West Coast coach Adam Simpson is living proof that nice guys can finish first – even if you’re a Reptile.
Simpson has taken the AFL by storm in just his second year as coach, battling against the odds to guide West Coast into Saturday’s grand final against Hawthorn.
Time will tell whether Simpson lands the ultimate prize. But in the eyes of many fans, he’s already a winner.
West Coast were written off at the start of the season after key defenders Eric Mackenzie and Mitch Brown succumbed to serious knee injuries.
The Eagles midfield was deemed too slow, while ruckman Nic Naitanui was labelled over-rated.
But Simpson isn’t one to panic. Instead, he got to work, creating a unique defensive system that would help cover any deficiencies in the side.
It has since been dubbed the ‘Weagles Web’.
The zoning system guards space and invites long kicks from the opposition, with the web of Eagles players closing in once this occurs.
The ‘Weagles Web’ has become the major tactical talking point this season.
But in reality, it’s been more than 15 years in the making.
Midway through his decorated 306-game playing career at North Melbourne, Simpson started taking a keen interest in tactics and coaching practices.
He had seen how effective ‘Pagan’s Paddock’ had become in helping North Melbourne win flags in 1996 and 1999, and he wanted to learn more.
“You could always tell he was going to be a coach,” former teammate Brady Rawlings says.
“He was pretty much an assistant midfield coach for the last five or six years of his playing career.
“He just always thought tactically. He was really switched on. It was his big strength as a captain, and now as a coach.”
But while Simpson is fast emerging as a master tactician, his greatest strength is how he relates to his players.
A strong family man, Simpson has left a lasting impression at every club he’s worked at.
“He can just relate to the players so well,” says former Hawk Xavier Ellis, who moved across to West Coast when Simpson landed the top job.
“He knows when to come down on you. But not yelling and screaming, more a one-on-one personal chat.
“He also knows when to lighten the mood of the group.”
Simpson won two premierships, a best and fairest award, and was named an All-Australian during his glittering playing career at North Melbourne. He also captained the club for five years.
But despite Simpson’s long list of achievements, he’s largely flown under the radar.
He was honest and tough as a player, rather than spectacular and flashy.
As a coach, he’s been labelled bland because of the lack of emotion and personality he displays.
But it’s a totally different story away from the cameras.
“He loves a joke. He’s one of the funnier blokes you’ll meet,” Rawlings says.
And he also has a life away from the AFL.
His wife and four kids help keep him grounded, while his weekly basketball outings alongside several other members of West Coast’s coaching staff are also a good release.
“We’re called the Reptiles,” Simpson says of his basketball side.
“Dean Cox was our new recruit this year, and he thinks he’s LeBron James.
“My family aren’t footy nuts. They’re not trawling the websites and reading the interviews.
“So when I go home, no one seems to care about what happened at the footy club during the day, which is good.”
It will be a case of master versus apprentice when Simpson locks horns with Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson on Saturday.
Simpson spent four years working as Clarkson’s assistant, and he learned valuable lessons from the three-time premiership coach.
West Coast finished ninth in Simpson’s first year in charge in 2014.
Although they missed out on a finals berth, there were clear signs in the second half of the season that Simpson was building something special.
It didn’t take long for former Kangaroos coach Denis Pagan to realise Simpson was destined for greatness.
“Adam was always going to be successful, no matter who coached him,” says Pagan, who coached North Melbourne from 1993-2002.
“He never caused a ripple. He was just determined to make it.
“He started off as a run-with player, and then developed into an attacking player.
“He was very tough and courageous. He never took his eye off the ball. As a coach, I see him as an ideal role model.”
Rawlings had planned to be a Kangaroo for life.
After retiring at the end of 2011, Rawlings took on a role as senior recruiter at his beloved North Melbourne.
Nothing could tear him away from the club – or so he thought.
When Simpson won the head coaching role at West Coast and asked Rawlings to join him there, it was simply too hard to say no.
“I’ve always had so much respect for Simmo. You’d look at anything he asks you to do,” says Rawlings, who became close friends with Simpson during their playing days.
The career of Sharrod Wellingham was at the crossroads at the end of last season.
But the former Magpies star has rediscovered his best football under Simpson after being moved to defence.
“He’s a very cool, calm, and collected coach. There’s not too much huff and puff,” Wellingham says.
“He’s learnt from a very experienced coach in Clarko and Denis Pagan.
“He’s a really approachable and easy going coach.”
Simpson is now just one win away from tasting the ultimate glory that so many AFL coaches before him have missed out on.
And if he does get the chance to hold up the premiership cup on Saturday afternoon, it would be hard to find anyone who would begrudge him.