When football courses through your veins for 51 years, and in the last 24 of those years, consumed every waking moment, how do you go cold turkey? It takes a special man and a large chunk of mental strength. After all, the same man went from smoking 20 cigarettes a day to zero overnight and has not touched a fag in over 15 years.
Kevin Mitchell (Mitch) had a vision about what umpiring in the VFL should look like and spent many of his 24 years in charge of umpiring in the VFL working towards that vision. When he was asked if he ever reached that vision, Mitch immediately fired back, “if you stand still and stop looking for improvement you will fall away quickly. I was always challenged by the drive to get better.”
And so it was during his umpiring career also. Two hundred and thirty-six games, twenty-three finals and eight grand finals (1969-1972 and 1975-1977 and replay in 1977) but never happy he asked then umpires advisor Allan Nash if he could change to the field after his first four grand finals because he thought he had more to give. Allan refused Mitch’s request telling him he had more in him, and he did. Four more in fact!
It all started in 1962 when Mitch answered an advertisement that was placed in the now defunct Sporting Globe to become a boundary umpire. His father umpired in the VFA and Mitch decided to follow in his footsteps. Mitch played footy for Brighton thirds and cricket for Port Melbourne. To get onto the VFL Reserve Grade in 1962 he had to attend an interview and pass a laws test, he was 16 years old.
He umpired the 1967 VFL Reserve Grade Grand Final and was invited onto the senior panel in 1968. There were 15 boundary umpires on the panel. In those days you umpired three games and had the next week off on a rotational basis. There were only 18 rounds of footy plus finals back in 1967. Mitch umpired a senior final in his first season which was unheard of and followed up with four grand finals in four years, an even greater feat. In the years he missed a grand final he always made it to the preliminary final, which was testimony to his consistency and absolute determination and focus to always prepare thoroughly and to be the best he could possibly be. He demanded no more from any umpire who came under his tutelage over the next 30 years following his retirement.
Mitch always wanted to put back into umpiring what he got out of it. So he took on the role as umpires’ advisor in the Dandenong junior football league and set the course for many VFL and AFL umpires. While at Dandenong he nurtured the careers of Bryan Sheehan, Michael Viney and James Van Beek, who all went on to umpire AFL football. In the four years he was at the group (1980-83) he instilled a level of professionalism and challenged the young people involved to be the best they could. He spent one year with the Southern Umpires but ran into conflict with the board who lived in the past, but not before Vince Sercia came through the ranks and also umpired in the AFL.
From 1985-86 he was assistant to Jim Chapman in the VFA before becoming a full time VFL development officer, the first for umpires in 1989. His role was to unearth potential umpires for the then VFL competitions.
He was an intimidating force as the VFL director of umpiring but his record speaks for itself. The majority of field, boundary and goal umpires on the AFL panel have forged their careers through the VFL and Mitch. Each would have a story to tell, but all are adamant in their praise of Mitch’s pursuit of improvement and perfection. Near enough was never good enough.
“Allan Nash was the best coach because he told you straight. You knew where you stood. Jeff Crouch was the best umpire by a street, followed by Bill Deller,” reflected Mitch
Mitch’s association involvement stands the test of time. AFLUA life member, lifetime achievement award, executive member 1971-74 and is still the only boundary umpire to ever ascend to the presidency of the association in 1977. He was the SANFLUA trip organiser from 1971-76. The associations would visit each other every other year after the season finished for a weekend of social gatherings. Mitch was one of four boundary umpires inducted into the AFLUA team of the century. He was inducted into the AFLUA Hall of Fame in 2008. Although he never umpired in the VFUA he was made a life member of that association for his ongoing support.
But perhaps his most enduring achievement will be the Umpires Administration and Training Facility at Victoria Park. Collingwood Football Club had left Victoria Park in a fair mess when they headed for the modern facilities at the Westpac Centre and Kevin could only see the potential. He courted Yarra Council, the then CEO of the VFL, Ken Gannon and the AFL in a bid to get a home for umpiring in Victoria. A facility that all umpires could be proud of and one that had potential for growth. The Victorian umpires are now living proof that persistence pays off. But Mitch wanted more and was still lobbying the council and the VFL to build an academy on the corner of the Victoria Park oval that would have living quarters and a coaching facility for young country umpires who could come down during school holidays to get a feel for state level umpiring.
Mitch’s exit from AFL Victoria probably typifies his relentless forward vision and want to treat everyone equally. Whilst he had informed AFL Victoria at the start of the 2013 season that it would be his last year, they were sworn to secrecy and no functions were to be held in his honour at his insistence, he instead held a gathering post-season 2013 for all of his part time coaches and staff. He spoke passionately about his vision for 2014. He wished everyone a Merry Christmas. The next day he was on a plane to the USA. Everyone at that gathering the previous evening received a letter the next morning advising them of his retirement effective immediately.
No fanfare, it embarrasses him. No time for reflection on past glories, “I live in the present and work for the future,” says a relaxed and jovial Mitch. “Enjoy the moment.”
For Mitch now those moments consist of a run and a walk for at least an hour each morning, plenty of fishing and he has even dusted off his trusty golf clubs, a pursuit he has not allowed himself the pleasure of for at least 20 years.
Thanks for the hard work Mitch. We look forward to catching you at more social gatherings.