Kennett said the Hawks were “fortunate” to have two people in their ranks of the calibre of Clarkson and Mitchell.
“We are definitely training him [Mitchell] to be a successful coach,” Kennett said, adding, however, that the Hawks “understand” that this might not happen at Hawthorn. “He might be offered a job [elsewhere].”
Referring to Mitchell, the Hawthorn president cited the many assistant coaches and staffers such as Leon Cameron, Adam Simpson and Tim Silver (new Adelaide CEO) whom the club had developed for rival teams.
Kennett’s comments – typically frank and clear – lay out the contours of Hawthorn’s potential succession plan. If the president did not say it, it is plain from Hawthorn’s actions (even their promotional footage of Mitchell coaching VFL on the club website) and Kennett’s comments that a) Mitchell is being groomed as a prospective successor, b) that the Hawks have no definite timeline and c) they understand Mitchell could walk to another club, even at the end of 2021.
Kennett had previously said that he suspected that this would likely be Clarkson’s last contract with the club – a statement that was not absolute. He said to the Sunday Age that the club could also extend Clarkson. “I don’t know.”
Hawthorn’s position on Mitchell could well be tested soon, due to the probability that the 2008 premiership captain will be sounded out for a senior coaching job by another club.
To date, Mitchell has chosen not to pursue a senior coaching position, eschewing the Carlton and North Melbourne coach-search processes. In part, Mitchell has felt that he needed more time to prepare himself.
But it’s also a fair bet that he’s waiting for the Hawthorn job to be available and those two timelines – his readiness and Hawthorn’s – are tracking nicely.
A sterner and more telling test may lie in store for Mitchell and the Hawks. Should Collingwood and Nathan Buckley part company this year – at the behest of either party – Mitchell would surely be among the candidates that Graham Wright, the former head of football at Hawthorn and new football czar at Collingwood, would consider.
Greater Western Sydney are another potential home for Mitchell (or Clarkson, should he leave), although Cameron has bolstered his chances of hanging on in recent weeks, and there will always be speculation about Clarkson at Carlton until David Teague is fully secure, because, well, they’re Carlton.
Collingwood can be counted on to look for an outsider post-Buckley, as they did when they hired Leigh Matthews and Mick Malthouse. Clubs typically search for a coach that represents a contrast with his predecessor, so if Buckley goes, how do they view Mitchell? The Pies might prefer an experienced helmsman, such as Brad Scott or Ross Lyon.
Mitchell has some Buckley-like traits – smart, articulate and forthright, but also carrying question marks over rapport with teammates and natural empathy. Conversely, knowledgeable current and ex-West Coast people believe Mitchell an exceptional coach-in-utero, as hinted in 2018 when he expertly guided their midfield in a premiership year.
Wright will be well-versed in Mitchell’s strengths and flaws, and one would assume he will have a read on whether Mitchell and/or Hawthorn are already half-way down the aisle. If the Pies don’t bother to talk to Mitchell, that can be read as a sign that Wright thinks he’s Winx odds to coach the Hawks.
If Collingwood aren’t keen on Mitchell (or keep Buckley), eventually someone will come knocking.
Hawthorn doesn’t have a Kirribilli agreement, in that, unlike Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, there’s no semi-formal commitment from Clarkson to hand the reins to Mitchell. Clarkson, in fact, was the driver behind bringing Mitchell back to Hawthorn for 2019; and Clarkson did not do so to give up his job in a hurry.
That said, Mitchell is in pole position to take the baton.