“Unbreakable” is the name of the biography of Frank Schmidt, the coach of Bundesliga promoted team 1. FC Heidenheim. He chose the title because an opposing coach once used this word to describe the style of play and character of 1. FC Heidenheim, and because the attribute also fits Schmidt personally well.
The book was published at the end of June and looks back on the path that Schmidt and his club have overcome over the past 16 years. From the fifth-class Oberliga we went step by step up to the Bundesliga.
A great sporting achievement in which Schmidt – almost incidentally – set a new record in professional football. When he sits on the bench at Heidenheim’s home game against Werder Bremen on Sunday, he will be completing his 5,844th working day as FCH coach.
No other coach has ever worked so long without interruption at a professional club. The previous record holder was Volker Finke, who sat on the bench at SC Freiburg from 1991 to 2007 and, among other things, led the sports club into the Bundesliga and the European Cup for the first time.
An emergency solution becomes a permanent solution on the bank
Unlike Finke, Schmidt got his job in September 2007 more by chance and as a temporary stopgap. The Heidenheim team, where Schmidt had ended his playing career three months earlier, had fired the coach after six match days.
Schmidt was supposed to step in on an interim basis for two games. But both were won and two games became – as of now – 16 years in which FCH was promoted four times. “What I do is basically not real work, but a hobby,” says Schmidt, whose contract in Heidenheim runs until 2027.
Schmidt, who was active as a player at Alemannia Aachen in the 2nd league, among others, is a coach with heart and soul, even if the job takes a lot of energy. “I could have retired, led a quiet life, I was even close to doing so,” he writes in his biography.
“Instead, I am almost completely, from morning to evening, consumed by one thought: How can my team win the game at the weekend? (…) And that takes up almost all of my energy reserves.”
Continuity and trust
The fact that things have worked out so well between Schmidt and 1. FC Heidenheim for 16 years is certainly due to the fact that there has been continuity in the club’s management for a long time. The same person, Holger Sanwald, has been responsible as club boss at FCH since 1994.
It was also Sanwald who made Schmidt his coach in 2007. “Without Frank, our sporting advancement from amateur football to the Bundesliga would never have been possible,” Sanwald is quoted in the “Heidenheimer Zeitung” (HZ). “We would like to thank Frank all the more for this unique achievement.”
Schmidt has also put down roots in the region. He was born in Heidenheim 49 years ago and grew up in the neighboring town. He played for Heidenheim for the last four seasons of his playing career.
His wife Nadine sums up the secret of his success over the years: “He hasn’t changed since we met,” she told the HZ – and that’s a long time, after all, the two have been a couple for 35 years.
“He is authentic and never pretends. He is consistent. And to put it in a nutshell: tough but warm.”
Record not that important
However, this hardship almost became apparent a few years ago: After Schmidt tore a muscle in his thigh during training, he did not take enough care of himself and, initially unnoticed, suffered a deep vein thrombosis in the leg and, as a result, a life-threatening, bilateral pulmonary embolism, which brought him to the intensive care unit . After six days in the clinic and two more on the sofa at home, he was back on the training field – indestructible.
Now it’s time to take over the record from Volker Finke – and it’s basically not that important to the humble Schmidt. “Last year I had my 15-year-old and there was a great choreo. I don’t need that again this year,” he says.
And adds: “I live in the here and now. What is much more important is the path we took in Heidenheim and that we are now playing in the Bundesliga.”
The fact that Schmidt looks at the questioning journalists with a slightly cocked head when making statements like these has nothing to do with coquetry. Schmidt suffers from ossification of the cervical spine, which is responsible for the always slightly crooked head position. He doesn’t like to be asked about it himself – Schmidt prefers people not to be reduced to or judged by their appearance.
He also doesn’t like making too much fuss about himself. He sees himself as just part of the secret to success in Heidenheim, but not as the most important one – and by no means as irreplaceable.
When people joked after the promotion in May that they should actually put a statue of him in front of the stadium, Schmidt waved it off and said: “At some point people will pee there and I don’t want that.” The game on Sunday against Bremen is much more important. Then the next, and the next, and the next…