Faces of Tamworth: Supercoach Ron Surtees

Ron Surtees underneath the Ron Surtees Oval unveiled at Tamworth High in 2007.

Ron Surtees underneath the Ron Surtees Oval unveiled at Tamworth High in 2007.

Ron Surtees is one of Tamworth’s most revered sporting figures. Our very own ‘supercoach’, Surtees’ coaching exploits during his days at Tamworth High School are unparalleled. He coached Tamworth High teams to a remarkable 49 state finals across three sports – rugby league, hockey and water polo. Surtees also helped shaped the careers of two of Tamworth’s finest water polo exports – Nathan Thomas and Craig Miller. But it wasn’t just the culture of success he created that made Surtees such a great coach but the way he inspired those he coached to strive to achieve their best.  And while he has stepped back from the sideline and pool deck, Surtees is still prominent in the local sporting community. He was one of the driving forces behind the Tamworth Regional Sporting Hall of Fame and Olympian Wall of Honour, and is heavily involved with the Men of League Foundation.  Samantha Newsam sat down with Ron in late 2007 as he prepared for retirement. 

WHEN a fresh-faced university graduate pushed his way through the Tamworth High School entrance over 30 years ago he couldn’t have imagined the career – and success – that would transpire.

In the new year, almost 38 years after accepting the post to Tamworth High, Ron Surtees will sign-off on a fine teaching career and a coaching career that has become synonymous with sporting achievement.

Ron has been at the forefront of many of Tamworth’s sporting successes for as long as he has been writing on the chalkboard, and will leave behind a legacy that is unlikely to be surpassed.

That legacy includes 50 state final appearances with either North West or Tamworth High sides including two University Shield wins – one as a player and one as a coach, and has transcended three sports of particular note – water polo, hockey and rugby league. 

It reads as a very impressive resume but the material rewards are just a part of what has earned Ron the respect that he commands both from his players and students and the wider community. 

There is, on top of that, the countless hours he has committed to his students and the hundreds that have played in various sporting teams he has coached, and his ability to get the best out of them whatever their endeavours.

He has always humbly accepted the accolades that have come his way and was earlier this month paid the ultimate tribute when the school, where he has spent all but 16-years of his life, named the school oval in his honour.

“That absolutely knocked me. I couldn’t believe it, it was such an honour,” Ron said. 

The announcement was greeted by a five-minute standing ovation from the 800-strong crowd, and was a fitting tribute for his years of service to the Tamworth High cause – in and out of the classroom.

The trophy room where Ron’s awards and treasured sporting memorabilia are on display. Photo: Geoff O’Neill

The trophy room where Ron’s awards and treasured sporting memorabilia are on display. Photo: Geoff O’Neill

“My dad was a teacher and my sister a TAFE teacher. I just thought it was me,” Ron said about why he opted for teaching as his profession.

His first foray into coaching came when he helped out a girls’ hockey side while at uni, kicking-off a passionate endeavour that would go on to consume a large chunk of his life.

“The first thing I wanted to do when I came back to Tamworth High was to coach,” he said.

He started out in 1971 with a “group of kids that were playing water polo in the local competition”.

“I had minimal knowledge but the kids were keen, which made me keen, and as I learnt more I became even keener,” he said.

“Once the kids had the enthusiasm, that spread to me and I wasn’t going to let them down.”

It was rather unfamiliar territory for Ron, having come from a rugby league background and played some representative hockey in his formative years, but success soon followed with the school winning their first CHS water polo state title three years later. That success had a snowballing effect both in terms of building numbers and the flood of titles that followed – 13 in the opens and three in the U15s.

The pool has been where Surtees’ biggest influence has been, and he is revered to such a degree that the news of his impending retirement prompted the NSW School Sports Association to hold their 2007 CHS Boys Water Polo Carnival in Tamworth in his honour.

He was a driving force behind getting water polo on the state carnival calendar and has since coached North West to six state titles. Three of those were won from 1989-1991, and the zone remains the only non-metropolitan team to be state champions.

