No one has volunteered to explain why a Residency Program at Auburn is the best way forward for USA Team Handball. One reason touted, though, is that our greatest success occurred with residency programs and ergo, that’s what we should do now. I agree with the first half of that statement, but not the second half. In this commentary I highlight the need for thoughtful retrospection on our past performances.
The classic Bruce Springsteen song, “Glory Days” tells the story of a couple of old friends running into each other a at bar and reminiscing about their “glory days” in high school. This song is apropos to the discussion you might have with me on a bar stool talking about my handball career. Here’s how I might sound after “I get my fill…”
John Ryan “Glory Days” Talk: Oh, yeah, the 93 World Championships were great. I will never forget how we went toe to toe with Sweden, in Sweden, no less. They weren’t expecting the Americans to do that. You should have heard their crowd gasp when Darrick Heath leaped in the air on a 9 meter throw and fired a bullet well over the Swedish wall for a goal. I’m not kidding, you could hear the collective gasp. Oh, and the home crowd was not happy about how close we were playing them. Even heard a few boos. Why if Robert Mayfield hadn’t gotten stopped by a lucky save on a fast break we would have been down just 2 goals at the half. Oh, and I probably played my best game. I shut down Staffan Olsson. You know the coach for Sweden. I don’t think he had any goals and the Swedish newspaper gave him a 1 Underkand (failing) out of 10 for his performance.
At which point, you might ask me what the final score was and at which point I’ll ask for another round…
And, here’s how some discussion regarding the 1984 Olympics, arguably the high water mark in terms of USA Team Handball performance might sound:
84 Olympics “Glory Days” Talk: The U.S. Men were great. Probably, the best team we ever had. Did you know they were competitive in every single game? They didn’t lose any match by more than 3 goals. In fact, the four matches they lost were by a total of only 9 goals. Against the Germans, the eventual silver medalists the U.S. lost by just 2 goals. And, I’ve heard the refs screwed em. As good as the Men were, the Women were even better. We finished in 4th place. So close to a medal. Leora “Sam” Jones was unstoppable. If only the U.S. team had had a bit more experience they would have surely medaled. Why, with the home crowd behind us it’s not too crazy to think that Gold was out of the question. If only we could give our national teams today a similar environment to train in. With some decent recruiting and hard work we could put together some similar quality sides.
But does the “glory days” talk on the bar stool pass muster in the cold light of day? Well, here’s a more analytical (some would say critical) assessment of those performances of yesteryear.
93 World Championships Analytical Assessment: Just another typical lackluster performance by Team USA. 6 games played, 6 games all lost by an average of 16 goals. The great game against Sweden? Well, we really did have a decent first half against Bengan’s Boys. But, that World Class side was just going through the motions on their “off day” against the weak team of the group. That U.S. team did have some top notch talent like Darrick Heath who parlayed his performance on the World stage into a professional contract. And, by golly I really did hear the crowd gasp on that jump shot, but that might have been because the Scandinavium was half empty since most of the locals stayed home for this meaningless pool play match. That second half was downright ugly as the Swedes woke up and ran us out of the building. They only beat us by 16 though, so that wasn’t so bad. I don’t even want to talk about the embarrassing 26 goal loss we had against a very mediocre Norway team in consolation play. Probably the ugliest handball performance I’ve ever been a party to.
1993 World Championship Results
Preliminary Group Play
USA vs Hungary 18-33 (8-16)
USA vs Sweden 16-32 (9-13)
USA vs Iceland 19-34 (7-14)
USA vs Austria 19-31 (12-14)
USA vs Norway 15-41 (6-22)
USA vs S. Korea 28-35 (16-18)
1984 Olympics Analytical Assessment. Overall, I think it’s pretty easy to assess that this was the best performance by the USA Men and Women at a World Championship or Olympic tournament. For the women there is no debate whatsoever: 1 goal from a bronze medal. No other women’s team has even come close to such an achievement. The men placed 9th as did the 96 Olympians, but no other team has played so many teams closely.
