Frank Schmidt never really wanted to be a head coach. Just months after his modest playing career ended, Heidenheim's club boss Holger Sanwald gave the job to Schmidt on an interim basis.
"Back then Holger said, right, just do this for a couple of games," Schmidt told German broadcaster SWR.
Thirteen years later, it's safe to say Schmidt's decision was a good one. Perhaps the man who was born just meters from Heidenheim's stadium and went on to play for the club was always destined to be their head coach. Few could have expected Schmidt would go on to be the longest serving head coach in Germany.
Schmidt took the side from the regional fifth division all the way up to the second division, beating a certain RB Leipzig to the third division title in 2014. After years of consolidation in the second tier and a total of of 467 games in charge, Schmidt has led Heidenheim to within touching distance of the Bundesliga — after finishing third in the second division, they host Werder Bremen in the second leg of the relgation playoff on Monday, with the tie evenly poised after a goalless first leg.
A personal coach
Although his own person, Schmidt shares the social competence that Jürgen Klopp is a master of. He has recognized that so long as the effort is right he knows that for many on-lookers in Heidenheim it doesn't matter how the team plays.
Schmidt has kept expectations on the ground, all the while lifting the club to heights they could only have dreamed of. Anchored by his strong relationship with club captain Marc Schnatterer, who has played almost the same number of games for the club as Schmidt has managed, Schmidt has created a team united by a strong mentality and constantly driven by the momentum of their authentic head coach.
Augsburg forward Florian Niederlechner played two and a half seasons under Schmidt before making the move to the Bundesliga and still speaks highly of his former head coach. "He had an honest manner. He made me a better player," Niederlechner told t-online.de. "He knows how to talk to his players and is an incredible person."
In 2011, Schmidt got his "Fussball-Lehrer," Germany's highest football coaching qualification, in a class that included Cologne coach Markus Gisdol, former Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt and friend Sven Mislintat. Two years later, Schmidt was one of three leading protagonists in a documentary about being a head coach in Germany.
Despite his competence and experience being plain for all to see, Schmidt and Heidenheim have never looked like being anything other than together. Such a part of the community and the club is Schmidt that Heidenheim without Frank Schmidt as head coach is as inconceivable as Freiburg without Christian Streich.
Bundesliga but not bust
When asked whether all the pressure was surely on Werder Bremen going into the promotion playoff, Schmidt replied with a wry smile. "Pressure is something the milkman has."
This response, while half in jest, is also a reminder that Schmidt recognizes football's privileged position in society. It also speaks to Heidenheim, the small club that people might only remember from losing a nine-goal thriller to Bayern Munich in the German Cup last year, and to Schmidt. There's no doubt Heidenheim want to beat Bremen and be in the Bundesliga, but there is very much a feeling that it's fine if they don't. The fact they're even in this position is special enough.
At 46, Schmidt is still relatively young in the coaching world, and in three years his contract with Heidenheim will be up. Club boss Holger Sanwald told SWR that Schmidt can have a lifetime contract. Given the strength of the bond between the club and the coach, it seems hard to imagine Schmidt gesticulating on anyone else's sideline.
Nevertheless, Schmidt's work with Heidenheim has issued a timely reminder that while always necessary, in the right context with the right people the personal skills of management can make the difference. For that reason alone, Schmidt may well end up in a Bundesliga dugout one day. It would be fitting if could be with Heidenheim.