#ThankYouSigi: Coming to Columbus

NOTE: On Saturday, June 29, the Columbus Crew will induct Sigi Schmid into the Circle of Honor. This is one of several stories I am writing in advance of the ceremony. An updated list of stories will be kept HERE. For tickets to Saturday night’s game and induction ceremony, click HERE.

 

When Crew President and GM Mark McCullers began his search for the next permanent head coach of the Columbus Crew in mid-2005, he knew he wanted to do something different. To that point, the Crew’s coaching job had always been kept in the family. It was a “next man up” situation. Timo Liekoski was replaced by his assistant Tom Fitzgerald. Fitz was replaced by his assistant Greg Andrulis. Andrulis was replaced, on an interim basis, by his assistant Robert Warzycha. The results of this family-style method weren’t bad. Fitzgerald coached the team to a trio of Eastern Conference Finals appearances. Andrulis won a U.S. Open Cup in 2002 and a Supporters’ Shield in 2004. Warzycha coaxed a 7-6-3 record out of an aging 2005 roster that had started the year 4-10-2. That was probably the ceiling for that group though. A rebuild would be required, and McCullers wanted to shake up the status quo by hiring an outside architect for the Crew’s reconstruction.

There was a name out there that would be at the top of any team’s wish list at that time. On July 16, 2005, the date of Warzycha’s debut as interim coach, McCullers heard that name again, this time from Peter Wilt, then the GM of the rival Chicago Fire. Wilt offered the name with one giant caveat.

“The best coach available is Sigi Schmid,” McCullers recalls Wilt telling him. “But he’s a West Coast guy. You’ll never get him to come to Columbus.”

“Okay,” McCullers replied. “Let’s see about that.”

*****

To call Schmid a “West Coast guy” actually undersells it. He was more specifically an “LA guy.” His family moved from Germany to Southern California when he was four years old. He played midfield for UCLA from 1972-1975 and then was the Bruins’ head coach from 1980-1999, winning three NCAA titles. He then coached the LA Galaxy from 1999-2004, winning an MLS Cup title in 2002. His entire playing and coaching career was based in the City of Angels. He and his wife, Val, raised their four children there. It was home.

Columbus was a long, long way from home. Fortunately, McCullers had an in. Former Crew defender Mike Lapper, one of Schmid’s players at UCLA, worked in the Crew’s front office and had been among the people to recommend Schmid for the job. He was a solid liaison.

“We had several discussions,” Lapper said. “He asked me about the city and the club and the team and the fans and the setup and everything. Obviously, I was over the moon about the city and the support and everything like that. The facilities and the whole thing. Having worked under him, I knew what kind of person he was and obviously he had established himself in MLS, so I thought it would be a great opportunity.”

There were much bigger hurdles to clear. McCullers flew up to Blaine, MN for an introductory meeting with Schmid. After being fired by the Galaxy in the middle of the 2004 season for not playing attractive enough soccer despite the team being in first place at the time, Schmid had taken over has coach of the U20 U.S. Men’s National team. The U20s were training in Blaine, so McCullers had coffee with Schmid in the team’s hotel.

“We talked for several hours getting to know each other and talking what the vision for the organization was about,” McCullers said. “Possibly the best sales job of my career, to be honest.”

Schmid’s skepticism was palpable.

“He had just come out of a situation where he had a team in first place and got fired,” McCullers said. “He had a management situation that rewarded him with a pink slip for having a team in first place, so he was very interested in what my expectations were, what my role was going to be, what my expectations were going to be not only for him, but for myself, and how are we going to attack this thing together. That was very important to him, so I had to sell him on that he was going to have autonomy in certain areas and that he was going to have oversight in certain areas, but at the end of the day, we really needed someone who was going to fix the competition side of our organization.”

Fixing the competition side of the organization was going to take more than roster moves and Xs & Os. For example, there was no high-speed internet at the Crew’s training facility at Obetz. Coaches were pulling and watching video on their 2005-era cell phones.

“We came up with a plan to change the culture of how we were doing business on the competition side of the organization,” McCullers said. “The organization needed a jolt. We needed to do something materially different in a few different phases of the organization in order to put ourselves in a position to grow, both on the field and off. Sigi was a big piece of that puzzle.”

A coach with Schmid’s trophy-laden track record doesn’t come cheaply, especially when being asked to move away from his family and his decades-long home. Convincing Schmid to come to Columbus was only half the battle. Ownership needed to be convinced that it would be a worthwhile investment.

“We sold it to the Hunts together,” McCullers said. “I had to not only convince Sigi that coming to Columbus was an opportunity that would complement him and was going to be there with the resources to support him, but there was also the matter of his contract. There was a sales job on the other side of the equation with the Hunts to put together a contract that would get him here.”

The Hunts did. McCullers got his man. On October 20, 2005, Sigi Schmid was announced as the new head coach of the Columbus Crew.

*****

The hiring of Schmid was a blockbuster move that many didn’t see coming. He was an audacious target for a traditionally conservative organization, and it was an unexpected landing spot for the so-called West Coast Guy.

“You never know until you ask,” Lapper said. “In this job, there are only so many cities that have MLS teams, so you have to pick up and go. When I heard that he was coming, I was happy and excited for the team first and foremost. I knew that he would be the guy to turn it around and help us get to where we wanted to go. It was really reaching and saying let’s shake it up and go for it.”

Alejandro Moreno, who had previously won an MLS Cup playing for Schmid with the Galaxy, felt that Sigi was on a mission and the Crew job offered a lot of emotional appeal.

“I just think that there was something about Sigi being let go from the LA Galaxy when we were in first place at the time that I don’t think he ever was able to let go,” Moreno said. “That created a fire within Sigi that he wanted to make it right. And taking the Columbus Crew job was the biggest challenge that there was at that time because, let’s not kid ourselves, the Crew were not very good. If there was a challenge, that was it. Part of me thinks it was Sigi saying, ‘I’m the perfect man for this job because I’m going to turn this around. And because I’m going to turn this around, I’m going to show myself what kind of coach I am. And then in the process of doing that, I’m going to tell everyone else that, yep, I’m still here. I put together a group of players that nobody else wanted, but I wanted, and they’re playing for me and playing their very best, and oh by the way, we’re winning.’ It’s a very powerful message.”

If that’s the case, it would take a few years for Sigi’s message to be heard.

But on November 23, 2008, that message was loudly delivered in Massive fashion.

The guy who Mark McCullers was “never” going to be able to bring to Columbus had delivered to Columbus its first MLS Cup title.

Sigi MLS Cup

*****

Email: sirk65@yahoo.com
Twitter: @stevesirk
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A MASSIVE SEASON is now available as an ebook.

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