All this being said, it’s important to keep in mind that the 84 Olympics were also the Warsaw Pact boycotted Olympics. Every American sports team did well. There was no better time to be a McDonald’s fan: Why you couldn’t even go to a McDonald’s without walking out with a free Big Mac or Quarter Pounder w/Cheese for all the crazy medals the U.S. won in sports that we never did well in. While the U.S. didn’t medal in handball, at least part of their “success” can be attributed to a weaker field with the likes of the USSR, Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia not participating. And, while competitive the U.S. couldn’t quite knock of the European sides they played. The men finished 9th out of 12 teams, a 1-4-1 record with a draw against 11th place South Korea and a victory over 10th place Japan. In that bottom line context it sure doesn’t sound so great.
1984 Olympic Results (Men)
USA vs W. Germany 19-21 (8-12)
USA vs Sweden 18-21 (6-10)
USA vs Denmark 16-19 (7-8)
USA vs Spain 16-17 (9-10)
USA vs S. Korea 22-22 (12-12)
9th Place Match
USA vs Japan 24-16 (9-5)
The women finished 5th out of 6 teams. Yes, only 6 teams participated back in 1984 and a round robin format was used. The U.S. beat China and Austria, and lost to Yugoslavia, S. Korea and W. Germany. It has been often quoted that the women finished 4th, and this probably can be attributed to their last match which they narrowly lost to West Germany. A win would have resulted in a bronze medal, but alas we lost a close match and actually finished 5th. As with the Men, the Warsaw Pact boycott resulted in a significantly weaker field. And, as Women’s handball was somewhat in its infancy the overall technical level of play was lower, providing an opportunity to the generally athletically superior USA team.
Arguably, it was a near perfect set of circumstances: A weak field, a smaller gap in technical skills and a home court advantage. And, one that the U.S. came so close to capitalizing on. But, we didn’t and barring a crazy European wide boycott at a 2024 LA Olympic Games it’s a set of circumstances that will never be repeated.
1984 Olympic Results (Women)
USA vs China 25-22 (9-12)
USA vs Yugoslavia 20-33 (10-14)
USA vs Austria 25-21 (11-9)
USA vs S. Korea 27-29 (16-11)
USA vs W. Germany 17-18 (7-10)
Yugoslavia 5-0-0 10 pts
Korea 3-1-1 7 pts
China 2-2-1 5 pts
W Germany 2-3-0 4 pts
USA 2-3-0 4 pts
Austria 0-5-0 0 pts
Analytically, an Epic Pile of Losses
So, what’s the point of these comparisons? Well, one of the arguments often put forward is that U.S. National Teams had their best performances by teams that were the product of residency programs. Yup: That’s a true statement.
What’s left unsaid, quietly forgotten or not looked at closely enough, however, is that those “best performances” were to put it mildly, not very good. In fact, if you take a cold hearted analytical, composite look at historical U.S. performances you’ll quickly conclude that it’s essentially an epic pile of losses. Here are the composite results for the U.S. Men and Women in Olympic and World Championship competition.
Men’s Olympic record: 4-24-1
Men’s World Championship record: 0-16-0
Women’s Olympic record: 4-19-0
Women’s World Championship record 4-24-0
On the world stage Team USA has a combined 12-83-1 record or a .13 win percentage. Of those 12 wins only two are against European sides. The men beat Spain 22-20 in consolation play at the 1972 Olympics and the women beat Austria 25-21 at the 84 Olympics. And, suffice to say neither of those European sides are anywhere near the quality of a top tier European side today.
A Time and Place for Glory Days Reflection
Does this mean that all of the athletes that participated in a residency program, put in countless hours of training and made enormous sacrifices shouldn’t be proud of what they achieved? No, of course not. Success is not always measured with wins and losses. In many respects, if you take the handicaps those teams had in terms of experience and regular competition, the fact that competitive teams were fielded is somewhat remarkable. It’s no wonder that these athletes many years later look back with pride and that the bonds between teammates are still strong decades later. They are more than entitled to some glory days talk regardless of the results.
But, there’s a time and place for “Glory Days” reflection. And, one of those places it doesn’t belong is when it comes time to strategic planning for USA Team Handball. No, that’s when you got to get analytical, not nostalgic for achievements that simply don’t pass muster. In short, you’ve got to take that critical eye and ask yourself: Do we really want to try and recreate a residency program model if it never really worked very well in the first place?
Compounding the reality that the U.S. was never very successful under the residency program model is that the competition is also better today. The next part of this series will tackle how the increased professionalization of handball makes it even more challenging for a residency program model to succeed today.