The Year’s Top Ten Stories: 1996

From the first beach volleyball Olympics to the first women's NCAA championship without a Cali or Hawaii team

Bill Livingston
From left to right, 1996 men's beach volleyball Olympic medalists Mike Dodd, Karch Kiraly, Kent Steffes, and Mike Whitmarsh.

The year 1996 was an eventful one for the volleyball world, so in February 1997, VBM took on the task of recapping the top 10 stories. These were our picks:

1. A 1-2 Punch

Make no mistake, there was a lot riding on the Olympic performances of the two AVP teams. For several years, AVP players did a lot of talking about how they were far superior to the rest of the word. At the Olympics it was put-up-or-shut-up time. Early in the competition, Kent Steffes downplayed the big-picture implications, saying: “If the Dream Team loses, are they not the best players in the world? The AVP has got the best volleyball players in the world. Period. There’s no statement that need to be made.” Most would probably agree, but it would have been harder to sell to the general public if Sinjin Smith and Carl Henkel had pulled off an upset over Kiraly and Steffes—they led 12-8 at one point—and Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh had fallen to the team from Portugal, which had them 12-9. In the end, they proved everything that they set out to prove, winning gold and silver medals and sending a message that the AVP is to the rest of the beach volleyball world what the 49ers and Cowboys are to the NFL.

2. Indoor Flop

After all the buildup, it didn’t seem possible that playing in a home Olympics could be such a depressing experience, but that’s exactly what it was for U.S. men’s and women’s national teams. Coming off three consecutive Olympic-medal performances—gold in Los Angeles in 1984, gold in Seoul in ’88 and bronze in Barcelona in '92—the men imploded in Atlanta and finished ninth, the worst in U.S. history. The women, who had set a clear goal of gold, were eliminated in the quarterfinals by eventual gold-medalist Cuba and took seventh. What happened? Well, the men never made it out of pool play, hurt badly by the absence of a true go-to hammer who could give them the kind of lift that Steve Timmons and Pat Powers had in years past. They also lacked experience, particularly at the starting setter position where greenhorn Lloy Ball struggled. And the women were never able to recapture the form that led to a gold medal at last year’s Grand Prix. They were beaten by China in a crucial pool play match, leading to a frightening matchup in the quarters with the Cubans, who beat them in three. As disappointments go, this was big. Perhaps men’s captain Bob Ctvrtlik summed it up best when he said: “Usually, I can find a bright side in something. But I’m hoping the sun comes up tomorrow.”

3. The Match

A few minutes after it was over, someone asked Mike Dodd if he’d ever seen anything like it, and he compared it to an Ali-Frazier fight. And that was the perfect description. Sinjin Smith and Carl Henkel vs. Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes was more of an event than a match, the kind of thing you see once every 10 years if you’re lucky. It had all the buildup of a great prize fight, too, complete with salvos flying from the AVP sides, claiming Smith and Henkel had no business being in the Olympics. When they were up 12-8, it was apparent that they did indeed belong, and it took some big-time clutch play by the favorites to overcome both the deficit and a Smith skyball serve that hadn’t been seen on the beach in several years. When the last punch had been thrown, K&K pulled it out 17-15, looking every bit as if they’d gone 15 rounds with a heavyweight. The only downside to this match was that it made the rest of the Olympic beach competition a bit of a comedown. Once you’ve seen Ali-Frazier, everything else is just another fight.

4. A Grand Entrance

Leading up to the Olympic Games, Volleyball received numerous calls from media types trying to learn about one of the games’ newest sports. The callers almost always asked the same question: Why is beach volleyball an Olympic sport? The best answer was given by the event in Atlanta itself. By all accounts, even from the usually cynical sports media, beach volleyball was a hit. Tickets to the event were some of the hottest at the Olympics. And where else could you see International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch doing the wave? In the end, beach volleyball proved to be what the IOC was looking for when it added it to the Olympic program—a breath of fresh air in an otherwise staid Olympic environment that often seems to get bogged down in pomp and circumstance.

5. A Dream Season

It seemed only fitting that Mick Haley’s Texas team faced Terry Pettit’s Nebraska team for this year’s NCAA championship. Haley and Pettit were teammates long ago in Chicago, and in the years that have passed since, they have been two of the most influential figures in building volleyball in the Midwest and the South. This year’s championship was an important moment for those regions, considering it was the first final played without a California or Hawaii team. Nebraska ended up winning in four games, powered by three key seniors: Volleyball’s Player of the Year middle blocker Allison Weston, Christy Johnson, and Billie Winsett. Many times in the past, the Cornhuskers have come close, but this year, driven by the slogan “one goal, one focus, one champion,” they finished the job. Johnson had a dream before the season that Nebraska had won it all. Dreams, of course, disappear in the morning. Dream seasons last a lifetime.

