USA Team Handball recently established a partnership with the Alabama Community College Conference. As I’m sometimes brushed off as one of the many naysayers in the USA Team Handball community let me unequivocably state that this is a great idea and one that I didn’t come up with. That being said here are some thoughts as to how this initiative might be applied on a grander scale.
Throughout its history USA Team Handball has recruited athletes from a variety of sources. Primary sources have been naturalized immigrants, expat citizens who learned the game in Europe, military athletes, former NCAA athletes and athletes who’ve played club handball in college. When USA Team Handball announced recently a partnership with the Alabama Community College Conference I had a couple of thoughts:
- Has the U.S. ever recruited a national team athlete directly from a junior college?
- What a great idea. How come I didn’t think of that?
As far as the first question goes, I couldn’t think of anyone. I’m sure the U.S. has had a few, but as far as I know it’s never been a prime focus. As to the second thought, I suspect the reason I didn’t think of that possibility is because I am (as many people are) a product of my own experiences. When I was growing up Junior Colleges (JUCOs) were primarily viewed as colleges where less serious students not interested in four year schools could learn a practical trade.
Flash forward 30 years and junior colleges/community colleges have matured quite a bit. Academically, they are stronger and more than just a few High School graduates are studying two years at a dramatically lower cost JUCO and then transferring to a four year institution to finish their Bachelor’s degree.
The UNLV Model: Building a Powerhouse with JUCO Transfers
Playing Air Force service basketball 25 years ago I had the opportunity to play against several JUCO teams in California. It was a real interesting mix of talent and quality. Some schools had marginal talent as if they just thrown their teams together with whatever athletes they could get. And, other schools were absolutely loaded. Antelope Valley Community College in Lancaster, California was one such school. Coached by Jerry Tarkanian’s son it was clearly a UNLV feeder school with quite a bit of talent, including future NBA player J.R. Rider.
Perhaps, Jerry Tarkanian wasn’t the first college basketball coach to primarily fill his roster with JUCO transfers, but he surely was the coach that perfected the model. While other schools looked primarily for High School stars to contribute 4 years, Tark the Shark knew that it was going to be tougher to get those kids to come to UNLV as college freshman. Year in and year out he found the best athletes he could get, melded them into a team quickly and often ran other teams out of the gym. As his reputation as the JUCO Transfer king grew the athletes he got became better and better and he built a powerhouse program that was cons finally culminating in a national championship in 1990.
The JUCO Handball Transfer
While one can still expect the top JUCO players will continue to transfer to NCAA schools offering a scholarship for their final two years of college, what about all those athletes not getting scholarship offers? Every year thousands of those athletes will do some real hard contemplation in regards to their athletic and academic future. Some will transfer to a lower division NCAA school which will offer tuition assistance (but, not a full scholarship), some will just continue college without playing a sport, and some will simply enter the work force.
And, all of those athletes would be potential candidates for consideration at a Residency Program. What really make this strategy interesting is that these athletes should indeed be ready and willing to listen to a team handball pitch. Their dreams of professional or even NCAA Div 1 athletics are over and they’ve completed their JUCO career. They’ve got to move on. Playing for Team USA at Auburn while finishing their degree might sound a lot better than playing Div 2 or Div 3 at some far flung place or just entering the work force for the rest of their life.
As I’ve highlighted before, getting the best athletes possible at the youngest ages possible is key. But, convincing these athletes to switch to handball while the dreams of their primary sport are still alive at age 18 is a near impossibility. At age 20, though, some will be ready. USA Team Handball can also recruit some better quality NCAA Div 1 athletes at age 22, but those 2 years can make a huge difference. First off, many college graduates are inclined to hang up their athletic shoes and pursue other interests. Secondly, the development from age 20-22 could lead to becoming World Class at a young enough age to lead to pro contract.
