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Aug 6, 2013

Greatest Managers, No. 13: Hitzfeld

"So, you grew up as a Dortmund fan?" Ottmar Hitzfeld said to me by way of starting a conversation to while away the time.

Ottmar Hitzfeld celebrates his Champions League win with Bayern in 2001
Hitzfeld celebrates Bayern's 2000-01 Champions League triumph

"I never missed a game," I replied. "I always stood on the terraces with my scarf. Then we got a new coach nobody had ever heard of. That was in 1991."

Hitzfeld smiled but didn't say anything. We were standing in the backstage area of a television studio in Munich, waiting for our cue to come on the show and talk about that evening's Champions League action.

"He was signed from Switzerland, so everybody assumed he was Swiss," I continued. "In only his fifth Bundesliga game in charge, we lost 5-2 at Schalke ... 5-2! I was so incensed I swore to never again wear my scarf. And I haven't."

"I had no idea how important the derby is," Hitzfeld said, throwing his hands in the air. "I had lived in Switzerland for more than 20 years, I knew nothing about Dortmund. Nobody told me that this was the game you mustn't lose."

"Well," I replied, "I guess it's safe to say that you more than made up for it."

As nonchalant as I hoped to sound, trying my best not to appear starstruck, it was a great moment for me. Hitzfeld has achieved the rare distinction of being loved -- no, revered -- at two big clubs, and rival clubs at that. But I guess his stature is still a tad higher with Dortmund fans as compared to Bayern supporters.

 

After all, Bayern have had many men who brought them silverware, including the biggest trophy in club football, but everyone from Dortmund knows that the club wouldn't be where it is today without Ottmar Hitzfeld. Put differently, in that backstage room I met a real-life patron saint.

When Hitzfeld joined Dortmund in 1991, the club hadn't lifted the championship since 1963, since before the Bundesliga was formed, and hadn't had any success in Europe since 1966. When he left seven years later, Dortmund had won back-to-back Bundesliga titles plus the Champions League and belonged to the elite few teams that play in Europe year in, year out. How he did that is still a bit of a mystery.

He was not noted as a strategist or a tactical guru. What he brought to the job was, above all, unmatched man-management skill. That's exactly why Bayern signed him in 1998, because they needed someone who could deal with all those pampered superstars and drama queens. They hoped he could, and he did.

At Bayern, he became only the second man to win the European Cup or the Champions League with two different clubs. Until then, only Ernst Happel had done it, though now Jose Mourinho and Jupp Heynckes have joined the club. He also won the Bundesliga a couple of times, completing an unusual grand slam -- winning domestic trophies with four clubs in a row (he'd won the Swiss cup with Aarau and the Swiss league with Grasshoppers before the Dortmund job brought him back to his native Germany).

Now add to all this the fact that that he had taken tiny SC Zug from the Swiss second division to the top flight in his very first season as a coach, 1983-84, and you have that rarest of specimens, a coach who has success -- and is fondly remembered -- wherever he works.

Of course I had no way of knowing this in 1991, when I discarded my scarf in protest against this new coach called ... "I am Ottmar," Hitzfeld said and extended his hand. I shook it heartily and then we went to face the cameras.

ESPN FC’s Top 20 Greatest Managers was determined by a polling process of over 20 regular columnists, contributors and editors at ESPN FC.

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