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Ronald Dale (Ron) Barassi (1936–2023)

by Graeme Leech

from Australian

Ron Barassi

Footballer and coach. Born Castlemaine, Victoria, February 27, 1936. Died September 16, 2023, aged 87

At half-time on the last Saturday of September 1970, the modern era of Australian Football dawned. Carlton, coached by Ron Barassi, was facing humiliating defeat by arch enemy Collingwood.

Folklore records that at half-time Barassi drew back his lips in a fearsome snarl and demanded a play-on style using handball — especially out of the backline. One Carlton player, Brent Crosswell, later said that players cowered in front of Barassi’s fury.

But Barassi’s unique mix of menace and inspiration worked. Carlton came back from 44 points down at half-time to win the grand final by 10. It was the happiest moment of his life, he told a magazine in 2008.

It took six years for the play-on method to catch on with other teams. It was Barassi again who showed the way by getting his 1977 North Melbourne (now the Kangaroos) team to adopt a similar relentless running style.

North’s flag that year was a confirmation of the run-on game Barassi had pioneered at Carlton. North Melbourne ran and ran — and handballed. Collingwood stuck with the traditional positional game and paid the penalty.

It had been Barassi’s lifelong ambition to make Australian Football the dominant national winter game. His passion was for football. But his loyalty shifted between four clubs — Melbourne, Carlton, North Melbourne and Sydney.

Whether he was greater as a player or coach is debatable. In either situation his physical and psychological presence was inspirational. He was insightful, intelligent, shrewd and generous to a fault, but he could also be mean.

Barassi, in his own self-image, was always number one. When Bob Ansett (who ran the Budget car rental business) chaired North Melbourne, Barassi was the coach. Despite their close working relationship he saw no conflict of interest in making a few bucks out of a TV commercial sponsoring rival Avis.

Italian migration to Australia is generally viewed as a post-World War II phenomenon, but Italians and Sicilians migrated — particularly to Victoria — from the beginning of the colony.

Barrassi’s great-grandfather arrived in 1859. The gold boom in west-central Victoria was an enormous incentive but Mario Guiseppe Barassi was not to share in its wealth. He took up land at Guildford near Castlemaine, married a local girl and established a small vineyard. This was eventually inherited by Barassi’s father, who was born in 1913.

Ronald James married in 1935 and Ron arrived a year later. The Barassi family had abandoned the Catholic faith two generations previously and most members could be described as agnostic.

Ronald James was the first footballer in the family. He played locally as a rover before being spotted by the Melbourne Football Club. The family was urged to move to Melbourne.

These were depression years. The Melbourne club enjoyed the support of prominent members of the community and Barassi snr secured regular employment with the parks and gardens. Captain of the team was full-forward Norm Smith, who was destined to play a decisive role in Barassi junior’s life. The coach was the renowned F.V. “Checker” Hughes.

Barassi had little, if any, memory of his father. In 1940 his father volunteered for the AIF and joined the Australian 9th Division. Within months he was dispatched to the North Africa campaign to fight Rommel’s army. These men became known as the Rats of Tobruk. Corporal Barassi was one of the first Australian casualties of the war, killed in action in 1941 when he drove a truck over a landmine.

Ron and his mother lived with Norm Smith and his family and Norm found Elza employment in both day and night-time jobs. The Smiths were happy to continue to accommodate the Barassis but family loyalty saw Ron move back to the original tiny property at Guildford to live with his aunt May. Ron desperately missed his mother but Elza seemed to be developing a new life and, naturally enough, interest in other men.

Ron was reasonably happy in the country but the area was sparsely populated and he had few playmates. Although he was desperate to play football, there was no team for youngsters. His mother had given him a football as a parting gift and he kicked it around endlessly to improve his technique.

At this tender age he was consumed with ambition and convinced that football would shape his life. He was also a talented sprinter and jumper. At weekends he stayed with the Smiths in Melbourne and Norm remained his surrogate father for the rest of his life. Smith was convinced that Ron would eventually become a crack footballer and constantly supported and advised him.

In 1947, aged 11, Barassi returned to Melbourne to attend the Preston Technical College to study engineering. It was one ambition he failed to achieve. Again he lived with his mother but despite his love for her it was a relationship that never seemed to work.

