James Hird has left Essendon, shedding a tear while thanking his family and expressing regret for the supplements scandal that had led to his AFL downfall.
Hird and Bombers chairman Paul Little insisted he resigned as coach and was not sacked.
The timing of the decision is a surprise, given Essendon are in the midst of an extensive football department review.
The popular assumption was that Hird would not survive beyond this disastrous season, but would stay in charge for the last three games.
Instead, assistant Matthew Egan will be the interim coach.
Hird’s departure ended a 25-year AFL career that reached dizzying heights, including the 1996 Brownlow Medal and two premierships at Essendon.
But ultimately, Hird will forever be associated with the 2012 supplements regime at Essendon that led to the biggest scandal in AFL history.
Essendon’s woeful on-field form this year sealed Hird’s fate.
The Bombers have fallen off the cliff since WADA announced in May it would appeal against the AFL anti-doping verdict on 34 current and past players.
After discussions with senior club figures over the past month, Hird met Little on Friday and it was made clear to him it was time to go.
“Paul said it was the board’s opinion that the football club would never be truly free of the ASADA issue while I was coach and he was the chairman,” Hird said.
He resigned on Monday night, two days after the 112-point thrashing by Adelaide.
The Bombers are 2-11 since WADA confirmed it would appeal and only have five wins for the season.
“I leave not because I really want to leave, but because I think it’s the best thing for the football club,” Hird said in a message to club members.
“The football club needs a chance to breathe.
“I hope the players, through me leaving, are given a chance just to be footballers – that the speculation the media (focuses) on our club is lessened.”
Hird, Little and club chief executive Xavier Campbell fronted a packed media conference at the club on Tuesday afternoon, with the Essendon players standing either side of them.
Hird largely kept his emotions in check and even cracked a few jokes during the 30-minute media conference.
But a tear rolled down his cheek as he thanked wife Tania and their children, as well as apologising for what they had been through since the scandal broke in February, 2013.
Hird joined the club as a 17-year-old in 1991 and became one of the greatest figures in Essendon history.
He was ranked third, behind only John Coleman and Dick Reynolds, in a list of Essendon champions.
Bombers fans hailed him as the club’s saviour when he took over as senior coach in 2011.
But the supplements saga was an unprecedented issue that bitterly divided opinion.
Essendon’s players were resilient in 2013 and last season under interim coach Mark Thompson, as Hird served a 12-month AFL suspension.
That resolve cracked this year.
“The club was going in the right direction,” Hird said.
“The WADA appeal probably drove us back into the mire and made it hard for us to focus on what was the important thing of playing football.”
Hird said mistakes were made in the establishment of the supplements regime, but Essendon did not deserve what had happened since.
“Certainly … the decisions in 2011 that were made, in hindsight, some of them were mistakes,” he said.
“Were they mistakes to the level that we’ve been crucified for? No, I don’t think so.
“But some of those decisions, yeah, I wish those decisions were made differently and some of my decisions obviously were made differently.”