I’ve been quite a while since I commented on a number of handball related issues, but that’s about to change. Here’s why I laid low and why I’ll soon be speaking out on a number of topics. Sorry, in advance… This post is all about me, but it should provide some context as to where I’m coming from.
Having Opinions and Stating them has Consequences
Anyone who has followed this website for a few years knows that I’m usually not shy about sharing my opinions on handball related matters. (Here’s a broad sampling: Link) Some folks appreciated my commentaries simply because they jived with their views. And, a few folks appreciated my commentaries even if they conflicted with their views because they respected the thought process behind them. But, more often than not my commentaries were simply not appreciated. It didn’t matter how diplomatic I tried to be.
Case in point: Take a look at this commentary on Auburn University being designated an Olympic Training Center in 2015 (Taking Stock and Shaking My Head in Frustration: Can Someone Please Educate Me?). Minutes after this commentary was posted, I was immediately defriended on Facebook by a USA Team Handball Board Member. It’s not like I lacked the “social skills” to know that most folks don’t appreciate criticism. It’s just that I was more interested in trying to steer USA Team Handball in a different direction than I was trying to win friends. Especially in this instance, as I was 99% certain USA Team Handball was headed down the wrong path. A path with enormous consequences in terms of cost… and more importantly, lost opportunity costs.
If you choose to speak out on sensitive topics where people have a lot invested it has consequences. And, It doesn’t matter if, over time, it becomes very clear that your criticism was spot on. Trust me… it doesn’t. Posts like this led to me being being ostracized and if you are on the outside it’s hard to move the needle towards progress.
Toning Things Down and Moving the Needle
So, I toned thinks down and simultaneously waited for leadership to change. I still wrote commentaries, but also did more work behind the scenes to try and convince people. It’s not like I didn’t try and do this before, but with things not going well for USA Team Handball new leaders (and even some hold overs) were more receptive to new ideas. And, slowly, but surely, I saw the needle move. Here’s a laundry list of needle movements:
- The development and approval of a strategic plan
- A focus on college development
- A shift to call up more dual citizens on our national teams
- Support for a collegiate conference in a good location
- The FCH program to provide extra development assistance to national team prospects
- Handball being shown on ESPN (albeit the streaming services)
Of course, I wasn’t the only one advocating or making these efforts happen. But, make no mistake, I was the catalyst that got the ball rolling. And, yes, it was very satisfying to move the needle.
Working for USA Team Handball and Going Really Quiet
Why, in August of 2021, I was even hired to work for USA Team Handball. Granted, it was part time running the website and helping with social media, but it was a foot in the door. From my perspective, I figured that if I could ably perform this lower level position and demonstrate my vast working knowledege, I would get hired for a management position with some responsibility. When I was passed over for the High Performance Management position I gritted my teeth and kept my head down as best I could. When I was passed over for the Collegiate Director position… A position that might not ever have been established without my advocacy… I assessed that it was time to move on. <sigh>
I won’t go into details regarding my 9 month stint with USA Team Handball, but, I will say this: I’m confident that if I had been hired for either position I would have done a very good job… and it would have done wonders for me in terms of follow on opportunities.
My White Whale: The USA Team Handball CEO Position
And, I guess that gets to the crux of the matter. You can sometimes move the needle from the outside or as the bottom guy on the totem pole, but you know how you can really move the needle? By being the person at the top, setting the agenda for change and then being the person responsible for implementing those changes.
I know most people know me simply as a handball writer/blogger. Somebody with a bunch of ideas. But in my professional life I was an aerospace engineer who transitioned to program management. I was a pretty decent manager often working long hours on complicated defense projects. Sometimes I really liked what I was doing, but at other times it was less rewarding for me. Periodically, I would reflect on what it might be like to manage something else after I retired from the Air Force. Then, during my last military assignment in France, my passion for handball got super charged at the same time USA Team Handball was falling apart with decertification. It didn’t take much to contemplate that maybe I should consider combining by professional experience with my passion for handball.
Of course, my thinking was more along the lines of “some day.” After all, aerospace engineers generally have a more secure and better compensated career. But, when the opportunity presented itself I went for it. So here’s a short history of the past 15 years or so of CEO applications:
- 2008: I sent an unsolicited letter to the new USA Team Handball President, Dieter Esch. Steve Pastorino was hired without a formal search. In hindsight, I don’t think I was ready to move on from my aerospace career and Steve may well have been the best CEO we’ve ever had.
- 2012: I received a phone call with very life changing consequences asking me if I would like to interview for the CEO position and potentially start the job as soon as possible. The interview never happened, but it led to a family decision to move from Las Vegas to Colorado Springs anyway. Later in the year a formal selection process resulted in Matt Van Houten being selected. I had a preliminary phone interview, but was not one of the final candidates
- 2014: Following Matt’s resignation I sent an unsolicited package for consideration. But, the wheels were already turning to bring back former CEO, Mike Cavanaugh, who was hired without a formal selection process.
