“Now there goes a kid with luck…”
Crows chief Andrew Fagan greeted Don Pyke’s arrival by noting that “if you look at his history, success follows him”.
It could be the other way round.
But Fagan’s certainly on to something.
In the little-remembered 1991 film of E.L. Doctorow’s novel Billy Bathgate, the titular teen works his way into a lucrative living as an apprentice mobster with unwittingly impeccable timing.
Things seem to go awry when he is unceremoniously – and as it turns out generously – turfed out of his gang’s stronghold. Watching him go, his one-time mentor reflects on the vagaries of destiny – “There goes a kid with luck” – before a rival mob storms in and massacres his former associates.
For some people, it’s all in the timing.
The film itself, ironically, got its timing all wrong, released just after one iconic mobster classic, Goodfellas, and just before Tarantino redefined the genre with Reservoir Dogs.
But its meditation on the music of chance remains timeless, and strangely apt to the curious case of Don Pyke.
He wasn’t part of the West Coast Eagles formation squad, which allowed him to instead ply his trade with WA powerhouse Claremont in 1987 and 1988 – winning first a premiership, then a best and fairest.
He was finally drafted to the Eagles not long before their trajectory burst skyward; indeed, his own playing career peaked at just the right time.
He was, both on the field and off, neither fast nor flashy.
Two former colleagues approached for this article – one a retired player, one a mining industry businessman – describe him with the same turn of phrase: “What you see is what you get.”
But he nonetheless developed a strong defensive side to his game, and became an important cog in an engine room that fired the Eagles to a losing grand final followed by two premierships in 1992 and ’94. Between them, he tied with Glen Jakovich for West Coast’s best and fairest award.
His body was beyond the rigours of AFL football by 1996, but as fate would have it, the Eagles’ heyday was behind them too. Instead, he returned to Claremont – just in time for another premiership.
Now, there goes a kid with luck.
I’m the only bloke who’s left the board at one club to be an assistant coach at another
“I arrived to football in an era where you worked as well as played… it was heading towards being semi-professional at that point, so when I finished in ‘96 I basically transitioned straight into work,” Pyke tells InDaily.
Having studied commerce, Pyke was evidently a thinking man’s footballer. In between winning premierships with the Eagles, he worked as an accountant with finance firm Ernst & Young from 1989 to ’94, before shifting to the finance division of seismic data company PGS (Petroleum Geo-Services) Nopec.
He kept his hand in the game, first as a runner for the Eagles, then as coach of Claremont for two seasons and then as a member of the West Coast board, but his work quickly took over as he co-founded his own firm, Seismic Australia, on his retirement from football.
“It was a company that ran seismic projects… I had a background in oil and gas and worked in that for best part of 10 years,” he recalls.
Seismic Australia, buoyed by a burgeoning oil and gas boom, quickly grew into a lucrative concern, and in 2000 was bought out by geo-science firm Fugro Multi Client Services.
Pyke doesn’t talk about the economics of the deal, but it is evident that, unlike others on the AFL coaching roundabout, he doesn’t coach to live.
“I sold the business and the new owners wanted their pound of flesh, so I worked with them for a few years, before I came to Adelaide the first time,” he says.
That was his first AFL coaching gig, as a midfield assistant under then-fledgling Crows coach Neil Craig.
As Pyke puts it: “I’m the only bloke who’s left the board at one club to be an assistant coach at another.”
The Crows had languished in 2004, sacking Gary Ayres after one loss too many, with Craig seeing out the year as a caretaker. The team finished up as the 12th best team in the league of 16.
Pyke signed on at the end of that season, and stayed for two years. In 2005 and 2006, the team finished the minor round 1st and 2nd, respectively.
Now, there goes a kid with luck.
In every successful sporting team there’s something that develops in their DNA, that they can build on
“I was really fortunate to join Neil, and a side that really had high standards and trained really hard,” he says.
“[We knew] if it came down to a workrate-style game, we had a clear competitive advantage.”
