An Act of Desperation or Decisive Action?

I was very surprised by the recent resignation to Christian Latulippe as the US Women’s Head Coach. Reading between the lines of both Christian and the USOC’s statement it seems that the USOC had decided that the time had come to make a coaching change. While both statements dance around the subject, it seems clear that this is a case of “you can’t demote me, I resign.”

Now certainly a case can be made that the team’s performance over the past few years justifies a change at the top. A brief summary of the less than spectacular results includes:
2004-05 Quebec League (5-15-1 record)
2005 Panam Championships, 6th place, out of 6 teams) (0-5 record)
2005-06 Quebec League (10-8 record)
2006 USA Cup, 2nd place, out of 3 teams) (1-5 record)
2007 Canada vs USA Qualification games (0-2 record, losing by 6 and 9 goals)
2006-07 Quebec League (8-8 record, so far)

In fact, strictly going by results, the only logical question would be, “What took you so long?”

As anyone who has followed the events of the past couple years knows, however, the women’s program has been run on a shoestring and might not even exist if not for the efforts of Coach Latulippe. Regardless, of Christian’s dedication, at [i][b]some point [/b][/i]I was expecting the USOC to evaluate his and the team’s performance and decide whether a change was needed.

But when should that “some point” have been? Maybe it should have been in 2005 after the disastrous showing at the Panam Championship. In fact, the much maligned (and deservedly so for some of his actions) former President of USATH, Mike Hurdle, took a lot of flak for tweaking Christian’s contract in light of that performance. In the end it was decided to keep the program intact and see how it progressed. And there have been some signs of progress, but it’s safe to say, that from a results standpoint it hasn’t been very satisfactory. Maybe, losing both games to Canada in January in less than competitive fashion could have been the decision point.

In the end the decision point was the first week in March, following some losses in the Quebec League and only 3 weeks from the PANAM Games 2nd chance qualification tournament. Maybe there were other factors involved, but you wouldn’t know that from the official statements.

So, by what logic do you fire a coach 3 weeks from a key tourney, especially if you’ve kept him around for 4 years? Well, depending on your perspective, it’s either an act of desperation or a decisive action. Here’s the case for either:

[b]An Act of Desperation[/b]: My goodness this National team probably won’t even make the playoffs in the Quebec league. You can’t just stand by and do nothing. So to show that you’re engaged, you fire the coach. Never mind the fact that you’ve kept him around for 4 years and that such a move so close to a major tournament is bound to be disruptive to the team. Throw a Hail Mary and hope for the best.

[b]A Decisive Action[/b]: Well, the easy thing would be to just stand by, do nothing and hope for the best. No, a shakeup at this critical juncture is just what is needed to light a fire under an underperforming Women’s team and give them some added “sense of urgency” prior to the Mexico tournament.

What do I think? Well, I can’t really know the full story as to what’s going on, but I lean toward this being an act of desperation. If you’re going to make a coaching change, January 2007 would have been the time to do it. Since the decision wasn't taken then, it would have been better to wait until after the next major tournament, not right before it. Changing coaches in mid stream might work well for an experienced, professional sports team, but it is more likely to create turmoil on an amateur team, no matter how smooth the transition.

The good news is that, regardless of who’s coaching the USA team, they should still be able to beat Mexico and Chile. Neither of those programs have a strong handball tradition and they certainly don’t have a full time training program like the US. Here’s hoping that the USOC’s move does in fact “bring an energized focus to the goal of successful qualification for the 2007 PAG.”