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Smith, Norman Walter (1915–1973)

by Richard Trembath

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Norman Walter Smith (1915-1973), Australian Rules football coach, was born on 21 November 1915 at Clifton Hill, Melbourne, second son of Melbourne-born parents Victor Smith, ironworker, and his wife Ethel May, née Brown. Educated at Westgarth Central School, Norm completed an engineering apprenticeship and obtained a job at the Brunswick rope-works of James Miller & Co. Pty Ltd. In 1943 he took over his father's engineering business, moving it from Northcote to North Coburg in 1954. As a young man he had excelled at cricket (which he played at district level) and Australian Rules football. He first played club football for Dennis in the sub-district competition and collected 'a few welts across the ears'. Joining the Melbourne Football Club in the Victorian Football League, he was selected for the first XVIII in 1935. At Wesley Church, Melbourne, on 19 October 1940 he married with Methodist forms Marjorie Victoria Ellis, a typiste.

Frequently chosen as full-forward, Smith played 210 first-grade games and kicked 546 goals for Melbourne. In 1941 he topped the V.F.L. goal-kicking list with 88. He helped Melbourne to four premierships (1939-41 and 1948) and captained the club for three seasons (1945-47). In 1949 he transferred to Fitzroy as captain-coach, but played only seventeen games before retiring as a player in 1950. Two years later he returned to Melbourne as coach. Benefiting from the recruitment of some of the best players in the club's history, he and Melbourne dominated the V.F.L. for a decade, during which the club won six premierships—1955-57, 1959-60 and 1964.

A strong disciplinarian, Smith was known as the 'Demon Dictator' and the 'Martinet of Melbourne'. His canniness and 'stiff auburn hair' earned him a further nickname, the 'Red Fox'. He believed that the club came first and the player second, but had close-knit teams in Melbourne's years of greatness. The development of a quicker, play-on style of football was largely attributable to him. Melbourne sides under Smith were fast, fit and accustomed to success. The crowds watching Australian Rules football grew, with Melbourne-Collingwood games attracting record attendances (115,802 in 1956).

From 1964 tension increased between Smith and a number of influential figures at the club. One factor was the decision by a champion Melbourne player, Ron Barassi, to move to Carlton in 1965 as captain-coach. The Smiths had raised Barassi as a 'son from the time he was 15'. Smith supported his aspirations and even offered to make way for him as coach of Melbourne. When Barassi struck out on his own, some Melbourne officials unfairly accused Smith of ridding himself of a potential rival. In July he was sacked. Although he was reinstated within a week, he never again enjoyed his old relationship with the club. Melbourne's years of glory had passed.

Heart disease compelled Smith to resign from Melbourne in 1967. He recovered sufficiently to coach South Melbourne in 1969-72, taking the Swans to an appearance (1970) in the finals, their first since 1945. Smith was planning to assist Barassi in coaching North Melbourne when his health again deteriorated. He died of a cerebral tumour on 29 July 1973 in his home at Pascoe Vale and was cremated with Presbyterian forms; his wife and their son survived him. Smith's estate was sworn for probate at $22,683.

When coaching, Smith dressed in a suit and tie (and sometimes a cardigan) on fine Saturday afternoons; he donned an old, crumpled raincoat in wet weather. With his beaky nose, furrowed brow and slicked-back hair, he could be both fiery and calculating. To him, teamwork was all. He firmly maintained that 'weak men can't win premierships'. Although he was renowned as a football orator and a stern taskmaster, he was a quiet and retiring man away from the field. Paradoxically, for one who played and coached largely for the love of the game, he did much to professionalize the sport. In 1979 the V.F.L. instituted the Norm Smith medal, awarded annually to the best player in the grand final. Smith's elder brother Len played for Melbourne (1934-35) and Fitzroy (1937-43 and 1945), and coached Fitzroy (1958-62) and Richmond (1964-65). Norm's son Peter played for Melbourne (1966-67) and Carlton (1968-70).

Select Bibliography

  • E. C. H. Taylor, 100 Years of Football (Melb, 1958)
  • J. Dyer and B. Hansen, The Wild Men of Football (Melb, 1968)
  • R. Holmesby and J. Main, The Encyclopedia of AFL Footballers (Melb, 1998)
  • L. Carroll, The Grand Old Flag (Melb, 1999)
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 30 July 1973
  • Nation Review, 10-16 Aug 1973
  • private information.

Citation details

Richard Trembath, 'Smith, Norman Walter (1915–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-norman-walter-11723/text20957, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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