The club’s founders were keen to make their mark in rugby league country. (Supplied: Brisbane Lions)
It was the ’80s — the hair was big, life was large, and Aussie Rules were dirty words in Queensland.
A big grey koala wearing tight footy shorts lands on the Gold Coast to become the mascot for the state’s first VFL team, the Brisbane Bears.
“It was an adventure that had never been done before,” AFL commentator Mark McClure said.
“I reckon it was gutsy to take on rugby league, rugby union — all those codes — and be successful, and that’s the part I’m proud of more.”
McClure was the assistant coach when the Bears played their first game in 1987.
The Skase and Cronin dream
The Aussie Rules invasion of Queensland was thanks to tycoon Christopher Skase and actor Paul Cronin.
McClure recalled some good times with Skase, including a night in 1987 when the businessman was seeking members for the Bears President’s Club.
“He picked up 50 members for this club, at $25,000 each, in one night.”
A pricey lunch considering there were only 10 home games each season, but McClure then realised “the power this bloke had”.
“I know he got caught out in the end, but gee whizz, he was a wheeler and dealer.”
Skase became one of Australia’s most wanted fugitives before his death in Majorca in 2001.
The team was built in a unique way, with each club in the national competition contributing two players.
“Twenty-four players were recruited in that way — can you imagine who you’d give? You’re not going to give your captain or the best player,” McClure said.
“But you know what? In that team we mostly had little ratbags, we had some rough diamonds, but I love them.
“You can always get something out of those guys. I actually really enjoyed the company of them, because they came up there and wanted to play.”
The Bears won their first two games, against North Melbourne and Geelong respectively.
Cameron O’Brien, who had been drafted from Collingwood, fondly recalls that first victory and his time with the Bears.
“It was an incredible time and very exciting as a 19-year-old,” he said.
“It was incredible going into a rugby-dominated state — we had a lot of pushback.
“They didn’t know us, they made fun of us, and we were a bit of a laughing-stock for a while.
“[But] I learned so much and it was just an amazing time to be able to play professional football with some really great players, and then against some of the greatest players of that era.”
It wasn’t long before Carrara Stadium got bums on seats — however, most of the crowds were there to support the opposition.
But the Bears fans who did come were loyal.
“I loved the fans,” O’Brien said.
“I really enjoyed coming off the field and seeing all the kids coming out and wanting autographs.
“I often would give them my — it sounds funny — but I wanted to give them something, so I gave them my socks.”
Capper comes to the coast
Warwick Capper was the VFL’s golden boy when the Bears were formed, and it was not uncommon to hear cries of “Capperrrrr” in the school yard.
At the end of the 1987 season, Skase, with his financial clout, made the Mark of the Year winner an offer too good to refuse.
According to Capper, he became the highest paid player in the league and was transferred from the Sydney Swans in a $2.4 million package.
“Christopher Skase came with all that money, and I thought, ‘Well, the ex-wife wants to come to the Gold Coast, it might be a good opportunity to change clubs’, even though, in hindsight, it wasn’t the best thing to do,” he said.
“It was a hard three years.
“I thought [the Bears] would have been better than they were, but they weren’t quite ready.”
Capper kicked a league-leading 45 goals in 1988, but it wasn’t enough to give the fans the wins they wanted.
“Most of them liked me, but they got a bit shitty because we only won about three games, and then I was copping a bit of shit.”
He said the larger ground at Carrara also presented challenges during his three seasons at the club.
“They [the team] wouldn’t pass the ball very well … we actually only saw the football once every quarter-and-a-half, so there wasn’t many opportunities.”
As the Brisbane Lions, the club would win three consecutive premierships from 2001 to 2003.
“It’s all about timing, isn’t it?” Capper said.
‘Little cliques all over the place’
Shaun Hart was a teenager when he was drafted to the Bears in 1989 from the Victorian town of Shepparton; in those days you found out you had been drafted by listening to the radio.
“I was bawling my eyes out as I drove home from college at Wodonga,” Hart said.
“I was quite distraught … I thought I was going to Melbourne and stay in Victoria.”
Shaun Hart has many fond memories of his time with the burgeoning club. (ABC Gold Coast: Solua Middleton)
The 2001 Norm Smith medallist said the combination of young players and those coming to the end of their careers presented opportunities early on at the Bears.
