IT'S EASY to forget but Alastair Clarkson was a surprise choice as Hawthorn's new coach at the end of 2004.

The Hawks' decision to appoint the then-untried Clarkson to replace Peter Schwab has long since seemed a masterstroke.

After enduring a tough first two seasons, Clarkson has guided the Hawks to five of the past six finals series and, on Saturday, has the chance to become just the 25th VFL/AFL coach to win two premierships.

But when Hawthorn announced Clarkson's appointment in early September 2004 many outside the club were underwhelmed.

On that evening's Channel 10 news, sports anchor - and Hawthorn supporter - Stephen Quartermain ummed and aahed when asked by newsreader Mal Walden what he thought of Clarkson's appointment, finally saying: "As I said, they (the Hawks) are struggling."

The Hawks' task of selling their decision was not helped by the fact that highly credentialed AFL coaches and Hawthorn favourite sons Terry Wallace and Rodney Eade had been available, but respectively opted to take the coaching jobs at Richmond and the Western Bulldogs while the Hawthorn position was still open.

Some Hawk supporters were also surprised that a third club premiership star with extensive AFL coaching experience, Gary Ayres, had been beaten to the job. Especially by someone whose profile was so low that some Hawthorn players holidaying overseas had to search his name on the internet to find out exactly who their new coach was.

Those players discovered Clarkson, then 36, had played 134 games for North Melbourne and Melbourne from 1987-97 and had coaching experience as an assistant at St Kilda (1999) and Port Adelaide (2003-04) and as a senior coach with Werribee in the VFL (2000) and Central District (2001-02) in the SANFL.

Hawthorn did not make its coaching decision lightly. After Schwab stepped down in late July 2004, it did not announce Clarkson's appointment until September 8.

In that time, the Hawks conducted an exhaustive search that resulted in about 10 candidates being interviewed. They first spoke with Wallace, a three-time premiership player with Hawthorn, and Ayres, who won five flags in the brown and gold. They interviewed the remaining candidates, including Clarkson and Hawks caretaker coach Donald McDonald, over four days in late August 2004.

Reports at the time said then AFL assistant coaches John Longmire (Sydney Swans), Matt Rendell (St Kilda), Daryn Cresswell (Geelong), West Adelaide coach Shaun Rehn and Box Hill Hawks coach Andy Collins were among those interviewed.

Clarkson in action for North Melbourne
Alastair Clarkson in his playing days for North Melbourne. An aggressive half-forward, Clarkson played 93 games for the Roos and 41 for Melbourne. Picture: AFL Media

Eade, who represented the Hawks in four Grand Final wins, was also scheduled to interview but pulled out the night before when the Bulldogs signed him at the end of a nine-hour first and final interview. The Hawks also approached high-profile assistants Mark Harvey (Essendon) and Gary O'Donnell (Brisbane Lions) but both declined an interview.

In such a crowded and quality field, what made Clarkson stand out?

Then Hawthorn president Ian Dicker and acting Hawks CEO Jason Dunstall were the only two members of the Hawks' five-man coaching sub-committee who sat in on all of those interviews.

Dicker had not met Clarkson and barely knew of him prior to his first interview.

Another board member, Bruce Growcott, arrived early for that interview and later told The Story of the Hawthorn Football Club: One For All he had mistaken Clarkson for an office "gofer" as he set up video equipment for his presentation.

But Dicker said Clarkson soon set himself apart from the other coaching contenders on several fronts.

First and foremost, there was his teaching and development background.

"We'd tried and got the best out of the playing group that came together over the previous seven years, so the board decided we needed to rebuild with youth," Dicker said.

"We wanted a teacher to oversee that. Alastair had been a teacher at Wesley College and in his first interview also identified that he had rebuilt West Adelaide by going back to the basics with youth, which fitted the model we were looking for."

Clarkson with Dunstall
Clarkson (far right) and Hawk great Jason Dunstall watch on at the 2004 NAB AFL Draft Camp, held in Clarkson's first month as Hawthorn coach. Picture: AFL Media

At his first interview, Clarkson also impressed with his desire to be a career coach and his clear plan to realise that ambition.

