Don Pyke’s coaching career was soaring when the Crows finished on top of the ladder and secured their first grand final berth for 20 years in 2017. So why, less than two years later, has the widely respected mentor walked away?
The night the text message went out to Adelaide players inviting them to Don Pyke’s for pizza after the horror loss to Carlton, a group of them were out together when it came through.
The gathering at Pyke’s the following day had been prearranged for coaches and their families but at the last minute it was decided to include the players as well after the demoralising loss to the Blues.
And the sentiment among that particular group of players when their phones went off was “it’s too late”.
Too late to save the season but probably 18 months too late in the context of the journey with their senior coach.
Perhaps it should have happened after the 2017 grand final but the club, despite having the best intentions, went down another path.
And although cleared of any wrongdoing by an AFL integrity unit investigation, chairman Rob Chapman has had to admit the fall-out from the mind camp still dogs them to this day.
The club thought it had buried those demons around this time last year when it gladly dealt with the findings, or non-findings, of the investigation and started planning its pre-season with an emphasis on bringing the fun back.
“Have fun, work hard and let’s enjoy the journey for however long it goes,” Pyke said in March.
Despite the optimism of leaving the mind camp and horror injury toll behind them, Adelaide opened its 2019 campaign with a 32-point loss to Hawthorn at home and emerging star Tom Doedee did his ACL.
They responded with a win over Sydney at the SCG but a fortnight later at 1-3 after a 12-point loss to 17th-ranked North Melbourne there were some home truths in a frank discussion behind closed doors in the rooms at Marvel Stadium. Some players accepted the feedback, others didn’t.
Pyke then changed the team’s game style and tightened its defence as the Crows won their next four games in a row while conceding an average score of just 54 points.
And they were winning without Josh Jenkins who was dropped after the North Melbourne loss and made to wait seven weeks for his spot back.
The high point of the season came on a Thursday night in June when the Crows trounced flag contender Richmond by 33 points at Adelaide Oval and Josh Jenkins returned with a vengeance, kicking 4.3 and avoiding a serious knee injury in the dying minutes.
Jenkins wasn’t the only big name dropped from Adelaide’s team this year. Bryce Gibbs and Eddie Betts got the axe and Sam Jacobs was made to sweat all season before a 200th game reprieve in Round 22.
But Adelaide’s fitness, form and confidence deserted them after the bye. There were second-half fadeouts against Port Adelaide, Geelong and Essendon and the insipid nature of the Round 19 loss to Carlton at the MCG was the end because after that it looked like the players were going through the motions.
The scrutiny and pressure began to take its toll on Pyke.
Two weeks later the rumour that appeared on an online forum and was then broadcast on breakfast radio that he had been involved in a physical altercation with Jenkins crushed him.
Pyke felt it was a deeply personal attack on his character. The suggestion that a 50-year-old man of his reputation, integrity and standing in the game would fight one of his players was devastating to him.
And it was one of the moments when Pyke, a measured and highly intelligent and successful businessman with a happy family life outside of football, wondered whether he really needed all of this.
The Crows muddled their way to Round 23 in Ballarat where they went into the game a chance to play finals then found themselves 0-40 down in the first quarter and it was all over.
Post-match Pyke was asked: “have the past two or three months shaken your belief in your own ability to get the best out of the team?”
“I know from my viewpoint you always self-reflect, is it from a messaging viewpoint what’s going on? There’s no question at times you have an element of uncertainty about where we’re headed but my job now is ‘right, I’m going forward, let’s take it in this direction and give real clarity to the group and go from there,” he said.
Pyke welcomed the club’s external review when it was announced a day later and believed he would be taking the team forward when its findings were handed down.
However something significantly changed in the past two weeks, if not the last two days, leading up to his resignation.
Pyke was involved in the external review process and had a lengthy discussion with Jason Dunstall but both he and the club strongly deny his departure had anything to do with its findings.
Almost two weeks ago Pyke met with Chapman and Fagan face-to-face and told them he was considering standing down.
Fagan told Pyke to take some time to think through his decision and importantly, take the emotion out of it, and if he decided to stay then what would his plan look like going forward.
Pyke did that but still reached his decision to resign — turning his back on the job and a seven-figure payout if the Crows wanted to sack him — to essentially put the club first.
Apart from Fagan and Chapman of course, the club was largely blindsided by his news.
