#ThankYouSigi: Sigi’s Secret to Success

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.

I found this to be interesting. In my many conversations with people about one of the most successful coaches in U.S. soccer history, one topic never came up: Xs and Os. When talking about what made Sigi Schmid such a successful coach, nobody talked tactics. To be sure, a coach with his track record has a tactical grasp on the game, but it wasn’t tactical acumen that set Sigi Schmid apart. It was his heart.

“He had such individual interest in players that you’d want to leave it all on the field and die for the guy,” said former Crew defender and assistant coach Mike Lapper, who played for Schmid at UCLA and served as his assistant coach in Columbus. “Everyone talks all these different formations, but at the end of the day, it’s the people on the field that matter. It’s what they bring to the field every single day at practice. How can you unleash the best out of each person? That’s the secret to success.”

*****

Lapper wasn’t exactly looking college-bound as a junior in high school. His GPA sat in the low-to-mid twos, but he was a good enough soccer player to attract the interest of a top-flight college program like UCLA. That’s how Lapper first fell into Sigi’s orbit.

“He took some interest in me,” Lapper said. “I was a good player, but he was like, ‘Mike, with these grades, I’m not going to be able to get you in. I like you as a player, but you’ve gotta change.’ I remember I started getting so serious. I started studying and I didn’t go out with my friends because this would be a dream come true to play for Sigi.”

Sigi got Lapper into UCLA as a special admission that required a certain amount of tutoring each week. It was an opportunity Lapper was not about to squander.

“It was funny because I wasn’t good at high school, but once Sigi showed an interest in me, I turned it around and my grades got better. I really liked college. I graduated with like a 3.7 GPA. That’s what you did for Sigi because of what he did for you. Whether it was on the field or something with school, if he told you something, you didn’t want to be that guy who let him down. That’s because the opposite is true. He would never let you down.”

*****

Sigi’s 2008 MLS Cup championship team in Columbus was an interesting mesh of personalities. For Alejandro Moreno, it’s the most memorable team of his career.

“It was his ability to bring people together,” Moreno said. “Different players that had been everywhere else who had not quite put it all together, and then they came to Columbus and he managed to make the pieces to the puzzle work out very well. Everybody had a role, where everybody fit together perfectly, where everyone could maximize their full potential as players. The talent identification that Sigi had for young players is something that perhaps goes underappreciated and undervalued in terms of what he has done as a coach.”

One of the key components of that 2008 team was left-winger Robbie Rogers, then just 20 years old. Before the season, Schmid told Rogers that he needed to score 5-10 goals and play at an all-star level. In 2018, Rogers told me that he left that meeting thinking that Schmid was “(bleeping) nuts.” But the confidence instilled in him by his coach and his teammates elevated his game. He ended the year as an MLS Best XI selection for the MLS Cup champs.

That same year, rookie Steven Lenhart emerged as a clutch late-game sub. Lenhart had no designs on a soccer career. He had never even started on a soccer team until his senior year at tiny Azusa Pacific University. He was befuddled upon being drafted and went to his first MLS training camp wondering what he was even doing there.

“He really showed me how to believe in myself and he really encouraged that in me as I transitioned into the pros,” Lenhart said. “He was the first guy that was like, ‘Dude, you’ve got what it takes.’ He kind of got that steam engine rolling for me. That was some major steam and I’ve got Sigi to thank for it.”

By the end of the year, Lenhart was banging in clutch goals, including a stoppage-time equalizer in a road playoff game.

In 2007, during an injury-plagued rookie year, Brad Evans went into Schmid’s office and asked if he could just go home for the rest of the season since he was hurt anyway. Frustrated, Evans was seriously considering walking away from the game for good. Schmid wouldn’t let him. He wanted Evans to be around the team and to learn and to grow. A year later, Evans was a starter for an MLS Cup champion and went on to a long and successful MLS career.

“It was an extremely pivotal point for me,” Evans said. “If it wasn’t for that team, if it wasn’t for that coach… what I have accomplished since isn’t there potentially.”

And that’s just a few of the young guys. He also worked wonders that year with established players.