They have also finished runners-up on 11 occasions, and the statistics show that Surtees’ teams were finalists on 16 occasions in the first 17 years of the carnival’s existence.

“I don’t think anyone has contributed to their school zone and town as much as Ron, and in three sports,” NSW CHS vice-president David Whitlock commented at the recent state carnival.

They are sentiments shared by many.

“He’s always put so much of his life into teaching and coaching,” Tamworth High principal Wayne Chaffey said.

“He’s a man of utmost integrity and made lots and lots of students believe that they are capable of doing great things.”

Mr Chaffey said Ron was also a great classroom practitioner and just as he did on the sporting field he had a strong ethic of discipline and taught his students self-discipline.

That was something former Australian water polo captain Nathan Thomas remarked about Ron. Nathan was one of five of Ron’s water polo pupils along with Craig Miller, Heath Behncke, Jason Hensby and Paul Hofman who went on to represent Australia, and credits Ron with laying the foundation that inspired him to achieve at the heights that he did.

He could even pin-point the moment – a profound comment that Ron made one day.

“I remember that Ron sat Craig (Miller) and I down and said you’ll play for Australia one day,” Nathan said.

“I don’t know whether it was him trying to calm us down (after coming back from playing for the NSW U20s) but in the end it planted the seed of ambition in my mind.”

“It’s amazing what he’s done.”

“He’s faced a lot of challenges but to be able to be the success that he has been shows his ability to draw a team together and get them working to their ability.”

Surtees is cheered off following Tamworth High’
s historic University Shield win in 1978.

Surtees is cheered off following Tamworth High’ s historic University Shield win in 1978.

That was one of his best coaching qualities, as well as the culture he established that the athlete was just as responsible for results as the coach was.

“Ron empowered the athlete to be as good as they were,” Nathan said.

“Its hard to really grab the essence of what makes him special. (But) from him I learnt things like commitment and dedication, and as a spin-off I learnt that if you work hard you’ll get what’s coming to you.”

For Nathan that was the chance to live out his dream, and for Ron the opportunity to see Nathan and Craig Miller do that first-hand at the 2000 Olympic Games rates as a highlight.

The pair have been the tip of the iceberg in talent terms, but underneath them there has been an abundance of NSW junior, open and Country representatives, particularly in the early days when Tamworth players virtually filled the State teams.

“I’ll never forget one year we were in the final of the State CHS. Prior to the State Championships there were the Australian Championships and eight in the THS side were in the state side. They whipped all the other states by 15 goals and then turned around on Saturday and played the State final. I only had to take took one extra kid down to make up the THS team,” Ron recalled.

He wasn’t a one hit wonder though, and for a number of years – almost 20 – from the late 70s onwards, former North West SSA regional sports organiser Pat Saunders and Ron formed a winning coaching team in the pool, and at times on the football field.

“We had a lot of good times together and they were all good kids,” Mr Saunders said.

He noted that the kids wanted to play, and his philosophy was the harder they worked the better they became and the better they became the more success they had.

“He made sure the kids were fit, well skilled and knew the game inside out,” he said.

“(And) he developed a culture at the school whereby success bred success.”

Wests Lions rugby league coach Tony La Chiusa was a part of that culture and can attest to Ron’s work ethic.

“You really knew you couldn’t get anywhere until you put the work in,” Mr La Chiusa said.

He recalled how Ron “falsely” lured him into the pool.

“He conned the hell out of us. We were all cricketers. He came up to us one day and said what are you doing out here in the sweltering heat. You could be splashing about in the pool,” he said.

Three weeks later they were throwing the ball around in the pool.

“He was a master at mind games,” he said.

“If we got to the pool and he wasn’t there, we’d think ‘we’d better get in and do something’.  “He’d be parked up the road watching us to see what we’d do.”

Mr La Chiusa was there for Ron’s “golden years”, and was also a part of the 1978 University Shield win.

“There’s no way I would have captained the Australian Schoolboys (water polo) without Ron,” he said.

