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.
Sigi Schmid was a coach who understood fan culture. After all, at heart, he was still a fan too.
In Columbus, he supported the fans in many different ways. He encouraged the formation of a unified supporters’ section in the Nordecke. The supporters’ “bar scarf” (alternating black and yellow bars) was ever-present around his neck at home games, letting the fans know he was with them. Heck, he even switched back to the Crew’s customary iconic banana kits when he polled fans at a Supporters’ Summit on whether they liked his mixing and matching of jerseys and shorts or if they preferred the traditional Crew look. When he got outvoted unanimously, he just shrugged and said “Okay.” As a man who listened to the fans and as a man of his word, the Crew went back to the banana kits for the Massive Season of 2008.
One of the coolest fan interactions during Sigi’s time in Columbus was the 2008 tradition of having beers with the supporters on the Thursday night before a Saturday home game. This was not a slick and coordinated PR opportunity promoted by the club. It was just something Sigi did on his own personal time. He and team operations man Tucker Walther, sometimes joined by front office staff or other team staff members, would go to Ruby Tuesday (the campus bar, not the chain restaurant) and Sigi would drink beer and talk soccer with anyone that wanted to do so with the future U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer. If you wanted to hear random Sigi stories from the master storyteller himself, the Thursday nights before home games offered you a golden opportunity. If you wanted to quiz him on the current squad or his tactics, that was fine too.
In The Cup, J.D. Smith’s excellent podcast series about the 2008 season, Crew fan Grant Thurmond spoke of those Thursday nights, saying, “Sigi was a great guy….we would just sit and talk soccer. He was a really easy person to get along with and an easy guy to pick your brain. I don’t know many coaches, two days before a game, who want to sit and freakin’ have 30 fans analyze your tactics. It was something he didn’t shy away from talking about. He was a good dude altogether.”
Former Crew President and GM Mark McCullers wasn’t surprised that Sigi went out of his way to cultivate that special relationship with the fans, especially as the Nordecke was coming together.
“It’s a great example of how he knows the lifeblood of the organization,” McCullers said recently by telephone. “He’s also a soccer guy, so he appreciated the supporter culture and what they bring. He wanted to make sure that he was offering those relationships as well. He enjoyed it. He enjoyed people. He enjoyed interacting with people and he was a great ambassador for the club.”
As awesome as those Thursday hangouts were, there was more than just Sigi’s desire to connect with fans. There was also some superstition involved. On March 27, 2008, in a planned event, Sigi went to Ruby’s to meet with the supporters as part of the lead-in to the season. Two days later, the newly-created Nordecke drowned out 2,000 visiting Toronto fans and the Crew beat TFC 2-0 behind a heroic performance from Adam Moffat, who scored on a Moffat Rocket and also made a dazzling clearance after a penalty kick save by William Hesmer.
“Another home game comes along,” said team ops guy Tucker Walther, “and it’s another trip to see Scotty Fotheringham (GM of Ruby Tuesday) and then it’s another win against Chivas USA on Saturday. Then for the third game. And the fourth. So going there became our thing. We had that home-field mentality and support. So two nights before every home game, even midweek games, friendlies, U.S. Open Cup, playoffs, we were there. It was great mojo.”
The appearances weren’t exclusive. Team staff had an open invitation to attend and fans were free to interact with the head coach. It was more of a this-is-where-Sigi-will-be-on-his-own-time-if-you-want-to-hang-out-with-him vibe.
“Sigi wanted everyone to go if they wanted,” Walther said. “He loved talking with everyone. If you know Sigi, the conversation would always turn into some story related to soccer.”
When Sigi left Columbus for Seattle following the 2008 MLS Cup championship, the Ruby’s tradition did not end. When the Sounders would come to Central Ohio to play the Crew, Sigi would call up Walther for another trip to Ruby’s two nights before the game.
“Even though he was now officially the opponent, he made the point of going back,” Walther said. “A superstition for sure, but he also wanted to respect tradition and show that he loved his time in Columbus.”
That very first visit back was the night that Tyrone Marshall “broke the floor” (in the words of Guillermo Barros Schelotto) by digging up the penalty spot in advance of a missed Schelotto PK late in the game that preserved a 1-0 Sounders victory. If Sigi thought going back to Ruby’s was a good superstition, the bizarre events of that match surely bolstered the feeling.
A MASSIVE SEASON is now available as an ebook.