Why Just about any College Could Start a Handball Program and Quickly Challenge for a National Title

Yes, in theory, any random college could make a title run.

I’m not generally one to make audacious predictions because… well, because data and thorough analysis usually result in the conclusion that it’s just not going to happen. But, sometimes audacity is indeed possible.

A former intern for the Pardon My Take (PMT) Podcast recently got a hold of a handball and has issued a few team handball related tweets (1, 2, 3). It’s always great when the sport acquires a new fan, but it also got me to thinking.

Could Billy Football or someone else, coax a few friends, start a brand new club and come out of nowhere to win a national collegiate handball?

On the surface, it seems crazy to even consider this as a possibility. How could a brand new club with totally inexperienced players win a national title? C’mon… And, for almost any other sport in the U.S. it would indeed be a crazy proposition. Most sports are just too established for some upstart to knock over the apple cart without a massive injection of resources and stellar recruiting.

But, team handball is not “most sports” in the U.S. Here’s why it could be done.

  1. Few Contenders: There are currently only 15 Men’s collegiate programs in the U.S. And, only a handful of those programs are firmly established.
  2. Minor Experience Gap: Colleges are guaranteed to lose athletes each year to graduation. And, since most athletes are brand new to handball every college has to constantly bring brand new handball players up to speed. Thus, even a brand new program has only a 1 to 2 years gap in experience.
  3. Modest Raw Athletic Talent: The current collegiate handball game has several athletes with solid athletic talent, but overall the level of athleticism is fairly modest. This, of course, makes sense. The best athletes tend to get college scholarships in other sports.

So, what’s the blueprint for such audacity?  Here’s what it would take:

  1. Great Recruiting: Not traditional recruiting whereby a coaching staff convinces great high school athletes to commit to attending their college.  But, in this case great recruiting to get the best possible athletes already on campus to commit to this club sport.
  2. Great Handball Coaching: Taking great athletes and turning them into capable handball players is easier said than done.  But, make no mistake. It can be done.  And, a good coach could accomplish such a transition relatively quickly.  Keep in mind… we’re not talking about a 5 year project to win an Olympic Gold Medal, but a much more feasible collegiate title.
  3. Great Organization:  There are a lot of nuts and bolts logistical issues that go into successfully running a collegiate club.  From finding a time and place to practice, to uniforms, to transportation to tournaments.  It doesn’t just happen.  It takes planning and preparation.
  4. Regular Competition Against Quality Opponents:  Last, but not least, teams and players need to be tested in competition.  And, generally that means getting your butt kicked by teams that are better than you so you can learn how to win.

So, could some random D3 College in say, western Massachusetts tick off these 4 boxes? Well, it’s possible, but right now, I would say they probably could only check off 3. Here’s what could be done.

  1. Recruiting. In theory, it would be good to have some athletes that already know each other. Perhaps a group of seniors finishing off their D3 football careers could be coaxed into trying handball for a season. Ten such athletes would be a good core group to start with. Not future NFL players, but I suspect enough raw athletic talent to eclipse every other current collegiate handball squad, but perhaps West Point.
  2. Handball Coaching. Unless there is some handball expert living quietly in the Berkshires I suspect this is going to be a problem. Maybe, however, some capable coach could visit for a handball boot camp. This might take some PMT sponsorship.
  3. Organization. A coach or team captain with organizational skills is a must. It just requires someone to step up and take the lead.
  4. Regular Competition. Western Massachusetts is in driving range of both Boston and New York City. A trip to Montreal wouldn’t be too hard either. If desired, there would be plenty of opportunities to play and learn the game.

The Wild Card: Pardon My Take Sponsorship

So while this might be possible, I’m thinking it’s going to need a little extra jolt to actually happen. And, there probably could be no better jolt than a little Pardon My Take sponsorship. What would that entail? Some publicity to encourage on the fence recruits, enticing a name coach to help out and for sure, some splashy uniforms.

Hey Big Cat and PFT Commenter: I know an Olympic Gold medal is the end goal, but you know what: Helping some random college come out of nowhere win a Collegiate National Championship would be pretty cool too. And, it would be great proof of concept trial run before embarking on a far greater challenge.

Would it be easy? No. It would take a lot of work, some humility and a lot of commitment. The other collegiate programs might not be world beaters, but there are some quality athletes out there and they have a head start in terms of experience. But, make no mistake it could be done.

Any Other Takers?

This, actually, is not the first time I’ve had such audacious thoughts regarding our college game. In 1976, Air Force almost won an open club title with a roster mostly composed of their D1 hoops tean (doesn’t hurt to have two future Olympians playing). It doesn’t take much imagination to envision a gifted group of athletes winning just a college title.

Three years ago, Virginia practically did exactly what I’ve described, losing to West Point in a close final, albeit it wasn’t done in a year, but was more of a 3 year effort. And, somewhat incredibly, they accomplished what they did without the benefit of a coach. (Podcast with UVA Handball: Link) I suspect if Virginia had had a coach with the requisite handball knowledge, recruiting and organizational skills they probably would have won a couple national titles. Might even have started a dynasty.

The reality is that right now a juggernaut college team could probably be created about anywhere in the U.S. Sure, it wouldn’t be easy and some locations would be more challenging… but, make no mistake it could be done. In fact, I’ve told multiple aspiring coaches in the U.S., that if they really want to show how good of a coach they are, they should start a college program from scratch and take that program to a national title.

Any takers?