He achieved that in 1979/80 before going on to coach both the NSW and Australian Country sides over a 15-year period.

“You really wanted to win for him. He was one of those coaches who if you lost you were disappointed for yourself but you were more disappointed for him,” he said.

“You were never going to quit.”

“He had a great knack of getting an extra 20/30 per cent out of players.”

The players equally carried a huge amount of respect for Ron, who Mr La Chiusa said you got the whole package out of.

“He didn’t just finish at the edge of the pool or sporting field,” he said.

“(And) it was not always about being the best sportsperson. It was about the effort you put in. That was one of the major things he put to us.”

That was just one of the many lessons he learnt, lessons that have filtered into his own coaching tenures.

“A lot of the basics skills and basic coaching skills all came from Ron,” he said.

Sportsmans Warehouse managers Bob Barber and Ricky Craig flank local sporting identity Ron Surtees who was recognised with the Tamworth Community Sports Award in 2016. Photo: Barry Smith 190516BSA01

Sportsmans Warehouse managers Bob Barber and Ricky Craig flank local sporting identity Ron Surtees who was recognised with the Tamworth Community Sports Award in 2016. Photo: Barry Smith 190516BSA01

Ron admitted that his natural inclination when he started coaching was for league, but he got a lot of fulfillment out of coaching water polo, and then hockey.

That was where his latest State title success was, back in 2004.

The school under Ron’s guidance played in four State finals, including three in a row. They collected just the 2004 win from those, losing twice in extra-time.

The winning culture, particularly in regards to water polo was similar to what Surtees had experienced back in school days having played in the second row for the University Shield-winning Tamworth High side in 1965.

They were, during the period of the late 50s through to the 70s, considered the premier league school in the state, and that success had a strong influence on shaping Ron’s coaching career.

“There were a lot of keen teachers that coached and that rubbed off on me,” he said.

He has during his career – in both teaching and coaching – embodied the notion of commitment and dedication and his philosophy has been similar with commitment, correct attitude and hard work the three main characteristics he has tried to instill.

“If they were better than when they started I call myself a successful coach. They don’t have to have State Champion on their resume,” Ron said.

“The (last) North West (water polo) team was a typical example. Those kids came fourth but were a very successful team.”

He has equally garnered great enjoyment out of witnessing his pupils succeed at whatever level that may be.

“I love it (coaching) and I love kids,” he said.

That passion for coaching and the interaction that both coaching and teaching provide have for Ron overshadowed any ambitions beyond the classroom, but it’s a decision he doesn’t regret.

“I passed an inspection to be a head teacher but I never pursued it,” he said.

“The underlying reason was that I wouldn’t be in the classroom or on the sporting field.”

He has spent his entire teaching tenure at the school he graduated from in 1965 in the social science department, and his career is one of the most notable of any teacher on record with the NSW Department of Education and Training.

There have been countless awards including the Certificate for Excellence in Teaching (North West region) in 1992, The Director General’s Award for Excellent Service to Public Schools (1993) and the Award for Excellent Service to Public Education (2005).

They adorn the walls at his house alongside the sporting trophies and mementos, which includes one of the playing balls from Australia’s historic women’s gold medal at the Sydney Olympics.

It all makes for an impressive display, and sifting through his achievements it was hard for Surtees to single out one highlight, but he offered a few.

“The two firsts – water polo and the University Shield. That year we were not supposed to win the shield but did it against all odds. Ashcroft was going for its third,” he said.

“And I’d have to say 1999 (water polo).”

“Both my sons were in the water polo side. Ben was captain and Dane was also in the team. That was the last time we won and it was a special moment for me, to have both sons in a State winning team.”

“The saddest was probably the hockey in 2005 when we lost in a penalty shootout. I hurt for the kids. The kids were crying. They knew they were the better team.”

Wife Cheryl is also a successful coach and has coached North West touch teams, taken and co-ordinated athletics and coached Peel to a CHS softball title in 1998. They are both NW Sports Life Members. That is one of many memories Ron will retire with – he is also a life member of the local water polo association and CHS water polo.

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