Air Force Basketball (Two Lessons for USA Team Handball): Lesson 1) Any Program Can Rise from the Ashes

After 24 straight years of no winning seasons the 2003-04 Air Force Basketball team came out of nowhere to post a 22-7 record, a conference championship and an NCAA tourney bid. Could something similar happen for USA Team Handball?

Anyone who has followed the sport of Team Handball in the United States knows that the national teams have had their ups and downs.  Without a doubt it’s been more “downs” then “ups” and it’s safe to say we’re currently in a down phase.  We struggled to even win one match at the PANAM Games and have fallen behind nations like Mexico and Uruguay.  Maybe the bitter reality is that it’s just too hard for the USA to field respectable teams, let alone winning
teams that can compete for medals at an Olympics.  Maybe, but maybe not…

Perhaps just as moribund or disappointing for many years had been the Air Force Academy Men’s Basketball Program.  There are a lot of challenges to fielding a top college basketball team at a military service academy.  These challenges include height restrictions, academic requirements, and a military regimen which severely limits the players that can be recruited.  With the exception of the David Robinson years at Annapolis, no service academy team had ever had great success and Air Force’s high water mark for a long time was the mid 1970’s when several teams posted modest winning records.  Two major reasons for those successful seasons were Tom Schneeberger and Bob Djokovich, who later went on to be Olympians in Team Handball at the 1984 Olympics.

Following Schneeberger and Djokovich’s graduation in 1978, Air Force had 24 straight losing seasons and about the only positive thing that that could be said about the program was that the players tried hard and never gave up, no matter how far they were behind.  Many games played at the Academy resembled church halls in which you could literally count the fans in the stands.  Experts and longtime followers of college basketball all agreed: It was just too hard to win at Air Force.

Then in the year 2000, Air Force hired Joe Scott, a former Princeton player and coach who outrageously thought differently about the whole, you just can’t win at Air Force mentality.  Things at first didn’t seem to be much different.  The team’s record the first 3 years were 8-21, 9-19, and 12-16.  They showed steady progress and I noticed that they weren’t getting blown out quite as often against better teams.   Still, I had my doubts that they could ever get over the hump for a winning season.  Sure they might have been able to win some games against weak non-conference foes, but they still couldn’t beat the top schools (BYU, New Mexico, UNLV) in the Mountain West Conference (MWC).

Then in 2003-2004 a funny thing happened.  Somehow Air Force started winning those games against the teams that had always beaten them.  Somehow, someway, the laughingstock of the MWC won the Conference with a 12-2 record.  My goodness, they even made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over 40 years!  The tomb that had been Clune Fieldhouse had overnight become one of the toughest and loudest places to play in the country.  There was some nice commentary at the time about what a great turnaround this was, but to those few who actually followed Air Force basketball closely through the years those kind words never even came close to conveying the miracle that had just occurred, seemingly out of nowhere.

How on earth had this happened?  My analysis (from my own observation and others) is that there were four major factors in this incredible reversal of fortune:

1) Better recruiting. Whether it was luck or persistent effort by the coaching staff, Air Force was able to find 5-7 talented players who could play at a high level.  These players were by no means NBA quality players, but they were good players that could compete athletically against their competition.  Through the years, Air Force had always had 1 or 2 players with that talent level.  Heck, I’d argue that a couple of those players were individually even better than the talent that Joe Scott assembled.  But, those players had no supporting cast and opponents keyed on them.  Being able to put 5 good players on the court all at one time made all the difference.

2) A system that stymied opponents.  And that system was the so called Princeton offense which slowed down the game and relied on passing and 3 point shooting.  Air Force executed this offense to perfection and teams weren’t used to playing it.  That season Air Force was able to sneak up on opponents who weren’t sure how to defend it.

3) Opponents that were in “down” years.  The MWC would never be mistaken for the ACC, but on the whole it’s usually a pretty good basketball conference.  It was fortunate timing that the golden era of AF basketball coincided with just about every other side in the conference going through a down phase.

4) Players that simply believed in themselves and the system.  Sometimes teams lose just because of the names on their jerseys.  Losing begets losing and sometimes everybody (coaches, fans, officials, opposing teams) starts expecting a particular team will lose.  Changing such a culture or vibe is often easier said than done.  When such a change occurs, though, it’s usually because a committed group truly starts to believe in themselves and what they can do.

So, what are the lessons here that can be applied to USA Team Handball.  Let’s go with the 4 reasons behind Air Force’s turnaround and see if they can be applied to Team Handball.

1) Better Recruiting:  Nothing against the hard working men and women who are currently playing on our National Teams, but most of our current athletes are a step down in raw athletic talent when compared to their current competition.  This is particularly true for the women and partially true for the men.  And to be fair, it’s probably always been true with our National Teams to a certain extent.  The U.S. has often been a player or two short of being good enough to beat the good teams.  The need for better recruiting is a no brainer, but how do you go about it?  This will be a topic for part 2 of this series.

2) A system that stymies opponents:  Is there a Team Handball equivalent of the Princeton Offense?  For the most part national teams from the developing Handball nations have tried to emulate the successful teams in Europe.  They hire European coaches and the European coaches naturally seek to build a European style team.  There is, of course, some variance among the teams in Europe as some nations play a little more of a fluid game with fast breaks while others are more focused on defense and a half-court game.  So getting back to the question, I can think of only one example where a nation has developed a style of play or system that stymies opponents:  South Korea.  The South Koreans, particularly the women, play a helter skelter style of play which takes maximum advantage of their quickness and limits their size disadvantage.  This pretty much always gives the Koreans a slight edge when they play European teams because while they are accustomed to the European teams have to totally adjust their game.  Is it just a coincidence that the Koreans have also been the most successful non-European nation, even though the sport is
still a minor one in their country?  Maybe the U.S. should look across the Pacific instead of the Atlantic as it tries to develop its own style?

3) Opponents that were in “down” years.  Well, you can’t very well control what your competition is doing.  You can, however, take advantage of it.  Looking at the Pan American region it’s fairly apparent that the men’s teams are surging in quality while the women’s teams, with the exception of Brazil, are clearly in a down phase.  Starting from scratch, it’s entirely possible that the U.S. could put together a brand new Women’s team that could get 2nd place (qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games) at the 2015 PANAM Games.  The Men could still qualify, as well, but their competition as it stands now is clearly tougher.

4) Players that simply believe in themselves and the system.  I can’t get into the psyche of our National Team players, but I suspect that both the Men’s and Women’s team have not fully formed the type of bond that only comes about through time and shared sacrifice.  They will need more matches and some stability in the program in order for this to happen.  And then they will need some matches where they play some teams close and see for themselves that they aren’t that far behind and where they need to get better.

So, if Air Force basketball can suddenly be successful after years of failure, I would argue that even USA Team Handball can turn it around.  It won’t be easy, though, and most importantly it’s not clear whether USA Team Handball will have the minimum resources needed to execute such a turnaround.  As the current budget stands now there is nowhere near enough funding to recruit, train and provide players a national team structure to allow them the
opportunity to succeed.  With adequate resources, though it could definitely happen.

In part 2 of this series, I’ll assess the feasibility of recruiting athletes with successful collegiate careers in other sports and transitioning them to Team Handball.  As the title implies, there’s an Air Force Basketball connection.