Auburn Residency Programs: Some answers from CEO Matt Van Houten

CEO Matt Van Houten at his relatively spartan office

CEO Matt Van Houten at his office in Colorado Springs

Yesterday, I sat down with USA Team Handball CEO, Matt Van Houten to discuss the agreement with Auburn University to start a National Team Residency Program.  We covered several topics, but mostly focused on the process related questions that I had posed in a previous posting.  Here’s a summary of what we discussed.

Board of Director involvement with the decision

The two Athletes Advisory Council Board Members, Tomuke Ebuwei and David Thompson have been engaged and are supportive of the decision to proceed with a residency program at Auburn.  The other two current Board Members, David Palmer and Tom Zelenovic, have been less engaged and he is uncertain as to where they might stand.  Van Houten also indicated that while he would prefer to have a fully constituted Board or Directors in place to review and approve the Residency Program agreement with Auburn that he had no plans to wait for this to happen.  As CEO he indicated that he will sign the agreement and made it clear that he is confident that this is the right decision for USA Team Handball.

Consideration of other potential candidates

When asked about whether any other universities or potential Olympic host cities had been contacted he indicated that none had and that there were no plans for an open solicitation to determine whether there might be other interested parties.  In short, it was his assessment that the Auburn deal was a good one and unlikely to be matched by another university.  He also indicated that while there were benefits to a potential arrangement with a USA candidate host city for the Olympics that this was still at least a year away and that he did not want to wait for this hypothetical possibility.

7 Year Commitment

Van Houten indicated that a 7 year commitment from both Auburn and USATH was necessary to give the Residency Programs a chance to flourish.  He noted that it was his assessment that qualifying for the 2016 Olympics would be challenging, but that the program would lay the groundwork for more realistic chances for 2020.  He also anticipates that the formal agreement will have “out clauses” for either side to withdraw from their commitment, but doing so would have penalties.

Documentation of Residency Program plans

In terms of documentation supporting the decision to proceed with a Residency Program he cited the High Performance Plan (HPP) which was developed last year although he is not certain as to whether it had been formally approved by the Board.  The HPP is not posted on the Federation website, but this is consistent with the practice followed by other National Governing Bodies such as USA Swimming, USA Volleyball, etc.  (Note:  I requested and have received a copy of the HPP.) In terms of documentation detailing specific requirements for a Residency Program he indicated that some top level internal documentation had been developed, but that there was no formal evaluation criteria that was used to grade a proposal from Auburn.  Instead the development of the Auburn Residency Program plan has been developed through bi-lateral communication between USATH and Auburn.

The High Performance Team and perceptions of bias

Van Houten indicated that the possibility of perceptions of bias exists, but noted that I am the only individual who has expressed any concern.  From his perspective he is certain that there is no actual bias that would cloud the judgment of the High Performance Team (High Performance Director, Dave Gascon, Technical Director, Mariusz Wartalowicz, Men’s coach, Javier Garcia Cuesta and Women’s Coach Christian Latulippe.  He further noted that the National Team coaches had been signed to 3 year contracts and would continue to be paid regardless of whether there was a Residency Program or not.  He also has full confidence in this team and does not see any need for additional involvement from the Board or others in the day to day development of the Residency Programs.

My overall impression

As you might expect, I strongly disagree with the decision to start a 7 year Residency Program without conducting a wider search and getting approval from the Board of Directors.  I also continue to be dissatisfied with the development of an HPP without review and comment from the committees that were stood up at the 2011 Strategic Planning Conference.  I appreciated, however, the opportunity to express my opinions candidly even if my arguments didn’t sway CEO Van Houten’s opinion.