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Mick Heenan...UQ Coaching Guru Raises 250 and Still Going

Fri, 29/04/2022, 4:00 am
Jim Tucker
by Jim Tucker

Mick Heenan’s milestone of 250 games as head coach of University of Queensland on Saturday is even more remarkable because it’s not the full story. 

The figure of service to Queensland Premier Rugby rises beyond 350 when you add more than 100 games as coach of GPS before his time at Uni began in 2009. 

There are long-serving coaches and long-serving successful coaches. Heenan is the later because masterminding the 2021 title made him a peerless six-time premiership coach. 

Not even Ron Price and Joe French, with all their wonderful Brothers sides, could reach more than five in the post-war era of club rugby in Queensland. 

Here we are again in the late April of a new season, a little more chill in the air and Heenan is again plotting the rise of another UQ side. 

The thing is this span of six titles from 2010 to 2021 has never been with the same side year-on-year. Professional rugby moves around too many chess pieces to ever have that consistency. 

Heenan, still just 48, will be working his brand of coaching wisdom on a newish group at St Lucia on Saturday against Norths. Another 19-year-old, hooker Jake Tierney, steps up. 

The changing scenery within the team is part of what keeps Heenan energised. 

“I just love the challenge of it. I’m a competitive person and I love to see improvement,” Heenan said. 

“It’s a privilege to guide young blokes to do something special.” 

Early in his coaching career, losses contorted his mind. He dwelt on each for too long. 

You don’t coach this long without an ace in your life. He only gets to juggle a successful career as an industrial relations specialist and being a father of three active boys by having a supportive wife. 

“Early on, I did have sleepless nights after losses. It was Danielle who said I wouldn’t be in coaching very long if I didn’t learn to let things go better. I do now and move onto the next week,” Heenan said. 

University stalwart Frank McLoughlin probably has stats on how many sleepless nights Heenan had in 2009 when the rebuild of UQ rugby began. 

What he definitely has is the Heenan record...182 wins from 249 starts at a superb 73 per cent winning rate. 

When Heenan was headhunted to coach Uni in 2009, the club was coming off a dire three-from-18 season in 2008, second last and conceding 34 points per game. Did we mention that a club as rich in talent as UQ hadn’t won a premiership since 1990? 

Heenan has restored UQ to powerhouse status and if there is crowing at the club it is never from the thoughtful, humble redhead. 

Of all the plaudits he has received this week one stands out above the rest. It came from former Uni teammate James Blanchard. 

“It was a beauty. He thanked me for making it slightly more socially acceptable to be a tall, awkward redhead,” Heenan related with a laugh. 

His insatiable love of coaching started by accident when caught in the crossfire of rugby debates between the late Wallaby Jake Howard and his wife Margariete. 

As a uni student from Gatton, young Heenan was a lodger at the Howard home in Ashgrove for more than two years after school days at Marist College Ashgrove with Pat Howard, a Wallaby in the making. 

“I don’t think I’d have become a coach but for the influence of that time when Jake was assistant coach of the Wallabies and Margariete was coaching Colts at Uni,” Heenan said.  

“There was always a lot of debate about style of play, Margariete with her passion for the flat-line Randwick-style of attack and Jake with the pragmatic accent on the scrum and breakdown.  

“They had (coaching icons) Bob Templeton and Alec Evans dropping by or calling on the phone regularly so there was always good rugby chat around the place. 

“The overriding thread from Jake and Margariete was an insistence on proper technique and things being done properly at training.  

“There were also little gems that have stayed with me.  

“I was in the car driving with Jake one time when he said: ‘I was a lot better coach when I only had two or three things to concentrate on’.  

“That still resonates...keeping players’ minds uncluttered and on the important things for a particular game like a Grand Final.” 

Countless coaches with far inferior records to Heenan have bobbed up at clubs abroad. A Japanese club came knocking but timing and what Heenan most enjoys in life are in Brisbane. 

You don’t survive this long as a head coach if you pull that old trick of telling different stories to different players and keep them dangling like puppets on a string. 

“Players have pretty good bullshit radar so it’s better to be honest than fudge it," Heenan said.  

When it comes times to talk about a “contract extension” it never requires a lawyer. There’s never a piece of paper to look over. 

“We have a ‘one more year?’ chat and it’s done over a ceremonial schooner in the front bar of the Royal Exchange Hotel,” said UQ Rugby president Michael Zaicek.  

Added Heenan: “It was Mick who sold me on the dream of Uni as a sleeping giant all those years ago.” 

He agreed to coach again this year. Maybe he just should have told his wife first.