On paper, the side in those days was not highly-touted, despite a midfield boasting the likes of Mark Ricciuto (still influential enough to be named All-Australian captain in ’05), Simon Goodwin (All-Australian in both seasons) and Tyson Edwards, with Andrew McLeod (All-Australian in ’06) reinventing himself as a running halfback.
“There was a unique blend of real experience and high quality players, club greats who wanted more success and were in a really driven phase,” Pyke recalls.
Former Crow Kris Massie, who like Pyke served a two-year stint as a state league coach after retirement, remembers him as being “really calm in the way he went about things”.
“I found him very calm and very controlled – very centred,” he tells InDaily.
“I think good coaches are really calm, they know what they want… [Pyke] was pretty measured in his approach, in terms of developing good relationships.”
So much so that Massie, predominantly a defender, recalls seeking out the midfield line-coach for a “catch-up” in the boardroom.
“We caught up and spoke about areas I could get better… he was really approachable,” he says.
“I just felt comfortable asking whether we could catch up; he was obviously not afraid to get down and get amongst it with the guys, which is really positive as well… but I found him really easy to approach really quickly.”
Massie recalls Pyke “wasn’t one to waste words, which was nice for a coach”.
“And unusual!” he adds with a laugh.
The Crows, like Pyke’s Eagles of the early-‘90s, appeared to be riding a wave. They lost just two games in the first 16 rounds of 2006, by a combined total of five points.
“It’s one of those unknowns, that team dynamic you can develop in a short period of time and build a fair bit of confidence,” Pyke says now.
“Unfortunately, both years we fell short.”
And, in a bittersweet twist that still seems to sit uneasily with him a decade on, the team that twice thwarted the Crows at the final hurdle before a grand final berth was his beloved West Coast.
Two years into his AFL coaching career, Pyke pulled a surprise U-turn.
He walked away.
And his rationale for doing so stamped him, again, as something out of left field in the blokey world of Australian Rules – he wanted to spend more time with his two young daughters.
“I was probably at a point where it was natural to aspire to the role I’m currently doing [senior coaching],” he explains.
“But at the end of the day I probably chose my relationship with my daughters, and having a relationship with them growing up, so my ambition to coach got put on the back-burners a bit.”
So he returned to the oil and gas caper; his former business partner Jan Ostby had set up a new exploration company called Finder, and Pyke signed on as Commercial Manager.
This was boom time in the Wild West: by 2008, minerals, oil and gas accounted for almost 90 per cent of the state’s total export income.
By contrast, the Crows started to drift – playing finals in ’07 and ’08, but failing to win one.
Once again, the music of chance was whistling Pyke’s tune.
I’m just hoping the Crows fail this year so they sack him and he’ll come back!
Craig Gumley , Finder’s operations & joint venture manager, remembers Pyke as “a splendid fellow to work with… an incredibly smart commercial mind [with] a splendid sense of humour”.
“I have absolutely nothing bad to say about him, [except] he’s quite annoying, with his incredible physical prowess!” he laughs.
“If he was any other bloke you’d love to hate him, because he’s so bloody good at everything he does.”
Gumley, who confesses to being an Essendon supporter, enthuses that Pyke possesses a “really good footy brain”.
“But he views the game really quite differently,” he explains.
He recalls a regular conversation wherein Pyke noted that “so many footy clubs are full of people who just do football, so you don’t really get that external perspective”.
Like Massie, Gumley recalls a man who put forging strong relationships with his co-workers at the forefront of his priorites.
“He was excellent to work with and very generous with his experiences,” he says.
“I’m just hoping the Crows fail this year so they sack him and he’ll come back.”
He wasn’t one to waste words, which was nice for a coach…and unusual!
Don Pyke twice followed Phil Walsh into coaching.
The last time, the vacancy fell open infamously and tragically.
Before that, though, Walsh left a door open for Pyke to return to football when he farewelled the Eagles to return to Port Adelaide under Ken Hinkley.
Newly-appointed West Coast mentor Adam Simpson summoned Pyke back to the fold to oversee strategy, stoppages, and structure – three elements of the Eagles’ game plan that have drawn the admiration of the competition.
