Why Steve Kerr Loves a Coach in Liverpool

NBA coaches quote him and SEC football coaches study him. It seems that everyone in sports has a manager crush on Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp.

Klopp has been a forcefully endearing figure since long before he landed in Liverpool. As a player at Mainz in the second tier of German soccer, he described himself as having fourth-division skills but a first-division brain. Those skills still made him one of the club’s all-time leading scorers, even as a defender, since he would routinely shift into attack when Mainz badly needed a goal, which was often.

“I was watching, but not specifically him,” said Andi Herzog, a former Austrian star now managing the Israeli national team. “Nobody knew that he would be the best coach in the world.”

Klopp was so popular at Mainz that the club made him its manager immediately after he quit playing in 2001. Over the next 14 years, first at Mainz and then at Borussia Dortmund, he refined his coaching style. Klopp called it “heavy-metal football.”

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His personal style is more dad rock. While the top European managers wear tailored designer suits, Klopp dresses like he’s taking his kids to kindergarten in Brooklyn. His take on sideline couture includes tracksuits, baseball caps and running shoes, all topped off with a thick beard and hipster glasses.

“Everybody’s gotta have their statement thing,” said Florida football coach Dan Mullen, a Liverpool die-hard and Klopp admirer. “I wear my visor. He’s got his little beard-glasses look.”

But the way Klopp handles himself—not how he looks—is the reason he’s adored. Mullen gushes about how he adapts his system to his players. Claude Le Roy, the French manager of Togo’s national soccer team, envies his ability to sidestep the shenanigans of many other coaches in the game. “He’s a natural leader,” said Le Roy, who has never met him. “He proves that you don’t have to insult people, that you don’t have to cheat, that you don’t have to constantly repeat, ‘I’m the boss.’”

Gregg Berhalter, the head coach of the U.S. men’s national team, played in the German second division when Klopp was starting out, but he could already tell that the intense, sometimes maniacal young coach on the sideline had a special quality. “He gives a sense of being a real person,” Berhalter said. “People relate to that.”

Klopp is the latest in a series of highly successful coaches over the last decade—Pete Carroll, Joe Maddon, Kerr himself—who have reimagined their position of authority for the 21st century. They are highly respected but not tyrannical. They have a metronomic pulse of their locker rooms. They’re not necessarily strategic geniuses, but they have an unmatched ability to unlock talent, and they maintain their own power by empowering their players.

“You can sometimes feel a coach’s influence,” Kerr said. “When a team takes on the personality of a coach, you feel this connectedness and this collective will, and then magic happens.”

Klopp’s players feel it more than most. As they come off the field, their 6-foot-3 boss doesn’t bother with a formal handshake. He wraps them in bear hugs.

A touchy, feely cheerleader is not what you would expect from a manager in the most cutthroat league on earth—let alone a German one. But even Germany can’t get enough of Klopp’s schtick. At a time when the nation’s economy is screeching to a halt, he is seen as a model of modern management: Klopp recently posed for a national magazine called Manager under the headline “Der Feelgood-Boss.”

Alexander Stöckl, Der Feelgood-Boss of Norway’s powerhouse ski-jumping team that dominated the last Olympics, is not a soccer fan so much as he’s a Klopp fan. “He has an aura that fascinates many,” Stöckl said. “It seems to me has a fantastic philosophy of coaching.”

That philosophy demands total commitment from his players. While soccer’s attacking ideal in the late 2000s became the intricate passing play of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Klopp was developing a violently athletic approach based on fast breaks and high pressure. The battle between the two styles is now playing out in the Premier League, where Klopp’s Liverpool and Guardiola’s Manchester City are battling for the title for a second straight year—they’ll meet for the first time this season at Anfield on Sunday.

Everyone in sports has a manager crush on Jürgen Klopp. PHOTO: DARREN STAPLES/ZUMA PRESS

And there will be at least one coach of a championship team watching from eight time zones away. Kerr, whose sister lives in England and whose nephews are Arsenal supporters, had always enjoyed English soccer even if he didn’t know much about it. But he knew enough to know that he needed to adopt a team for himself. He’d been captivated by Egyptian star Mo Salah in the World Cup. Salah played for Liverpool. Kerr was suddenly a Liverpool fan.

“I randomly (or not-so-randomly) picked them because of one player,” Kerr said. “But it was, like, oh my god, there’s all this other stuff that’s so awesome to follow.”

He quickly learned about the show tune fans sing before kickoff whose refrain has become Liverpool’s mantra. ”YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE!!!!!!!!!!!” Kerr tweeted after the victory over Barcelona. And he immediately gravitated toward the one aspect of the sport that he did know something about.

“I started to notice Jürgen Klopp,” Kerr said. “You could just see what a bright guy he was, his emotional intelligence and his love for his players without sacrificing that competitive fire—in fact actually fueling it.”

Kerr is still waiting to meet Klopp. Which makes him like pretty much every member of Klopp’s fan club. But until they can meet him, they have to settle for pretending to be him.

Liverpool’s wild 4-0 win to erase a 3-0 deficit in their Champions League semifinal against Barça happened on May 7. The Warriors, without Kevin Durant, came from behind to beat the Rockets on May 8—one of the most satisfying wins in Kerr’s coaching career.

Kerr decided this was the perfect time to channel his inner Klopp. Klopp had given himself permission to swear after determining that children were probably asleep by then. Kerr made sure he apologized to his mother before calling his players bleeping giants.

Three weeks later, Kerr was coaching in the NBA Finals once again, and Klopp was dealing with some business of his own: Liverpool was busy winning the Champions League.

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