*****

In 2008, Sigi had an idea. With the acquisition of superb holding midfielder Brian Carroll, the coach felt that Danny O’Rourke could better help the team elsewhere. O’Rourke, of course, was a bloodthirsty destroyer in the center of the field. He was singularly focused on getting the ball by any means necessary. Schmid, however, saw an ideal partner for towering center back Chad Marshall. It would require tempering some of O’Rourke’s baser instincts, but O’Rourke had the smarts and the speed to pair well with Marshall.

At first, it was a disaster. O’Rourke gave away penalty kicks and made ill-advised forays with his midfield mentality. Schmid stuck with him. He didn’t rant and rave. He didn’t even give him explicit pep talks. He just sent him out there week after week to learn, plus there would be the occasional story time.

“He’d pull you aside,” O’Rourke recalled, “and you’d think, ‘Oh (crap.) Here it comes. He’s going to be like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ But he’d pull you aside and he’d tell you about some random kid that you’d never heard of that played at UCLA and was in a similar situation, or someone in Germany or something else where I’d have no idea, and he’d somehow relate it in a way that made sense, eased tension, and also made his point that you just need to be better at this. A lot of people talk about the difference between a coach and a manager. I don’t think there was a better manager. As a manager of people, he was fantastic that way.”

By the second half of the season, O’Rourke and Marshall were a well-oiled machine. Danny O’Rourke won an MLS Cup as a starting center back.

“When Danny O’Rourke was asked to play center back, I’m sure it was not comfortable,” Moreno said. “It’s not something that came natural to him. But with that team, that suited him perfectly, playing off the shoulder of Chad Marshall and how they played together. It may not have worked in any other circumstance, but it did in that one, and somebody had to have the vision to be able to see that. Sigi was very much on top of that.”

*****

O’Rourke’s comments above reference the stories that Sigi would tell. It was one of his favorite communication styles.

“He had a story for everything,” said Evans. “If I brought up the color red, he could somehow relate that to some in-depth soccer conversation about seeing a flag at some Bundesliga game or something like that. It was his special way of being such a soccer rat.”

“He’d pull you aside after practice or on a bus or an airplane or at the hotel and he’d just talk to you,” O’Rourke said. “He had every story imaginable. You’d think you’d heard every Sigi story because you’d heard a hundred of them, but then he’d pull another dozen out of his hat. ‘Let me tell you this story…’ and he’d be chuckling and you’d be like ‘Where is this going?’ But it was just an indirect way to relate to a player and to make a player feel comfortable and to take the tension out of the moment.”

Duncan Oughton recalls another time that Sigi took an unorthodox approach to teaching a lesson. One day at Crew training, there was some sort of equipment mishap and Sigi did not have a Crew shirt available. Surely he could have just worn the shirt he had worn to work that day, but he decided to make a point. As the players warmed up before the start of training, they were soon joined on the field by a shirtless Sigi in all his Buddha-bellied glory.

“Sigi was making the point that…well, I think the point that he was making got lost because nobody was focusing on the words that were coming out of his mouth,” Oughton recalled with a laugh. “It was a point well-made, even if we didn’t quite hear the words from the point. But the point he was making was that it doesn’t matter if something’s messed up or if things aren’t perfect, you just get on with it.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that that was one of the defining traits of the 2008 MLS Cup champions.

*****

Moving Danny O’Rourke to center back was a headline example, but Moreno also benefited immensely from Sigi’s ability to identify talent and to take unorthodox approaches to team construction. After all, Moreno self-identified as The Forward Who Doesn’t Score Goals.

“I’ve made it very clear that my success as player in MLS is due to Sigi Schmid,” Moreno said. “He drafted me out of college. He believed in me as a young player. He had me playing on a team that would win MLS Cup and had me starting in that game. Then he traded for me to come to Columbus, once again believing in me and my ability. So my opinion of Sigi is clearly biased. It comes from a place of love and appreciation and respect for what he was as a coach. He was a grinder. He was a hard worker and he wanted his teams to be hard-working as well. That’s where I sort of came in. He wanted players that would do what it takes to win, players who would sacrifice personal effort for a team goal, for the team to win. It just worked for both of us.”

The confidence instilled in players like Rogers and Lenhart on the 2008 team mirrored Moreno’s experience as a young player with the LA Galaxy.

“There weren’t many other coaches in MLS who essentially said to me, ‘You’re going to be my forward. You’re going to be my guy. And I know that you’re not the typical forward. But I know there are a lot of things that you do to help this team win. I believe in what you do and I trust that you are going to be able to do the things that I need you to do.’ It may sound simple, and it may sound like coach-speak…but it was more than that with Sigi.”