- 2019: Following pressure from the USOPC, USA Team Handball conducted a search for a new CEO. I was never interviewed and Barry Siff was selected
- 2021: After Barry Siff resigned, I had a short screening interview with the head-hunter company that was hired, but was never formally interviewed; Ryan Johnson was selected
- 2023: After Ryan Johnson resigned, I was reportedly considered for interim CEO, but then was never interviewed during the formal selection process; Martin Branick was selected
So, 15 years… 6 applications… 2 preliminary phone interviews… Never advancing to the final round… I think people are trying to tell me something. Not anything I didn’t know already. Here’s a 2020 interview with NYC’s Bini Mustafa where I ruminated on that very topic. Two failed applications later I’ve come to an even more stark, very reverse Sally Fields realization: “I can’t deny the fact… You don’t like me”
The Challenges Ahead
I guess, in the end, it pretty much boils down to the people doing the hiring and who they think is best suited to address the challenges they see ahead. I wasn’t privy to what the Board of Directors was thinking, but I suspect they were of two minds. With one faction seeing the position as a relatively straight forward, nuts and bolts job of ensuring USOPC compliance, organizing tournaments and providing our national teams with the best possible organization and resources to compete. And, then another faction seeing it first and foremost as a marketing and sales job of pitching the sport and bringing in badly needed funding. (Again speculation… I don’t really know)
From my perspective, both day to day operations and marketing/fundraising are pretty important. And, here’s the good news: I feel pretty comfortable with both getting done to at least “satisfactory” levels. Day to day operations will get done because those operations are indeed pretty straightforward. Don’t get me worng… there’s a lot of work involved, but it’s not complicated… just time intensive. As far as marketing and revenue generation goes (if the 1996 Olympics are a guide) performance here should improve simply because we have the 2028 Olympics coming. People that wouldn’t give USA Team Handball the time of day will soon be willing to talk to us. We can debate how well tasks actually get done, but with each passing month that we draw closer to the Olympics we should see improvement.
But, from my perspective… here’s the bad news: The important challenges USA Team Handball faces are not straightforward. And, while more revenue is needed it’s not a panacea. The next five years are a once in a generation opportunity; a true, transformational opportunity. But, we’ve been there before. Heck, we even had two hosted Olympics, just 12 years apart in 1984 and 1996… and, what did that get us?
Yes, a “field of opportunity” is in front of us, but unfortunately it’s full of land mines that could blow everything up and rabbit holes we could fall down and get lost in. To put it another way there are a number of major decisions looming that have been postponed, partially due to COVID and partially due to a natural tendency to essentially avoid choosing winners and losers. (Also, known as avoiding making people unhappy) Navigating this minefield won’t be easy and any chance of success will require vision, planning skills and an ability to effectively sort out what can be done and what should be done. Know how to help guide a board through a series of challenging decisions requiring hard choices.
Who’s the right person to lead that challenge? To give USA Team Handball the best chance of success? From my perspective, there’s zero doubt in my mind that my combined professional and handball related experience makes me the right person.
Getting a Life…
Alas, I’m not making the hiring decisions. For years I’ve joked that if I ever was put in charge of something handball related the only question people would end up having is, “Good lord! How could we have we kept someone with so much knowledge, so much experience, and so much passion down for so long?” It can be real rough to come to the realization that something you really want, something that you know you are really qualified to do… is just never going to happen.
But, seriously enough of the, “Oh, woe is me,” whining. As I tell friends and family I keep getting reminders that life isn’t so bad. On the news, I see people all over the world facing real life and death problems. In the U.S. many people my age are stuck in dead end jobs just to keep their health insurance. Instead, I’m retired with no real responsibilities. I never planned to retire in my 50s, but sometimes life gets complicated and plans change accordingly. Good thing, I’ve got a pension and did FIRE before it was a thing.
I’ve been doing a lot of hiking and contemplating life in general. Trying to figure out how to best use all my free time. I’m looking forward to some trips to Europe to see some handball halls that I’ve only seen on TV. And, I’m also considering some efforts to help foster the growth of collegiate handball and to sustain some fledgling clubs, lest they join the graveyard.
And, I will be writing some much needed commentaries on a variety of handball topics. Topics to include our Women’s national team, the US Handball Union/USATH situation, beach handball’s future, youth development, age based teams, media opportunities and more. I guess if I’m forever to be on the outside of the tent, I might as well not hold back. And, yes, I guarantee you… some folks are not going being to happy with what I write. But, maybe (just maybe) considering my track record (somewhere between Nostradamus and very good) of assessing handball in the U.S. people will listen. Yeah, I might still get to move the needle.
Buckle up handball fans. I think it’s going to get a little bumpy.