“He is a best and fairest winner in a premiership era (at West Coast), he is as determined as they come,” one senior club official told The Advertiser after Round 23 when it was mooted whether Pyke may walk away.
Shocked would be the wrong word because those who worked with him closely had seen the toll the past year had taken on him, but they were surprised that he had decided he “wasn’t part of the solution” as he said at his press conference.
And when he told Chapman and Fagan in person that he’d made up his mind on Wednesday night, that was it.PYKE’S COACHING RECORD
Win percentage: 60.75%
– Third-longest serving coach at the Crows
– Highest win percentage
Round 1, 2016: North Melbourne 16.11 (107) def Adelaide 14.13 (97)
Round 23, 2019: Western Bulldogs 18.13 (121) def Adelaide 13.9 (87)
Pyke spoke to his senior players and leaders by phone and the rest were contacted via a messaging app on Thursday morning asking them to attend an important meeting at the club at 12.30pm, and nearly all of them were there except for the likes of Sam Jacobs and Hugh Greenwood who are overseas and Eddie Betts who is in Cairns.
Pyke also had the chance to speak with the club’s high performance staff and other coaches who were already at the club working as per normal.
Some sources have told The Advertiser they believed communication was Pyke’s downfall, but others say it wasn’t an issue at all and if you speak to enough people you’ll find someone upset with someone about something at West Lakes.
But if some players wanted more communication from their senior coach, were they insecure? Vulnerable? Did they need an arm around them?
And what level of responsibility does the playing group take for their performances which has led to a man widely regarded as a good coach and a good character walking away with two years to run on his deal?
Former club champion Richard Douglas, who announced his retirement in August, was interviewed by Matthew Pavlich as part of the review but only learnt about Pyke’s resignation through the media.
He told FIVEaa on Thursday night that Pyke had “stuck by the senior boys quite a lot” at selection — “myself included” — and he was saddened and surprised by Pyke’s decision to quit.
Douglas described Pyke as “very analytical” who knew the game “inside out”.
“Every coach has their strengths or weaknesses and for him he probably had to work a bit harder on the personal side of football,” Douglas said.
“You need to have a hard edge to you but be able to wrap your arms around players and relate to them on a deeper, personal level.
“It’s a really important thing and young guys coming through crave that. A lot of kids coming through footy clubs now are from broken families or maybe don’t have that father figure and they need that from a coach, someone they can talk to, open up to and trust.
“It’s not just Don it comes from your assistants, development, leaders of your footy club, I think you need an environment where blokes feel safe and valued and open up and be themselves.”
Not by any deliberate words or actions but Pyke never endeared himself to the media, and why should he? He doesn’t answer to journalists but to his players and staff, but it meant the footy public or Crows supporters never saw his personality.
And there was a certain irony that the most open and impressive Pyke has been at a press conference in his four years was probably at his last on Thursday.
He said he left the club on a “gut feel”. One he had reached on his own accord albeit reluctantly as a proud man walking away.
But will he be the last to go?
Senior assistant coach Scott Camporeale and football manager Brett Burton are the two names most people on the outside are guessing will be under the most pressure from the review.
Camporeale is closely aligned with Pyke while Burton, rightly or wrongly, is seen as responsible for the failings of the mind camp. The external review has reopened some old wounds that most thought were closed 12 months ago.
Recruiting manager Hamish Ogilvie had his contract renewed in the weeks leading up to the review being announced but the club denied any move had been made on list manager Justin Reid who it said was already contracted for beyond this season.
The list management team, which re-signed Rory Sloane, Tom Lynch and Rory Laird while also trading for Bryce Gibbs and handing long-terms deals to Jenkins and Betts, is coming under the same scrutiny as any other area of the football department review.
THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF DON PYKE
As the review continues against the backdrop of the club’s search for its next coach, the players have moved on.
Many have taken to social media in the past week with photos of them at their local footy oval, pilates studio or gym.
With Pyke’s departure they’ve got the clean air he felt they needed. Not all, but the most significant ties to the grand final loss and the mind camp have been cut, but there will be more.
The respected Douglas, who after 14 years at West Lakes, is now speaking freely as he goes into retirement offered this on Thursday night:
“I think it needs change … I’m of the view not a hell of a lot, people probably need a bit more support and education,” he said.
“We’re at a fork in the road for the footy club and make sure the next few decisions are some really good ones and courageous ones because the club has been down for far too long, hasn’t produced a premiership for over 20 years and it’s not good enough and the fans have come to expect better.”