Legendary German Coach Siegfried “Sigi” Gehrke Steps Down After 26 Years

This is definitely the end of an era.

Siegfried “Sigi” Gehrke, head coach of the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns, has called it quits after three decades.

When he took the reins of his beloved Unicorns as head coach in 1990, little did he know he was on a 26 year journey. A journey that would take him and his tiny division 4 club from the basement of football in Germany, to the pinnacle of  the game in Europe.

After 26 years at the helm of the Unicorns plus six previous years playing, Gehrke has stepped away from the sideline, handing that responsibility over to Jordan Neumann, his offensive coordinator. Keep in mind that this is the duo who helped develop receiver Moritz Boehringer, now with the Minnesota Vikings.

This was not a sudden decision according the “Sigi”:

“The time strain and the stress as head coach have increased in the last few years, and I have sometimes reached my limits. But I know that I am leaving the team in the best of hands. Ever since Jordan arrived three years ago, I knew he was ideal for this job.”

Gehrke is not leaving football however. He is taking on the role of head of football operations for the Unicorns.

There may never be another like him.

He has guided his team from the tiny town of Schwäbisch Hall, with a population of 30,000, to the elite ranks of football not only in Germany but also in Europe.

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Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns capture 2011 German title

The Unicorns have appeared in the last three German Bowl finals and five of the last six winning it twice in 2011 and 2012. Schwäbisch Hall appeared in the Eurobowl final once. His record since moving the team up to the GFL in 2001 is 150 wins, 56 losses and seven draws. The team has won seven German South conference titles, reached the semifinals seven times, and the finals five times. Over the past decade Gehrke’s record as a head coach rivals that of anyone in Europe. And he is definitely the longest serving.

And he did all of this as a part-time volunteer. On a budget far below that of many teams in Germany and Europe. While teaching high school full time.

As a co-founder of the Unicorns back in 1983 when he was 18, “Sigi” ended up playing quarterback simply because he had a better understanding of the game than his teammates. He eventually moved to tight end and center, which became his natural position. He played until 1990 and took over as head coach in 1991 but during his first five years coaching he still would have to step in and play as well.

The club went through some definite highs and lows being relegated to the lowest ranks of football in Germany. According to Gehrke, things got so bad the club was close to folding in 1993/94.

But the team improved steadily and by 2001, Schwäbisch Hall had been promoted to the German Football League’s top division, the GFL.

“I would say the high points would have to be the back to back German titles in 2011 and 2012. The low points were those years in 1993 and 94 when we were close to folding everything.”

When asked about his decision to step down Gehrke said that the decision was not sudden and with Jordan Neumann here that had always been the plan.

“There is no question I have mixed emotions. This has been a key part of my life for so long. But with Jordan here, I feel comfortable that I am leaving the team in good hands.”

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The impact that Siegfried Gehrke has had has been remarkable and he is admired by coaches and colleagues throughout Europe. One of his cheif rivals for many years, Shuan Fatah, now head coach of the Swarco Raiders and the Austrian national team, has had to face Sigi’s teams many times over the years:

“Sigi was a coach whom I admired for his sportsmanship and fair play. His teams where always fierce competitiors on the field, and well coached, and you always had to be ready for the unexpected. Sigi was a very innovative coach who favored the heavy passing and option game long before all the others joined in. What sticks out most with him is the fact that he always had something respectful and positive to say about his opponent whether he delivered a blow out win or received a crushing loss. I admired him for this and I strongly believe that this separates him from a lot of good coaches in this business. He was one of the best I know and I have known a lot of good coaches from all around the world.”

The top rivalry in the German Football League over the past few years has been between the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns and the Braunschweig New Yorker Lions. They have faced each other four times in championship finals in the past four years. Although the Lions have prevailed, they have watched Schwäbisch Hall creep closer and closer.

Dave Likins, defensive coordinator for the Lions:

“I think he deserves more respect for what he has done than anybody in American Football in Europe. He did what he did for love of the game and coached at an extremely professional level while taking hardly any money for it. They made moves that made their team better every year.”

Whether the 51 year old Gehrke can stay away from the sidelines for too long is a debatable point. The transition is made easier by the fact that the chairman of the Unicorns happens to be his brother, Jürgen Gehrke.

Still, he is comfortable that with Jordan Neumann at the helm at Johnny Brenner as defensive coordinator, the club is in good hands and he himself can finally take stock of his football life without facing the daily tasks of a head coach.

Roger Kelly
Roger Kelly is an editor and a writer for AFI. A former PR Director the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League for 7 years, he now lives in Sweden writing about and scouting American Football throughout the world.
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