USA Team Handball Parts Ways with Coach Latulippe: The Right Decision… but, Why Did it Take 8 Years? and is the Timing Right with a Big Tournament Coming Up?

Coach Latulippe addresses the U.S. Women. After 8 years as coach his contract was not renewed.

Yesterday, USA Team Handball announced that after 8 years it was parting ways with USA Women’s Coach, Christian Latulippe. There are a lot of euphemisms for getting fired and “parting ways” is one of them. My understanding is that his contract was up and that the decision was made not to renew it. Here’s my take on this decision:

A Strange Hire to Begin With

I’ll make no secret that I didn’t think coach Latulippe should have ever been hired in the first place.  The U.S announcement didn’t mention it, but this was actually Latulippe’s 2nd stint with the U.S. Women as he was also coach from 2004-2007.   As I pointed out in this commentary back in 2013 his first stint with the U.S. was less than stellar.  The metrics included a poor W-D-L record, mediocre recruiting and a failed residency program at Cortland, NY.  He was also fired (or resigned) just prior to a PANAM Games qualification tournament in 2007.  Based on all those factors I saw little rationale for bringing him back in 2013.

A Closer Look at the Latulippe Record

Coach Latulippe’s 2nd time around has produced better results than his first, but there clearly have been far more low points than high points.  Here’s a summary of results from all the major competitions that the U.S. has played in under his tenure.  (Major competitions being defined as events that are either part of World Championships or Olympic Qualification.)

A 19-2-22 record can be described as mediocre or disappointing depending on one’s perspective.  The U.S. has not come close to beating Brazil or Argentina, but can be considered roughly on par with the half dozen teams below those two regional powers.  That being said, more often than not, the U.S. has come up short in the big matches between those similar foes.  Probably the biggest and most disappointing was losing the 2 match PANAM Games qualification series to Uruguay in 2015.  At the time, Coach Latulippe was running a full time residency program and most of the team was practicing together on a regular basis.  To not even qualify for the PANAM Games was a major failure, one that arguably and reasonably suggested that it was time for a major overhaul.

Instead, the U.S. Women’s program has muddled along for the past 6 years.  It was never clearly reported, but the nature of Coach Latulippe’s coaching role shifted in 2015 from a full time residency coach to more of a part time role.  He moved to France, but still coached the team in major competitions and in periodic training camps combined with friendly matches.  The U.S. National Team also started to recruit and add more dual citizens to the roster.  It’s not clear how much Coach Latulippe was paid and what his fully defined responsibilities were, but arguably he did a pretty decent job cobbling together a National Team program with very limited resources.  Certainly the U.S. was travelling and playing quite a few matches vs respectable competition all on a shoestring or nonexistent budget.

Still, the results in the big competitions never materialized.  Meanwhile, similar teams also with limited resources managed to qualify for the World Championships.  Puerto Rico in 2015, Paraguay in 2017, Cuba in 2019.  The 2019 North American & Caribbean Championships were another big disappointment.  The U.S. had qualified for the PANAM Games, but with a World Championship berth on the line the U.S. ended up finishing in 5th place behind Cuba, Puerto Rico, Greenland and the Dominican Republic.  With then recently hired CEO Barry Siff in place, it seemed like a logical time for a coaching change, but no change was made. I’m not sure why, but I suspect with the PANAM Games coming up it was assessed that there wasn’t time to effectively install a new coach before a major tournament.

2019 PANAM Games (The Best U.S. Performance in Years)

At the 2019 PANAM Games the U.S. Women arguably had their best performance in the Christian Latulippe era.  Handed a favorable draw, they took care of Peru and the Dominican Republic and qualified for the semifinals.  It was no surprise that they got overwhelmed by Brazil, 34-9, but they came very close to a bronze medal losing a close match to Cuba, 24-23.  Yes, ironically, Coach Latulippe is getting fired after arguably the best performance by a U.S. Women’s team in a major competition since the 2003 PANAM Games (where the U.S. also placed 4th). 

The Right Decision… Why Did it Take 8 Years?

How a team performed in the last tournament is pretty important, but coaching changes should still be made after assessing the entire body of work. And, if one assesses the entire body of work it’s hard to argue that the U.S. had made great progress or was headed on an upwards trajectory. Results were mediocre at best and really the only logical question is why wasn’t the trigger pulled earlier?

There are likely several reasons, but here are a few that probably came into play:

  • Tempered Expectations: With limited resources being applied to the Women’s program could anyone realistically expect significantly better results? No, not really. Slightly better results could and should have been possible. The U.S. should have qualified for the 2015 PANAM Games and probably attended 1 World Championship since 2015. But, qualify for an Olympic Games? Beat Brazil or a European team? Not a chance.
  • Minimal Compensation Requirements: It’s not clear what Coach Latulippe’s compensation was during his 8 years at the helm. Initially, he was paid an annual salary, but after 2015 I suspect he was paid minimally. In the USA announcement, National Team player Jennifer Fithian is quoted as saying, “Time and again, Christian has donated his time, money and efforts to give us the opportunity to compete over the past 15 years.” I’ve bold-faced the “donated his time, money and efforts” and that’s pretty telling. Certainly, no handball power National Team Coach is in the practice of donating time and money. Volunteering on some level, however, is a somewhat common practice for developing programs like the U.S.
  • Lack of Other Options: Again, the donation of time, money applies here. Behind the scenes, I suspect Coach Latulippe was actually pretty effective at running a shoestring operation. Over the past few years, the U.S. women managed to play quite a few friendly matches in Europe and S. Korea. He also seems to have a great relationship with a core group of athletes that he’s managed to keep together. Could a new coach have been hired to do the same sort of job with the same sort of compensation?

The Right Decision… The Right Time?

The U.S. has a big tournament hopefully coming up this Summer: The North American & Caribbean Championship. The winner will qualify for the World Championships and it may even be hosted in the U.S. The favorite will be the 2019 winner, Cuba, and Coach Latulippe and the U.S. Women came very close to beating that Cuba side at the 2019 PANAM Games. Having coached the U.S. Women for 8 years he knows his roster and his competition inside and out.

We’ll see who the new coach is, but if they are a newcomer to the program they will be coming in blind with a roster and opposing foes they are not familiar with. Making the transition to a new coach even tougher will be the COVID situation likely making it challenging to prepare for the tournament. Maybe they will get a good training camp with some competitive friendly matches before the tournament… Maybe they won’t.

Regardless, it goes without saying that a new coach can be a catalyst for better performances. Heck, it often doesn’t even matter if the new coach is a better coach. Change, in and of itself, is what’s needed. But, on the other hand, sometimes the disruption that results from change presents new problems that can’t be overcome. Assuming there is indeed a Championship this summer it will be very interesting to see how the U.S. Women will respond and perform.

While the upcoming North American & Caribbean Championships are important, the far bigger question is what the plan is for the U.S. Women’s program going forward. Arguably, figuring out that forward is more important than selecting a U.S. coach. In fact, the U.S. probably shouldn’t even hire a long term coach until it figures out what that coach will be responsible for. This will be discussed in more detail in a follow on commentary.