No last dance as Hardwick stuns with end to Tiger time

·4-min read
Diego Fedele/AAP PHOTOS

Damien Hardwick knew it was time to leave Richmond when it became obvious there would be no last dance.

The three-time AFL premiership coach had tears in his eyes on Tuesday as he detailed the shock decision to resign immediately, calling Richmond "the love of my life".

In the lead-up to the 2023 campaign, Hardwick watched the landmark documentary which focused on Michael Jordan's final NBA championship with the Chicago Bulls.

Once he saw there would be no such fairytale, with Richmond languishing in 14th spot nearly halfway through the season, the 50-year-old knew his time had come.

He was contracted until the end of next year but coached Saturday night's one-point loss to Essendon knowing it would be his swansong.

"I made the fatal mistake of watching The Last Dance ... I thought it may have been, but once I decided that part of the equation started to slip away, I started to question myself and what it was like to coach Richmond," said Hardwick.

"As soon as I started to ask the question more, I started to understand what the answer was going to be.

"If I couldn't give 100 per cent, there was no way I was going to coach the footy club."

Hardwick decided against a farewell game this weekend against Port Adelaide at the MCG, with the reins handed instead to interim coach Andrew McQualter.

Hardwick leaves with his legacy assured as one of the most important figures in Tigers history.

He coached Richmond for 307 games - a club record.

Hardwick's farewell media conference was packed with Richmond players and staff, who gave him rousing applause.

He took over in 2010 when Richmond were a laughing stock and restored them to greatness.

His dance could have ended suddenly when the Tigers failed to make the finals in 2016 with the club under extreme pressure to sack Hardwick.

But the Tigers held their nerve and a year later their premiership drought ended. Flags followed in 2019-20 to complete the dynasty.

"He was a good coach and the evidence bore that out," CEO Brendon Gale said on Tuesday of the pivotal decision seven years ago to stick with Hardwick.

"Fundamentally we thought we had a fine person and a very good coach.

"... It was about ignoring the noise and the rest is history."

And far from being a club in turmoil now with their coach bailing after round 10, Richmond are buoyant as McQualter takes over one of the league's most solid football programs.

"It gives the club the greatest opportunity to find the next coach," Hardwick said.

"It was just time.

"I've tried to cook the sausages 1000 ways and I couldn't find 1001."

Hardwick spoke expansively at Tuesday's announcement about the stresses of the job and said his only priority now was to take a break.

His name will be inevitably linked to every vacant AFL senior coaching job, but for the time being he says he's not interested in any of it.

"The biggest thing on my plate at the moment is just to decompress ... I just need a break," he said.

Hardwick spoke of the dark cave in his mind that he entered frequently during the bad times as coach, often comparing notes with his great friend and coaching rival Alastair Clarkson.

His decision, broken to the Tigers late on Monday, came only five days after Clarkson took indefinite leave from North Melbourne as he struggles with the Hawthorn racism saga.

Hardwick is among several senior coaches whose marriages did not survive the unique stresses of the 2020-21 COVID-19 seasons.  

Asked what he would do now, Hardwick said he had received plenty of advice, with star player and noted party goer Dustin Martin suggesting a holiday in Ibiza.

Prior to taking over at Richmond, Hardwick was a hard-nosed premiership defender at Essendon and Port Adelaide before working under Clarkson as an assistant coach at Hawthorn from 2005.

"It's a tough gig being an AFL coach but the support I've received from the majority of people has been absolutely outstanding," he said.

"The Richmond football club has been the love of my life."

Richmond president John O'Rourke paid tribute to Hardwick's legacy.

"History was created under his watch and for that we will be forever indebted," he told reporters.