A Return to Obscurity : UCLA’s Schmid Goes Back to College Coaching After His Moment in World Cup Sun
How easy it would have been, how predictable and how wrongheaded for him to allow himself to believe what so many others hoped would come true. That the American sporting public, exposed to world-class soccer for the first time during this summer’s World Cup, would at last embrace the planet’s most popular sport.
Sigi Schmid is far too careful to have invested in that. Even with his first-hand observation of the recent soccer boomlet, as an assistant coach for the U.S. World Cup team, Schmid knew that his beloved game would soon be accorded the same lowly status it has mostly enjoyed in North America.
Thus, Schmid knew that after experiencing the what-can-we-do-for-you? attitude toward the U.S. World Cup team when he returned to his job as head coach of the UCLA men’s team, it would be back to: What do you want? Business as usual.
“Coming back was a little bit like coming back from vacation,” Schmid said. “You had a great time. All of a sudden you come back and it’s like, wow, real life sets back in.
“I think there is a greater awareness of soccer than there was, but I didn’t expect that I’d get back to UCLA and I’d get into line ahead of (Jim) Harrick or (Terry) Donahue to see (Athletic Director Pete) Dalis. I know I’m in line behind them, and maybe a couple of others. I have to be realistic that way.”
Trained as a certified public accountant, Schmid is a realist. Entering his 15th year as coach at UCLA, he has compiled a 231-45-32 record, winning 80% of his games and two NCAA titles. With the certainty gained from coaching a minor collegiate sport, Schmid knows that in his best season, his team will gain less attention than the football team during its worst.
Still, it was exciting, if only for a month, to live in a world in which your team and your sport were major and the rest minor. Like a parallel universe where, instead of being a futbol coach, he had the status of a football coach.
“During the World Cup, you walk into a hotel and you’re the thing,” Schmid said. “You have dinner with a sponsor or whoever, and you are the person they want to talk to. Now, you realize that’s not the case anymore. When we go on our first road trip and show up at the hotel, people aren’t really going to care who we are. I’ve still got to check the bags on the plane.”
UCLA began its practices last week and the glamour of the World Cup quickly faded as Schmid settled into the anonymity and grind of another season. Forgotten was the drudgery of paperwork mandated by the NCAA and the lack of individual attention from university employees who are also swamped with work.
“I’ll tell you what does get boring, coming back into UCLA and dealing with a letter from the NCAA that says the stripes on the adidas uniform are not legal to the NCAA standard. Is this really an important issue?” Schmid said.
“At a public school there is more red tape and more road blocks. The World Cup was a unique experience because you almost didn’t have to ask about things. If you thought about it, you ended up getting it. That’s not going to happen.”
If Schmid, 41, admits to being slightly spoiled as a World Cup coach, he’s smart enough to have put some World Cup lessons to use at UCLA.
Working under the impetuous Bora Milutinovic was always challenging for someone as highly organized as Schmid. But Milutinovic’s skill at motivation and his intuitive handling of the team off the field were important lessons.
“I think I will also be more comfortable altering the lineup than before,” Schmid said. “Bora was always changing the lineup. It takes you outside your comfort zone, and that’s good.”
Schmid is now back to full-time college coaching after splitting his time for two years. Schmid took his first trip with the national team in the fall of 1992, a swing through Germany that caused him to miss the first six days of UCLA’s practice.
Asked if that was a problem for the team or school administration, Schmid shook his head.
“We’ve always had a philosophy here that we let our players go to the national team and try and release them if we can possibly do it,” he said. “I told my players: ‘If you guys had the opportunity to go with the World Cup team right now, you’d go.’ They didn’t want to deny me the opportunity.”
Schmid, who was born in the former West Germany, impressed Milutinovic on the trip with his fluency in the language and his comprehensive knowledge of European soccer.
In January of 1993, Schmid spent a month with the national team as the training center in Mission Viejo opened. Two weeks into that, Bill Nuttall, then the team’s general manager, told Schmid that Milutinovic wanted him as an assistant. Schmid then embarked on a grueling split shift--two days a week at Mission Viejo and three days a week at UCLA. After the college season, Schmid joined the World Cup team full time.
Did he reach the point of diminishing returns with both jobs? Did the UCLA program suffer, even in the off-season, with Schmid not around to make recruiting calls?
“In terms of recruiting, parents are more comfortable sending their son or daughter to the the school with the coach they talked to most and who has the most interest and concern,” Schmid said. “In order to do that you have to have the time available to be seen and be on the phone.
“Over the last six or seven months it’s definitely hurt a little bit. (The national team) is something that I’ll continue to be involved with, a trip here or there where it’s feasible. It’s probably in the best interest of the national team and UCLA for me to make a choice.
“I’d like to be as active as I can in both but I have to pay respect to where my paycheck comes from. I’ve got to feed my kids. But I’ve always been the sort of person who, in order to do the best job I can do, I need to be motivated. In order to be motivated I have to be challenged.”
The argument can also be made that Schmid brings more attention to UCLA as an assistant on a national team than as head coach of the college program. With UCLA’s record of representation on Olympic and World Cup teams--six players on the 1992 Olympic team, four on the 1990 World Cup team and five on the 1994 team--the school must benefit.
Since national teams are the ultimate goals for soccer players in the United States, players tend to want to go to schools that seem to be able to place them there.
Even if Schmid was not as active in recruiting as he had wished, it wasn’t as necessary this season, with about 75% of his players back from last year’s 18-3 team. Those players flock to UCLA because of its tradition and its coach.
“We train with intensity,” Schmid said. “We try and teach our players to raise the level of their training so they can raise the level of their play. We do not accept mediocrity.”
After seeing what he has seen, after living in a world where soccer is everything, Schmid will have even a lower tolerance than ever for anything less than the best. Even if it is a dream.