Elza had an unsuccessful second marriage and Barassi and his stepfather were mutually antagonistic. She married for the third time, went to live in Tasmania, and this departure seemed to mark the end of the mother-son relationship. The organisation Legacy, which assists the families of war casualties, helped pay for Ron’s education.

Barassi began his playing career with the Preston District Junior Football Association. He made little impression as a future star.

In 1967 Smith, in the Sun News-Pictorial, wrote of him: “At that early stage he didn’t have exceptional ability. I’d say he had good ability.”

It was Barassi’s tenacity that drove him to success — he simply had to win. In 1953 secretary Jim Cardwell nabbed him for the Melbourne Football Club. Smith was its new coach and his implicit faith in his protege no doubt influenced the club’s decision. Barassi went back to live with the Smiths.

Smith’s genius as a coach soon brought success for the Demons and over the next decade Melbourne won six premierships. Barassi played half-forward flank and as a second rover, a position that became known as ruck-rover — a role that Barassi developed and which was soon copied by all teams.

These were great days for Melbourne. Other star players included Brian Dixon, Denis Cordner and Dick Fenton-Smith. Over seven seasons Melbourne won 108 of 141 games. Barassi was viewed as a difficult customer both on stage and off. Jack Mueller (a team mate of Barassi’s father) noted: “This boy thinks he can do what he likes.”

He worked at a rope-manufacturing plant where he met a beautiful research assistant named Nancy Kellett. They married in 1957 and built a house in the eastern suburb of Heathmont. Ron did much of the work himself assisted by his football mates. One girl and two boys were born to this marriage.

In 1965 Laurie Kerr, a prominent Carlton official, persuaded Barassi to join the club as captain/coach. Carlton had not won a premiership since 1947 and the club was desperate. All hell broke loose in the world of football and Barassi received a thrashing in the court of popular opinion and the press. In those days, changing clubs challenged conventions of loyalty — and Barassi had undermined the foundations.

But he believed that Carlton offered fresh opportunities and an irresistible challenge. Moreover, they were offering him good money. Barassi was still only 29.

The journalist Peter McFarline noted in a biography of Barassi: “In his first year and again the following year Carlton rose or was dragged to sixth, just outside the final four. In 1967 the Blues reached the preliminary final. The following year rookie coach Barassi guided the club to its first premiership in 21 years. Two years later he repeated that success.”

In 1972 Ron Joseph — who had worked in football administration all his adult life — was now CEO of North Melbourne. Barassi had left Carlton, was working as part-owner of an office-supply business and was heavily involved as a media commentator.

In 1973, Joseph persuaded him to join North Melbourne as a non-playing coach. His remuneration was substantial. His appointment helped Joseph to attract leading players from other VFL clubs including star full-forward Doug Wade from Geelong. In 1973 Barassi’s marriage broke up with considerable acrimony on both sides.

Barassi’s loyalty to any particular club was manifest in his ambivalence to Joseph’s shrewd recruitments. He argued that these talented players should remain where they were for the good of Australian Football as a national sport.

Success for North Melbourne came quickly. The team was described as “born again” and within two years they had made it twice into grand finals, winning in 1975 — the club’s first VFL (now AFL) premiership. In 1977, after drawing the grand final against Collingwood, North won the replay.

But tensions were not far from the surface and by 1979 Barassi was aware that his days were numbered. He received considerable flak after the team had failed to get past the preliminary final that year. Carlton failed in its attempt to draw him back and in 1981 he returned to the underperforming Melbourne.

One source of happiness was his marriage to Cherryl Copeland in 1981. Otherwise it was a dismal five years with the Demons and, although he did good work, the club never looked like winning a premiership.

The final phase of Barassi’s football life was as coach of Sydney. With minor exceptions Barassi failed to reverse the on-field fortunes of the Swans but he did make the club a credible force in a city dominated by rugby league. Later he said that at least he had been influential in the formation of the national Australian Football League.

He retired to media commentary and public speaking. In 2006, fit as a mallee bull, he walked the Kokoda Trail.

Barassi died on Saturday aged 87 after a short illness.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Ronald Dale (Ron) Barassi

Additional Resources

Citation details

Graeme Leech, 'Barassi, Ronald Dale (Ron) (1936–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/barassi-ronald-dale-ron-33777/text42284, accessed 16 June 2024.

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