6. Rick Butler

When three former junior players came forward with a complaint that their coach, Rick Butler, had sex with them when they were underage, USA Volleyball was forced to play the role of judge and jury. After a one-day ethics hearing in 1995 that was attended by the three women and Butler, a committee for USA Volleyball concluded that Butler had had sex with them, two when they were 16 beginning in 1981 and ’84, one when she was 17 beginning in '87. At that time, Butler was expelled from membership to the organization for life, barring him from coaching at USA events. But last January, a judge granted him a permanent injunction, allowing him to return to the bench. Upon appeal by USA Volleyball, three judges ruled in November that the organization had been within its rights in expelling Butler and overturned the injunction. More than anything, with major publications covering the story and the volleyball community talking about it, the Butler case raised the level of awareness about the sensitive and potentially dangerous relationship between coaches and their players.

7. Trial by Fire

After qualifying for the Olympics, Linda Hanley essentially said that she expected the games to be a piece of cake compared to the gut-wrenching tension the players experienced during the week-long U.S. Trials in Baltimore. It was hard to imagine at the time, but she was right. The pressure of playing at the Olympics proved to be nothing compared to getting to the Olympics. That probably explains why some of the bigger names in the women’s game—Karolyn Kirby, Angela Rock, Liz Masakayan—never made it to Atlanta, and a middle-of-the-pack WPVA team—Gail Castro and Deb Richardson—did. Further evidence came at the press conferences when, almost to a person, the players called the victory that qualified them for the Olympics the biggest of their careers. Karch Kiraly certainly has never looked more pumped up than he did when he and Kent Steffes played and defeated Adam Johnson and Randy Stoklos to earn the final U.S. Olympic berth. Unfortunately, if the FIVB gets its way, this may have been the last U.S. Trials. The FIVB wants all teams to qualify through its World Series tour for the 2000 Olympics. That would be so sad. During that week in Baltimore, never had so many played so hard for something so big. And not one of them got a dime of prize money for doing it.

8. A New Beginning

More out of necessity than by choice, USA Volleyball is gearing up for major restructuring in 1997. Among the biggest changes was the elimination of the year-round training programs for the men’s and women’s national teams, which are scheduled to reconvene in May rather than January. Because of its dire financial situation, the organization will likely make cutbacks in personnel for 1997. There will be a new executive director, Kerry Klostermann, a longtime USA Volleyball employee. He replaces John Carroll, who had moved on to head up the organization’s marketing arm. There will also be a new women’s coach—probably University of Texas coach Mick Haley—and potentially a new men’s coach. (Current men’s coach Fred Sturm is one of a number of candidates for the women's job.) Given the extreme nature of the shakeup, the future of the organization is very much in doubt. Getting back on the medal track for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, may be the biggest and most trying challenge this organization has ever faced.

9. The Comeback Kid

When Kent Steffes came back from shoulder surgery at the end of last season, it was apparent to everybody that he wasn’t the same Kent Steffes who had thoroughly dominated the tour the previous three seasons with Karch Kiraly. On sets off the net, he couldn’t crank the ball down with the same velocity, and Karch decided he needed to return to his replacement partner, Scott Ayakatubby, for the final events of the season. Karch selected Kent as his “long-term” partner for this season, and Kent returned to play the best volleyball of his career, often carrying the big load during rough spots en route to the Olympic gold medal. By all accounts, he was not only 100 percent but was better on defense and a more effective server than he had been before surgery. When the season was over, the AVP players paid him the ultimate compliment, choosing him as the tour’s MVP over his partner, the man who most everybody still refers to as the best player in the world.

10. Bring Back Marlowe

Judging from the overflow of letters Volleyball received on the subject, it’s easy to conclude that not everybody was enthusiastic about the AVP’s decision to replace Chris Marlowe in the broadcast booth with Tim Hovland. The general theme was something like this: No disrespect to The Hov, but bring Marlowe back. For years, Marlowe and Paul Sunderland called volleyball with an unmatched professionalism, but new AVP boss Jerry Solomon decided before last season that the tiem had come to inject some new personality into the broadcast. So Marlowe signed a three-year deal with ESPN where he’ll do, among other things, the pro fours tour. That opened the door for Hovland, who, having once split his toe open stepping on a light fixture while singing “Wild Thing” at a Cuervo Gold party, fit the personality bill but was short on experience. The early broadcasts were rough and a little raw, but most agree that they got better by the end of the season. Still, the subject didn’t die. Some fans are still clamoring for a Marlowe comeback, claiming that men’s beach doubles benefits greatly from his knowledge and polished delivery.

Originally published in February 1997

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