In public it was rare to see Steve Folkes crack a smile, but in private his generous spirit made everyone feel at ease.
That crusty exterior made many a rugby league journalist swallow hard as they asked questions in his post-match press conferences.
On the ”scary scale” of NRL coaches, where Wayne Bennett’s short, gruff answers are a ”10”, Folkes often slipped in around an 8.5 to 9.5 alongside Ricky Stuart in a bad mood, or Des Hasler at his confusing best.
“He was super intelligent but he just didn’t like doing them,” said Frank Barrett, who was media manager under Folkes at the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.
“But he always did them with a bit of a bounce in his step and some good one-liners.”
Former Bulldogs general manager of football and now NSWRL coaching development manager Alan Thompson grew up with Folkes playing junior football, and then went to university with him.
“He was a great mate,” Thompson told NRL.com.
“It’s a lot different when it comes to his private side. But he always held that same persona when he was coach. He was a strong personality with pretty strong views on how he wanted his players to train and play the game.”
Folkes won four premierships for the Bulldogs (1980, 1984, 1985 and 1988) as a player and then coached them between 1998 and 2008. During that time, Folkes steered the club to its eighth, and most recent premiership (2004).
“When you see some of the young men he worked with – and I’ve spoken to a lot of them today – and they are just devastated. They loved him,” Thompson said.
“He was such a fit bloke. He did physical education teaching at uni, he cycled most days, and kayaked nearly every day.
“He stopped the running because his knees were starting to pack it in. But he was exercising every day because he loved it.”
Folkes’ mantra was fit players win matches.
“Statistics were not are around as much in his day,” Thompson said. “But being a PE teacher he was driven by fitness to win games along with working hard at your individual game.
“He didn’t have size on his side as a player but he played well above his weight because he was so fit and he made good decisions. That’s the way he coached his players.
“So he took what he learned from playing, into coaching.
“He had great respect among the players. He did that with honesty mainly. You need to be honest with your players and follow-through. “
Barrett told NRL.com that Folkes led by example and was “old school”.
“He was uncompromising but was massively generous when you tapped into his knowledge.
“I remember usually finding him in the gym if I wanted to talk with him. I also remember he would bring the most enormous bowl of coffee to meetings, especially the long ones Bradley Clyde [former Bulldogs football manager] organised, to get through the agenda.
“He was one of those thoughtful blokes, but couldn’t accept anything less than 100 percent,” Barrett said.
“Your best might not have been a Sonny Bill Williams, but as long as you were giving your everything you had Folkes on your side. He would much rather be working with blokes with less ability that gave 100 percent, than the star players giving 50 percent.
“They didn’t last too long under Folkes, those 50 percenters.”
As a coach, Thompson said Folkes immediately earned respect from his squad because of what he did as a player.
“He had the initial respect as a four-time premiership winner – but that only takes you part of the way. He had the character and integrity to work in with that,” said Thompson, who was Swimming Australia’s head coach before arriving at the Belmore club.
“A lot of times people in the spotlight are just so different to what you know of them on a personal level.
“Sometimes what you see is what you get with Steve. But once you crack through that tough exterior, there was a very loving husband, dad, and now grandfather in the last few years.”
Thompson said Folkes so doted on daughter Hayley’s children that he would often cancel appointments in his diary so he could “do his grandad thing”.
“There was a real soft side to Steve that not many saw,” Thompson said. “I was fortunate enough to see it and enjoy it.
“He was just careful who he showed that side to.”