The Seoul Games / Day 3 : Arie’s Armies Have Found Success, Not Friends
America’s suns of the beach, the L.A. kids who make up the greatest volleyball team on earth, were jumping like popcorn, slashing holes in the Netherlands’ defense with laser spikes.
“It was beautiful to watch,” Arie Selinger said when it was all over.
Arie was surely the most interested spectator in the gym Monday morning when the United States cut down the Netherlands, a potential medal team, 15-7, 12-15, 15-1, 15-11.
Selinger is the Netherlands’ coach. Once upon a time he was coach of the U.S. women’s team. You may remember him. He was the crazy guy.
That was the image, anyway. Crazy or merely misunderstood, Selinger was the focal point for one of the more intriguing philosophical debates of sport.
Subject: Where is the line between championship-style commitment and ruthless fanaticism?
Selinger coached the U.S. women from 1975 to 1984, when his contract ran out and was not renewed.
There were horror stories.
Arie was the first to introduce to U.S. amateur teams the concept of the full-time athlete. His women not only lived together year ‘round, but, it was said, practiced six to eight hours per day, six days a week.
This left little or no time for such frills of life as boyfriends, marriage, school, jobs. They were lucky if they ever had the time or energy after practice to watch television or take in a movie.
Did the system work? Selinger took a weak U.S. program and hammered it into a world power. The U.S. women won a silver medal in 1984.
But were Arie’s women a group of great, devoted athletes, or were they brainwashed zombies?
When Selinger was not kept on as coach, the director of the U.S. Volleyball Assn. said: “We want our volleyball program to reflect the American style of life. We want our players to have well-rounded lives, college educations, job opportunities, international travel and social lives.”
In other words, Selinger was judged to have crossed over that line, to have bounded over it like Bob Beamon. He became the George Allen of volleyball, the coach who would build you a winner but at too high a cost.
Unlike the Bob Knights and Vince Lombardis, who are hated by the enemy but revered from within their organizations, the George Allens and Selingers are hated/misunderstood/feared by the people for whom they are building dynasties.
Selinger pushed hard for more money for his program. Some say he seized power from the USVBA and could not be controlled. He became U.S. women’s volleyball.
Then he became unemployed.
He wound up coaching the Netherlands men’s team, and has pulled off a program-building miracle comparable to his job with the U.S. women, but without the controversy. He left behind his wife, who runs a family business in Laguna Niguel, and his daughter, a UCLA student.
When current U.S. men’s coach Marv Dunphy announced his retirement effective after these Games, Selinger applied for the job. All he got was a thanks-anyway letter. Not so much as a phone call.
“Let me make it clear to you,” Selinger said, addressing the subject of his reputation as a zealot, “that I came under criticism by non-professional people. . . .”
In 1983, The Times published an investigation into Selinger and the U.S. program that was printed in newspapers around the world. The report painted an unflattering portrait of a coach obsessed.
Selinger said the report had no substantive evidence, and showed no knowledge of the game.
“I was working with women, and it takes longer to train women,” Selinger said. “For every hour you put in with men, it takes two hours with women. During the period of time (before the ’88 Games) the Chinese women were practicing eight hours a day, and no one criticized them. I was criticized for practicing six hours a day.”
As to the charges that his women were seen as volleyball robots, Selinger bristled.
“That’s a total, total misconception,” he said. “I know for a fact that a lot of (U.S. volleyball) girls were going to nightclubs. Some had part-time jobs. Some were even studying. Quite often you could go to bars and find these kids having a good time.”
Most of the horror stories, Selinger said, came from players who quit the program and had an ax to grind.
His coaching methods, he insists, have changed not a whit from the United States to the Netherlands, except that long hours don’t work with men.
“Men are not as patient as women,” Selinger said. “They do not have as much mental stamina as women. Men are not as willing to learn. Women, you can teach them all day. Men, after five minutes, they know everything.”
You could teach women all day, and Arie did, and that was his downfall. We wanted a winning volleyball team, but we wanted the players to be real people, too. We had read and heard too much about the Eastern Bloc system, developing winners by methods that seemed as heavy-handed as the stroke of a blacksmith.
Somewhere there was a happy medium, but Arie Selinger was never a happy-medium-type guy.
Still, his legacy remains.
“That women’s program was a ground-breaker for amateur team sports,” said Karch Kiraly, star of the U.S. men’s team.
But it was also a butt-breaker. And so Arie, who escaped Poland during World War II, grew up in Israel and finally came to the United States, land of freedom, found himself exiled to the land of wooden shoes and clumsy, inexperienced volleyball players.
He claims he is not bitter, that he would not have stayed on as women’s coach even if asked, but he did say this:
“The only thing I reflect back on, is that the (U.S.) women’s team is not as visible as in my time. The quality of way we played was very attractive and we had special people. The public liked the team.”
He reached into his pocket for a cigarette. Members of the U.S. men’s team filed into the press interview room, sweaty and smiling. These were the players Selinger wanted to coach, the players who had just walloped his own guys.
It was moments such as this he must have been referring to when he came up with what the Dutch press guide says is Arie Selinger’s motto:
“Volleyball is a funny game.”