Sigi believed in his players and his teams. Before the 2008 season, at media day, Sigi outlined a series of things that needed to happen from a player-performance perspective for the Crew to be successful. (The aforementioned Robbie Rogers breakout campaign was among them.) At that time, his laundry list of necessary positive outcomes seemed like it could charitably be called “optimistic.” By the end of the year, they had all come true and the Crew had won the Supporters’ Shield & MLS Cup double.

“If you give a team confidence, it’s an amazing thing,” Lapper said. “A player with confidence is scary. It’s all about what you believe. If you believe you can do it, you can do anything. That was Sigi. He made you believe.”

And that belief filtered down the entire roster. That 2008 Crew team had a set lineup. There wasn’t a lot of squad rotation. But guys were ready when they got their chance. Pat Noonan scored a goal in Toronto. Jason Garey came off the bench to score twice in a seminal September blowout of New England that titled the Eastern Conference race. Steven Lenhart emerged from obscurity to become a clutch, late-game super-sub. If guys weren’t starting, they battled hard in training to make everyone a better player. It was a team in the truest sense.

In one of the more touching scenes after their MLS Cup triumph, Schmid said a few words about Duncan Oughton being a huge part of the heart and soul the team despite not playing much, then ensured he got his own personal champagne shower. Sigi also praised other squad players for all their hard work doing what they did to make the team successful. Making sure that all of those guys knew that they were very much a part of the team’s success and were deserving victors was a very Sigi thing to do.

“It sucks for some people because you don’t get to play, but you’re still an important part of the team,” Lapper said. “If you don’t practice hard, then maybe Alejandro Moreno doesn’t score that goal because he didn’t have to work hard and do certain things. It’s just a domino effect. It’s something Sigi was good at. He incorporated everybody and made them a part of the team’s success.”

*****

This story would be incomplete and veering toward hagiography without acknowledging that, at times, Sigi could be cantankerous and combustible and all those things that coaches can be. Many of the players I’ve talked to over the years have mentioned having some difficult moments with Sigi from time to time. The difference was that these were family squabbles that would mutually work themselves out. The underlying love and respect was never in question.

Moreno explains it thusly:

“In a profession and in an environment that lends itself to have a lot of undesirable personalities and a lot of unpleasant behavior and a lot of politicking and backstabbing and dishonest behavior…Sigi, above all, was a good man. He’s a good person and he cared for his players. Some players may have appreciated Sigi, and some not, and some players may not have gotten along with Sigi, but I think none of those players can say that Sigi didn’t care about them. It’s important to let people know and remember Sigi not only as the successful coach that he was, and the numbers say as much, but above all, he was a good man.”

*****

In sports, you often hear that a certain player is a (coach)-guy. He’s a player that is a perfect fit for what that coach does and he helps make that coach’s teams successful. He’s the embodiment of what that coach is about.

There were definitely Sigi Guys. Frankie Hejduk was a Sigi Guy at UCLA and then as captain for the Crew. Ezra Hendrickson and Alejandro Moreno were brought to Columbus specifically because they were well-established Sigi Guys from his Galaxy days. Brad Evans would go on to be a Sigi Guy in a long career spent playing for him in Columbus and Seattle. The list goes on. There were many Sigi Guys over the years. If you were a Sigi Guy, it was a badge of honor.

“I think the most important thing,” said Moreno, “and the thing that I’m most proud of, is that I was and I am and I will always continue to be a Sigi Guy. Being a Sigi Guy means you have done something special. It means you have broken through to a point where not only does he believe in you as a player, and not only does he trust you as a player, but he appreciates you as a person, as a human being, as a family man. Being a Sigi Guy, not everybody gets to do that.”

But for those who did, it means the world to them.

“At the end of the day, he loved you for who you were and he just wanted to get the best out of who you were,” said Sigi Guy Mike Lapper. “That’s all he was trying to do. I don’t think you could find a better guy. Loved Val. Loved his kids. Loved his players. Loved God. Loved his job. Everything he did, he did it with love and with passion.”

It was the secret to Sigi’s success.

Sigi MLS Cup

*****

Email: sirk65@yahoo.com
Twitter: @stevesirk
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