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Jack Oatey (1920–1994)

by Bernard Whimpress

This article was published:

Jack Oatey (1920–1994), Australian Rules footballer and coach, was born on 29 August 1920 at Semaphore, Adelaide, elder son in a family of four children of locally born parents Edward James (Ted) Oatey, driver, and his wife Agnes Ella, née John. His father had played football with Port Adelaide and West Torrens in the early 1920s before moving to work in his family’s butcher shop at Maitland on the Yorke Peninsula. Jack was educated at Woodville Primary and Maitland High schools. By the age of fourteen he was working as an apprentice compositor and playing senior football in the local competition. Three years later his father encouraged him to try out with Port Adelaide. He was given a trial, then promoted his talents to other South Australian National Football League (SANFL) clubs, before returning to the peninsula and playing for Port Victoria.

Oatey won the Mail medal for the best player in the Yorke Peninsula Football Association in 1939. Later that year, after he performed brilliantly with the YPFA’s representative side against Murray districts, league club secretaries vied to sign him. Selected by Norwood, as a nuggety rover he won the club’s best and fairest trophy in 1940, 1941, 1945, and 1948. In his second year he was also runner-up for the league’s Magarey medal. On Christmas Eve 1941 at St Aidan’s Anglican Church, Payneham, he married Mary Edith Player, a secretary. Nine days earlier he had been mobilised for full-time duty with the Citizen Military Forces in World War II. In October 1943 he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force. He served in South Australia and the Northern Territory as an orderly in the 109th and 121st Australian General hospitals. While on a course in Victoria (May-July 1944) he played five matches for South Melbourne in the Victorian Football League, garnering praise for his ‘non-stop, short-passing style’ (Record 1944, 3). A substantive sergeant from 1944, he was discharged from the AIF in Adelaide on 14 December 1945.

In 1945 Oatey was appointed captain-coach of Norwood. The immediate postwar years were productive, as his shrewd tactics guided the ‘Redlegs’ to three premierships in 1946, 1948, and 1950. He also captained South Australia in 1945 and 1949, was captain-coach of the 1950 Brisbane carnival team, and was non-playing coach of the 1959 State side. In October 1952, after 186 league games and nine for South Australia, he contested his final football match. He continued as coach of Norwood (1953–56) and then West Adelaide (1957–60), before being lured to Sturt (1962–82). At Sturt his emphasis on precise kicking to position, constructive handballing, and effective deployment of players’ skills, transformed the game. Under his tutelage the club won five premierships in succession (1966–70) before winning again in 1974 and 1976. In 1971 he had been made a life member of the club dubbed the ‘House that Jack Built’ (SFC ca. 1982, 19). He was appointed AM in 1978 and three years later the SANFL instituted the Jack Oatey medal for the best player in the grand final.

By the time he retired in September 1982, Oatey had coached more than 770 matches in thirty-seven seasons and was the only elite Australian Rules coach to record over five hundred wins. He ended his long-held rivalry with the Port Adelaide coach Fos Williams—formerly one of his on-field opponents—with ten premierships to Williams’s nine. As coaching was essentially a part-time occupation, he had continued working in the printing trade and retired as manager of Adelaide Typographers in 1981. He was an inspirational teacher and, among the many he trained, Neil Kerley, Daryl Hicks, Michael Nunan, Neil Craig, and his son Robert Oatey became successful senior coaches who shaped the professional game. In the years that followed Jack continued to watch matches at suburban grounds. He died on 26 February 1994 in Adelaide and was cremated. His wife survived him, as did their two sons, Robert and Peter, both SANFL footballers. Grandstands at Unley and Adelaide ovals were named after him and he was an inaugural inductee into the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 1996.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Coward, Mike. Men of Norwood: Red and Blue Blooded. Norwood, SA: Norwood Football Club, 1978
  • Lysikatos, John. True Blue: The History of the Sturt Football Club. Unley, SA: Sturt Football Club, ca. 1995
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, SX32824
  • Nicholls, Barry. Triple Blue: Jack Oatey, John Wynne, and the Whole Damned Thing. Oaklands Park, SA: Pioneer Books, 2002
  • Record (Emerald Hill, Vic.). ‘Jack Oatey Was “Ticked Off” By South’s Sec.’ 10 June 1944, 3
  • Rucci, Michelangelo. ‘A Tribute to Jack Oatey.’ South Australian Football Budget, March 1994, 18–19
  • Schwartz, Gordon. ‘Commitment to Excellence.’ Australian, 25 March 1994, 15
  • Sturt Football Club (SFC). Jack Oatey: The Coach of a Lifetime. [Unley, SA]: The club, ca. 1982
  • Whimpress, Bernard. The South Australian Football Story. West Lakes, SA: South Australian National Football League, 1983

Additional Resources

Citation details

Bernard Whimpress, 'Oatey, Jack (1920–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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