Options for USA Team Handball Consideration
USA Team Handball’s partnership with Auburn Community Colleges is a start, but here’s some more possibilities to consider for the JUCO Handball Transfer Strategy
- Target Junior Colleges on a national level: There are several hundred junior colleges in the U.S. with athletic programs. Engaging those colleges and conferences effectively would take a considerable amount of networking. Recruiting would also need to be very strategic in that USA Team Handball would be seeking quality athletes that aren’t being sought after by NCAA Div 1 schools. Ideally, these would be athletes that are a notch below in their chosen sport, but are ideally suited for Team Handball. To assist in identifying talent USA Team Handball could engage a number of recruiting services which conduct camps and rank talent.
- Conduct an Olympic Festival Style Camp for JUCO Athletes: During the summer a number of camps with top JUCO talent are held to showcase talent for 4 year colleges. As an example, here’s a list of athletes attending a camp in Georgia: Link USA Team Handball could conduct a 10 day camp to introduce JUCO athletes to the sport and competition could be staged between regional teams. It goes without saying the athletes invited would all be potential candidates for National Team Residency Programs.
- Create a JUCO All Star team for Collegiate and Open National Championships: Identify a select group of athletes in the late winter/early spring and conduct regular training for them as a group. This could be done on a regional basis and that team would then compete in the collegiate and/or national championships.o
Broadening of the National Team player pool: JUCO athletes are an untapped resource and an organized, structure program to identify JUCO talent could significantly broaden the overall player pool.
Earlier identification and commitment of crossover athletes: As previously highlighted a JUCO transfer will usually be around 20 years old. Getting a new player at age 20, vice 22 significantly improves the chances that that athlete will be able to become a World Class athlete prior to leaving the program due to life issues. Additionally, it also improves the possibility that the athlete can sign a professional contract in his mid 20s.
Diverts resources from other efforts: If USA Team Handball wants to really focus on identifying and developing JUCO talent it will take man-hours and funding to do so properly. This means finding more revenue or diverting revenue from other cost centers. And, it could mean diverting funds from efforts to support traditional 4 year college programs.
Junior College structure isn’t conducive to club development. While JUCOs might be a great source for athletes for residency programs, as two year colleges with many of its students commuting to and from school they aren’t very strong candidates for creating club programs. As club programs can perform a lot of the development work needed for new athletes focusing on JUCO programs will detract from club growth in the U.S.
Failure to draw JUCO transfer interest. In theory, JUCO transfers are an untapped talent pool, but in reality it may be challenging to recruit such talent to a new sport they are unfamiliar with. As with high school graduates who have been playing their chosen sport for years, JUCO athletes may simply be unwilling to abandon their first sport yet.
Failure to attract quality JUCO transfers. While JUCOs are an untapped source the talent pool is somewhat limited. Many of the athletes at JUCOs are playing there simply because they weren’t good enough to get recruited by a Div 1 NCAA school. USA Team Handball will need to carefully look for “diamonds in the rough” that are a perfect fit for Team Handball.
College Coordinator. Effectively recruiting JUCO talent would take a considerable amount of time, but it could be simply one part of an overall college coordinator’s job jar. Depending on the experience level desire this salary would be in the neighborhood of $30-60K.
Olympic Festival Style Camp. Funding an Olympic Festival Style camp will be a considerable expense especially if athlete costs for travel and lodging are provided. A lower cost program could be done whereby athletes pay to participate, but finding attendees to participate could be challenging
JUCO College All Star Team. A JUCO All Star Team if done on a regional basis could be fairly inexpensive. Athletes from multiple colleges could practice at a centralized location and have a focused training camp prior to the tournament. Team entry fees could be waived and volunteer coaches could be assigned. As, with many other initiatives, however, paid help to organize and coach the team would significantly improve the chances of this initiative succeeding.
Timing for Implementation
Initial outreach such as what has been done with Alabama Junior Colleges can begin immediately. Greater outreach in the form of nationwide recruitment will require additional funding and would necessitate the redirection of limited funding from other priorities. One could argue, however, that an Olympic Festival style camp, clinic or tryouts in conjunction with the 2016 Olympics next summer might be a good strategic point to rollout a concentrated effort.