the way it has for every coach there before and after him.  He was a great man for one-liners and came up with the following on his departure: “Waiting for Cronulla to win a premiership, is like leaving the porch light on for Harold Holt.”  In 1967 Holt, the Australian Prime Minister, went missing in the surf off Portsea –where athletics coach Percy Cerutty set up his famous training centre – and was never found.

Gibson was a man of few words.  A twelve year career at Thommo’s and having the ear of the wealthy and powerful would not have been possible for a man with a loose tongue.  It comes as no surprise that the garrulous and opinionated Sydney shock-jock and sports commentator, Ray Hadley, features prominently in one amusing tale.  Hadley rang Gibson in a panic after a “colourful” member of the horseracing fraternity threatened to break his legs after taking offense at the content of one of Hadley’s broadcasts.

‘You’ve upset the wrong bloke,’ Jack said down the phone line.  ‘This bloke is capable of making good on those threats.’  ‘What should I do?’ asked Hadley. ‘First thing you should do is shut your mouth,’ Jack replied.  I know someone who knows him so I’ll have a talk to them to see if they can tell him you are not such a bad bloke, and you’ll drop off and everything will be fine.’

Jack Gibson never forgot.  When Billy Anderson, the man who knifed him at South Sydney, in his new role as pitch-side commentator for Channel Ten thrust a microphone under his nose for comment after a game, Jack calmly pushed it aside saying, “you’re time’s not up yet son.”

Getting a chance to profile Jack Gibson was an opportunity of a lifetime that countless Australian sports journalists would have killed for.  While it has undoubtedly been a rewarding experience for Andrew Webster, it can’t have been easy giving a balanced account of a much-loved, respected, and successful Sydney man with such a murky and “interesting” past.  Like Jack Gibson though, he got it just about right.

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