“In the first year I found myself playing some football, which doesn’t normally happen,” Hart said.
“It was a thrill because it was a dream … you could see that you could play some football, which you might not have done at other clubs.”
But the melting pot of players did present challenges at times with the team dynamic.
“It was a really divided club in a way with little cliques all over the place,” Hart said.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of unity, I didn’t think, at the time … but being a young impressionable guy, it didn’t bother too much, it was just living the dream I suppose at the time.”
The Pelerman years
John Gastev was transferred to the Bears from the West Coast Eagles in 1989 and initially viewed the Skase era as exciting.
But he said things got noticeably hard when tycoon’s company, Qintex, collapsed in 1991.
Gold Coast businessman Reuben Pelerman stepped in to save the club, but club champion Gastev said other problems emerged.
“When Skase was there it was just good times and everything was OK, everyone was getting paid on time,” he said.
“With the shift, there were payment delays … there were guys who had mortgages and families and the pressure was on those guys.
“It wasn’t just about you playing for the love of playing, there were commitments that those guys needed to have met and there was pressure on everyone.”
Pelerman propped up the Bears for two years until the club was handed over to a membership-based structure.
The Fitzroy merger
In 1996, the Melbourne-based Fitzroy Lions merged with the Bears and rebranded as the Brisbane Lions.
The club honours its Queensland roots in a number of ways, including a heritage round in which players wear the Bears guernsey, and a medal for best and fairest named after former captain Roger Merrett.
Lions chairman Andrew Wellington said he recognised the path the Bears forged for footy in the Sunshine State.
“The strength today of the Brisbane Lions and AFL football in Queensland is a great testament to those early administrators, players, coaches and supporters of the Brisbane Bears,” he said.
“There is no doubt that without all their hard work, the code and the Brisbane Lions would not be in the position we enjoy today.”
Mark Zanotti says being based on the Gold Coast gave the Bears players some freedom. (Supplied: Brisbane Lions)
Mark Zanotti was another Bears player recruited from the West Coast Eagles in 1989 — he would eventually play out his career at Fitzroy before the merger.
Because the Gold Coast was more renowned for sports like swimming and surfing, Zanotti said he felt the pressure was off a little.
“The AFL was just this nice little pocket; we could still play in the top comp but you weren’t under the [public] microscope as much,” he said.
“The Gold Coast gave you that feeling of freedom.”
Having the Brisbane Bears based at the Gold Coast was something Zanotti said was confusing for the team’s identity and fans.
“It was kind of crazy as a marketing concept … I thought that just made no sense at all.
“I think it is set up nicely that the Suns are called the Gold Coast Suns; they have their own colour, their own identity, and I think that’s going to pave a much stronger team and competition for the Gold Coast.”
Coming back to Carrara
Hart has come full circle from his days as a Bear, working as the head of personal excellence at the Gold Coast Suns.
“The situation we’re in now is no different to what, as a player, I would have went through 15 years ago,” he said.
“Used at the right times, I use lessons in terms of some leadership sessions and talking to players who might be battling or just looking for some answers as to how we get better.”
In 2017, the Brisbane Lions were granted a berth in the AFL Women’s competition, and this year the Gold Coast Suns made their debut.
Suns women’s assistant defence coach Darryl White is also no stranger to Carrara, having joined the Bears in 1991 and stayed on with the Lions until 2005.
The Arrernte footballer, who grew up in Alice Springs, said when he was playing, thinking there would be a women’s competition would have been a long shot.
Former Bear and Lion Darryl White is an assistant coach with the Gold Coast’s AFLW team. (Supplied)
“You knew it was there [women playing] in the background … you wouldn’t think that it would grow this much and grow so fast,” he said.
“I can’t wait until they get the last four teams in and make it a real national competition.”
While Aussie Rules wasn’t the game of choice for Queenslanders when the Bears came to town, the tides have certainly changed and it’s here to stay.
“Well, if you actually listen to what’s going on up there, they’ve got over 300,000 kids playing football in Queensland,” McClure said.
“Are we winning the fight or are we losing? I think we’re winning the fight.”