Most obviously, there was the coaching apprenticeship he had embarked on as an assistant to Tim Watson at St Kilda in 1999.  Clarkson left that role after just one year to be a senior coach at VFL and SANFL level to better understand the all-encompassing responsibilities that come with senior coaching.

Clarkson had also completed a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) at Monash University and, in his own time and at his own expense, had regularly visited other sporting clubs to discuss strategy and fitness, once travelling overseas to do so.

"The fact that he'd planned a career was impressive, especially the initiative he'd shown to go and talk to other coaches and fitness people, and to do an MBA," Dicker said.

Clarkson insisted on bringing an IT assistant with him to help with his presentation at his first interview. He also indicated to the Hawks that if they gave him the job he wanted that assistant to be part of his new team.

Ever the planner, Clarkson already had two other key members of that team in place by that time. Although Clarkson wasn't prepared to divulge their identities at the time, Dicker subsequently learnt recently retired Port Adelaide and Essendon premiership player Damien Hardwick had committed to be one of Clarkson's assistant coaches. Port's highly respected fitness coach Andrew Russell was also ready to follow him to Hawthorn.

Clarkson's football philosophy was centred on the same basics as the other candidates Hawthorn interviewed. As was his assessment that the Hawks' playing list needed a major injection of youth.

But he prescribed another non-negotiable condition on which the Hawks' future recruiting should be founded.

"He said right at the start, 'We have to recruit people who can kick.' That was different to what most people said and it's one of the traits of the team that is showing up so much today," Dicker said.

Clarkson and Mitchell
There it is: Clarkson and Hawk captain Sam Mitchell raise the 2008 Premiership Cup after the upset win over Geelong. Picture: AFL Media

When Dickson walked out of the Hawks' first interview with Clarkson, Dicker ran into a reporter from The Age waiting outside. Their exchange reinforces how much of a long shot Clarkson was in most people's eyes.

"He was surprised that I was impressed with Alastair," Dicker said.

As a businessman, Dicker felt he was not qualified to judge the football strategy Clarkson was proposing to implement at the Hawks.

So Dicker asked Dunstall to fly to Adelaide to discuss it again with Clarkson.

Dunstall told Fox Sports' On the Couch this week Clarkson had completely sold on him on the way he wanted the Hawks to play.

"He had some brilliant, tactical nous that I had personally hadn't heard for a while and that sort of really captured my imagination and it just seemed to be a perfect fit," Dunstall said.

After Dunstall reported back to his fellow board members to that effect, the Hawks called Clarkson in for a second interview. Two days later they announced him as their senior coach for the next two years.

Clarkson and Hawks
Eyes on the prize: Clarkson (r) with Hawthorn players before last week's preliminary final against Adelaide at the MCG. Picture: AFL Media

Would the Hawks have reached the same decision had Wallace and Eade still been in the market?

Dicker says it's an impossible question to answer, but stresses when the Hawks approached Wallace and Eade they were told the club intended to interview other candidates.

What has often been forgotten is that the Hawks were widely criticised for the time they took to appoint Clarkson. Hawthorn's coaching vacancy was one of four in the AFL near the end of the 2004 season, but Richmond, Adelaide and the Bulldogs filled theirs more than three weeks earlier than the Hawks.

After the Bulldogs announced Eade as their coach on August 16 - Richmond had already appointed Wallace on August 10 and the Crows Neil Craig on August 12 - The Age's Jake Niall wrote: "In a coaches' market, fortune favours the decisive. The Hawks, like their team, haven't been quick enough off the mark."

Two days later, Herald Sun chief football writer Mike Sheahan wrote: "Hawthorn is botching the task of finding a replacement for Peter Schwab, the coach it dumped four weeks ago."

It appeared the Hawks' slow start cost it the chance to consider Eade.

Eade, who had coached the Sydney Swans from 1996-2002 with a 53.3 per cent winning rate, had been scheduled to interview with the Hawks at 7am on August 17.