The team climbed from 13th in 2013 to the cusp of the finals in 2014, and made the Grand Final last year.
The mining boom, meanwhile, well and truly sputtered out.
There goes a kid with luck.
It’s one of those unknowns, that team dynamic can develop in a short period of time
“I always harboured the ambition to get back into football at some point,” Pyke affirms.
His young girls had grown into young women – they are now nearly 19 and 21 – and the “timing was ideal for me to go out and pursue a more sole-focused role”.
“I have a great relationship with both my daughters, but the reality is they’re into adulthood and they need me less,” says Pyke.
“Probably about four years ago I started considering where to [next]… I still had this burning desire and passion to be involved in footy and sport.”
And involved, not as a suit behind a desk, but on the field, mentoring keen minds and driving young men to be their best.
“More than anything else, it was the challenge of the role, the excitement of working with young men who are engaged and keen to be as good as you can,” he says.
Now 47, Pyke returned to Adelaide through the most unfortunate of circumstances but, true to form, he is quick to isolate the positives.
“It’s a unique situation,” he admits.
“You’re taking over a side which has made finals and won a final, [so] there’s a lot of things that are working… the challenge is coming in and trying not to change everything, but to improve in areas we’ve identified.”
Those areas include disposal efficiency, team defence and swift ball movement.
But for Pyke, as with his previous stint at the club and in his time as an entrepreneur on the crest of the mining wave, his first priority was to forge strong relationships.
“For me, the first and foremost was to get to know the players and coaches,” he says.
“The reality for me coming in was that I wanted to try and deal with the players and the playing group. The events of last year were significant and somewhat traumatic… I was mindful of the players having time to physically and mentally refresh from the season that was.”
That focus has lent itself to some criticism in the media that Pyke has been virtually unsighted in the public domain through the off-season.
He says his focus was necessarily on “building relationships… as much as I know there’s great interest in the media”.
“I’ve been trying to make sure my message is going through the playing group,” he says, noting there have been no obvious signs of last year’s trauma lingering, but concedes: “That’s not to say that won’t develop.”
But even now, on the eve of the AFL season and with his league-mandated weekly media conferences in full swing, he cuts a low key figure.
What you see is what you get.
AFL coaches are widely regarded as a rare breed, determined to the point of being blinkered, driven to the point of mania.
Somehow, again, Pyke doesn’t fit the usual bill. The premiership player who founded his own seismic data consultancy. The assistant coach who left to spend more time with his family.
Massie reflects that such a decision bodes well for a senior mentor evidently determined to connect authentically with his playing group.
“It’s refreshing… having that balance and time away from footy, I think is underestimated, to be honest,” he says.
Pyke has made much of his “total football” mantra, which reads like a sporting cliché, but Massie – who now runs a personal training business focussed on “holistic” health – sees it as reflecting the new coach’s focus on “connecting and relationships”.
“The total team football stuff lines up with that [philosophy],” he notes.
For Pyke, it won’t be a colourful TV grab or vision of an irate coach blowing a gasket in the box on matchday that makes the headlines. He has practically ensured the results will tell his tale – for better or worse.
“That’s why footy’s a unique industry,” he ponders.
“You get measured week to week, not just long-term.”
Pyke’s has been a career built quietly, but with impeccable timing.
He says of his 2006 decision to walk away from football that “you never really know” what will come of it: “I guess it’s a choice you make.”
Pyke’s choices have been consistently canny, but unaccountably lucky.
As Fagan said, success follows him. Or vice versa.
The Crows are desperately hoping that arc of success will continue through 2016 and beyond.
It’s been almost two decades since they last contested, and won, a Grand Final.
It’s safe to say they could use a bit of luck.
But for Pyke, the results are only ever the consummation of getting the right personnel, and building the right relationships to get the best out of them.
He believes that “in every successful sporting team there’s something that develops in their DNA, that they can build on”.
And what is it he sees developing in the DNA of this young Crows outfit?
“I’ll leave it at that,” he says, only half-smiling.
Adelaide face North Melbourne at Etihad Stadium on Saturday night.
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