Mike Schmidt had just accomplished something he believed would be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling moments of his professional life.
He and his team won their first conference championship in 37 years, and that achievement was what fueled the group’s fire for the months and years leading up to that moment. Schmidt, then an assistant at University of Dubuque, went back to the coaches’ offices and thanked his head coach for the chance to be part of the experience. The answer Schmidt got was, in essence, “Yep. Now we keep going.”
The victory, the moment he’d worked so hard for, was quickly brushed aside for the next game.
That didn’t sit right with Schmidt. He’d barely driven off of campus grounds before pulling over and beginning to cry. This was supposed to be more, he thought. Schmidt — now the head coach at UW-La Crosse — changed that night. His focus shifted from being a coach who won to a coach who won a certain way. His way.
We’ll get back to that way in a minute, but the results of his mindset were seen on the field. UW-L had its best season in a decade, going 8-2, and was in the hunt for an NCAA Division III playoff berth.
For returning the Eagles program to success, returning a buzz to the stands of Roger Harring Stadium, and connecting with his players and the community, Schmidt has been named the Tribune Sportsperson of the Year.
A UW-L alum and former football and baseball player, Schmidt dreamed of one day leading the Eagles football program. He says everything he did professionally before this — coaching at D-II Minnesota State, Mankato, Dubuque, and UW-Platteville — was to get to this spot. He has a deep affection for La Crosse, campus and community alike.
“It’s been really cool to come back and be a part of this community. That, to me, has been the most fun part,” Schmidt said. “I tell our recruits all the time that this is my dream job … I have to preface it by saying selfishly this is my dream job because I love this city and I love living here.”
But Schmidt’s career in an Eagles uniform wasn’t what he wanted it to be.
It was the mid-2000s, and La Crosse was starting to slip from its perch atop the WIAC and near the top of D-III football as a whole. Whitewater made its charge, and supplanted the Eagles in that spot, starting a run of playoff berths and national championships that is still going.
The disappointment Schmidt feels about his playing days created a sense of accountability in his current role.
“This was my shot, maybe, at redemption,” Schmidt said. “Because when I was a player here, it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go at the end. We were passed by Whitewater at the end. And now I get a shot to make up for that.”
But he couldn’t do that by just focusing on wins and losses — that mentality ended with him “uncontrollably weeping” on the side of the road in Dubuque, Iowa. There had to be more.
That extra part that was perhaps missing in his previous stops became the trait that defines he and the program most right now: A strong connection with his players.
“He’s really connected with them at a place that’s allowed them to play their best and have a lot of fun,” said Larry Terry, a former UW-L coach who led the program when Schmidt played. “Relationships with your players are the most important thing, and he’s doing a great job of that.”
The best example of this came midway through the Eagles breakout season. Senior safety and two-year team captain Ryan Weber appeared to have suffered a season-ending ankle injury. The blow to the team was more than losing one of its top defenders — Weber had grown into arguably the group’s best leader. His presence and guidance on the field mattered greatly.
Schmidt was with Weber when he was told he’d be done for the remainder of his final season. The two broke down together on the field, and Schmidt texted with Weber through the evening to express how Weber would maintain his major role with the team.
“That’s the type of guy he is, he’s not going to put up a front for anything,” said Weber, whose injury turned out to be less severe than first thought and returned to the field. “I’ve only known him for a year and a half, but I feel a lot closer to that to him because he’s just so genuine and everything else.”
The idea of being a grizzled disciplinarian or an unapproachable stoic — the Hollywood motif of a football coach — doesn’t fit Schmidt’s personality. He’s not afraid to open up to his players more than most coaches.
“I don’t know if that makes me different than other coaches, but I don’t know if I’ve seen a coach that’s as open and emotional and honest with them as maybe I am,” he said. “I think that comes with who I am: I am a pretty emotional guy, and I don’t ever want to leave things unsaid to our players.”
Honesty is a tenant of Schmidt’s coaching. It’s what people want in any leader, and Schmidt takes it to heart. Whether it’s an evaluation of a player’s performance or a coach’s preparation for a game or a meeting, Schmidt says what he means.
He says that’s important because with the small size of the coaching staff, open and frank communication keeps things on an even keel.
“One of his best qualities, working for him, is he keeps you on your toes,” said Matt Janus, UW-L’s defensive coordinator who also worked with Schmidt at Platteville. “He wants to get the best out of you, and he conducts everything with excitement.”
The different style could have its drawbacks, though.
In a postseason player evaluation — a 30-minute meeting between Schmidt and each of the Eagles players where player and coach critique of the other — a player said of Schmidt, “You don’t act like a head coach all the time, and I’m not sure if I always like it.”
He sat on that comment for a couple of days, batting it around in his mind. He came to this conclusion:
“No, that’s who I am. I don’t want to change that. One thing I said before I got a head coaching job was, ‘If I’m going to go down, I’m going to go down doing it my way and being me,’” he said.
Schmidt knows the Eagles still have a way to go to be back in the national championship picture like they once were. The hurdles in their way — most notably Whitewater and Oshkosh — aren’t getting any easier to clear.
But he believes the culture to earn those victories — doing it their way — and re-enter the top tier of D-III is in place. He says it will come down to stockpiling talent, both players and coaches.
He said: “The trajectory of this team is going to go really high really soon.”