But he cancelled that meeting when the Bulldogs offered him their coaching position the night before. They did so after meeting Eade for the first time that morning, with their talks turning into an all-day affair.

"There didn't seem to be any urgency [at Hawthorn]," Eade later told The Story of the Hawthorn Football Club: One For All. 

"Dermott [Brereton] was the only one who seemed to be keen, [but] the Bulldogs appeared to be very keen. They presented a very good case."

However, the Hawks did not miss the chance to sign Wallace because of the Tigers' faster start to their coaching hunt.

Wallace, who enjoyed a 53.4 per cent winning rate at the Western Bulldogs from 1996-2002 and led them to the 1997-98 preliminary finals, had five meetings with Richmond before interviewing with Hawthorn for the first time.

All 10 members of Hawthorn's board attended Wallace's interview and Dunstall followed up with a phone call the following day to confirm the Hawks' interest and to gauge Wallace's interest.

But within 24 hours Wallace had decided not to pursue the Hawthorn job - he said it was never offered to him - and to accept Richmond's.

However, he told his decision had little to do with Hawthorn's belated approach or that the Tigers' offer was more financially generous.

"Primarily, it was a family-based decision," Wallace said.

"My son, Brent, was coming through the junior ranks and if I went to coach Hawthorn there was likely to come a time when I had to make a call on whether we picked him up as a father-son recruit.

"And if we did then, obviously, I'd have been part of making a call on whether he played or not.

"But I'd seen the strain that such a situation had put on Denis Pagan when his son Ryan was at North Melbourne and decided it was best to avoid that."

(Brent Wallace played for the Northern Knights in the TAC Cup in 2009 and trained with Hawthorn ahead of that year's Rookie Draft, but was overlooked.)

Eight years on, Dicker is more than content with the way the Hawks conducted their late-2004 coach hunt.

"We were criticised by the media for taking so long," Dicker said.

"But we wanted to make sure we got the best candidate we could and to do that we had to go through a long process of interviewing all the people.

"We took longer than the other clubs but by the end of the process we were even more confident because we'd interviewed a number of really good people.

"And the final judgment was a really tough one, which was good.

"But once we talked it over we were unanimous that Alastair was the man to take us forward."

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone questioning the Hawks' decision now.


July 20, 2004:
Coach Peter Schwab sacked by Hawthorn, but agrees to coach out the remaining six games of the season

July 26: Schwab steps down as coach two days after the Hawks' 80-point loss to North Melbourne, with Donald McDonald announced as caretaker coach

August 5: Terry Wallace interviewed by Hawthorn's full 10-man board

August 10: Wallace announced as Richmond coach

August 12: Neil Craig announced as Adelaide coach. The Age Journalist Jake Niall writes: "In a coaches' market, fortune favours the decisive. The Hawks, like their team, haven't been quick enough off the mark."

August 14: Herald Sun chief football writer Mike Sheahan is also critical of the Hawks' approach to appointing their coach: "Hawthorn is botching the task of finding a replacement for Peter Schwab, the coach it dumped four weeks ago."

August 16: Rodney Eade announced as Bulldogs coach. Late that night, Eade cancels a scheduled interview with Hawthorn the following morning

August 18: Ayres interviewed by Hawthorn

August 24-27: Hawthorn conducts more first-round interviews, with Clarkson, Hawks caretaker coach Donald McDonald and, reportedly, Sydney Swans assistant John Longmire, St Kilda assistant Matt Rendell, Geelong assistant Daryn Cresswell, West Adelaide SANFL coach Shaun Rehn and Box Hill Hawks coach Andy Collins.

August 29: The Hawks lose their last game of the season to Geelong by 65 points with caretaker coach Donald McDonald at the helm. They finish the season with four wins and 18 losses.

September 6: Clarkson interviews with Hawthorn for the second time

September 8: Clarkson announced as Hawthorn coach

Nick Bowen is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter: @AFL_Nick