Doug Beal Q&A: Retired CEO reflects on USA Volleyball career

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USA men's coach John Speraw. left, and retired USA Volleyball CEO Doug Beal walk off the court after a victory during the Rio Olympics last summer/FIVB photo

Doug Beal joked about having to deal with new things, like Social Security and health insurance and staying out of his wife’s way. After spending most of his adult life with USA Volleyball, the last 12 as CEO, he’s now three weeks from his 70th birthday and retired.

Beal was a standout player and coached the 1984 USA men’s team to the Olympic gold medal. His impact on the game was immeasurable.

In this lengthy interview, his first since retiring, Beal spoke openly about USA Volleyball then and now from his home in Colorado Springs.

VBM: When we last saw you it was in Columbus for the NCAA Championships when you got to see your daughter and her Minnesota team play. That must have been fun.

Beal: It’s been really fun to follow her and the program is pretty special. We’re happy our daughter is having a great experience and they’ve obviously had a couple of terrific years making the final four both years. Even though they’ve not had the greatest success at the tournament it’s been a pretty significant part of my daughter’s college experience.

VBM: It’s got to be cool that she plays for Hugh McCutcheon, who played pretty significant part of your experience.

Beal: Maddie grew up during her adolescence being around Hugh a lot. She would come to practice quite bit, so she’s pretty comfortable with Hugh. He’s obviously a terrific coach and a wonderful human being so it’s great for her to be able to play for him in a place that really supports the program. It’s fun for an athlete at any level to play in front of big crowds where they really support you. Playing for Hugh is maybe like playing for her uncle or older brother or something like that (laughs) and we try to tell her regularly that he’s your coach and treat him like your coach. Like everybody else would. She’s having a great experience and we’re very appreciative of that.

VBM: In the last year, at events like the International Hall of Fame inductions when you were honored, to the Olympics and so many other places like the AVCA Convention and NCAA final four, it kind of seemed like the Doug Beal farewell tour around the world. Did it kind of feel like that to you?

Doug Beal at the 2008 Olympics with coaches Hugh McCutcheon and Marv Dunphy/USA Volleyball photo
Doug Beal at the 2008 Olympics with coaches Hugh McCutcheon and Marv Dunphy/USA Volleyball photo

Beal: It got a little embarrassing, frankly. I’m not terribly comfortable with that kind of stuff. I never thought of myself as that impactful or significant. I’ve been fortunate to be in the right place at the right times, I think, and work and learn from some really talented, insightful people.

I think I’ve said lots of times I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in my life to have found volleyball and be influenced by a lot of people who directed me and influenced me in a good way. At least I think so. Literally from the time I got introduced to the sport, I was 10 years old in elementary school in a small public school in Cleveland, Ohio, through an early club experience to play with some people molded me or influenced me in a great way and I just got attracted to the sport and loved it.

I got introduced to people like Jim Coleman and Carl McGown and Al Scates and Harlan Cohen. The list could go on and on, Al Monaco and Harry Wilson and people lots of the readers won’t remember. Leonard Gibson, Will Peck, Bill Baird. I got to know these people and one of my closest friends now was one of my first coaches in the sport, Mark Watson. The way I was introduced to sport and the people I’ve been connected to has guided me. They helped shape our sport and helped shape me.

Doug Beal coaching the USA men/USA Volleyball photo
Doug Beal coaching the USA men/USA Volleyball photo

VBM: Through all the time you were a player and a coach (the last time in 2004 at the Athens Olympics) when did it cross your mind that you might take over and run USA Volleyball?

Beal: I had been interested in that previously. I applied, honestly, a couple of times earlier. I think there are some things I’m good at and one of them is having a broad vision for the sport and the role USA Volleyball can play in the sport. I’ve always been attracted to people who have ambitious goals, broad visions, seeing the big picture. A lot about the success of the leadership positions of USA Volleyball, whether it’s the executive director or CEO, whatever it’s called, is having a very broad vision of where the sport should go. How we’re going to grow the sport. I think I’m OK at that. I think I can articulate that. I don’t have some other skills that would be great to have in a position like that, whether they’re financial or marketing or in sponsorship, or a specific legal background, which would also be very valuable. But I have experienced a lot of very different roles, playing, coaching, connecting to regions, NCAA, etcetera, so I can articulate and understand where the sport is, what it’s background is, how USA Volleyball grew from when it was USVBA.

VBM: I know the good things we can list, especially the growth of volleyball and of USA Volleyball. But what are some of the things you wish you would have accomplished in your time as CEO but didn’t?

Beal: One of the things I wish we had done and USA Volleyball is going to do is we’re going to select our beach Olympians through a trials process. I think that’s going to significantly heighten the profile of the sport. I think it’s going to be a financial plus for USA Volleyball, I think it’s going to help the AVP, I think it’s going to be an impetus for further growth of collegiate beach volleyball. I think it’s going to be an enormously popular commercial success and I’m quite confident it’s going to happen, probably in time for the 2020 Games.

I kind of wish we had done that earlier. It’s going to be a big change for the athletes. There are clearly different opinions about whether it’s the right way or not the right way. There is no perfect way to select Olympic teams, whether they’re team sports, individual sports, pair sports or not. That’s one of the things I have a little bit of regret about.

I wish I had focused more on changing the relationship that exists between USA Volleyball’s national office and the regional structure. I think that needs to be, I guess the best term, is modernized. What of the best things about USA Volleyball is the regional structure. I also think it’s one of the things that needs the most attention.

I think collectively the recent (regional) commissioners are among the most passionate, committed, engaged people in our sport. USA Volleyball nationally could do much more to support their business operations, their consistency across regions, program offerings, membership opportunities. There are lots of ways to help. The compliance of the regions needs to be re-worked so it’s much more consistent and much more complete in terms of meeting the needs of the various constituent populations within our sport.

VBM: That begs the question, then, why didn’t we have a qualification process for the beach and why didn’t you do the things you’re talking about with the juniors? Were you hamstrung? Too many other things to deal with?

Beal: It’s all of the above. You wind up picking and choosing where you spend your time, how you apply your resources. One of the big challenges for me during the 12 years was simply managing and understanding the challenges of the rapid growth of USA Volleyball. We went from a company that was generating, I don’t know, eight-and-a-half million dollars in gross revenue to a company that was generating 31 or 32 million dollars in gross revenue. We went from a company that was renting office space for a staff of 30 or 35 people to a company that owned its own office building and had three satellite offices and a staff of about 90. The programming and the growth of the organization is a challenge to manage.

We changed our governance structure. We dramatically changed our board of directors and all of the substructure of our governance. We created a beach department from nothing and invested heavily in our support of beach volleyball from the top to the bottom. International athletes, youth, junior, grass roots, events, etcetera. We went through a period where the AVP went out of business and we replaced it with significant professional events.

There are lots of reasons why you can’t do everything you want to do. Which is no excuse, so maybe other people in a leadership position might have prioritized efforts in a different direction. I’m extraordinarily proud of the past 12 years and I think the thing I’m actually most proud of is I’ve left USA Volleyball in a position where the level of growth, the level of broad-based programming and success will allow the new CEO, the organization and the sport to be in a position to take advantage of continuing this growth and having equal or greater success in the future. The financial position of USA Volleyball is just dramatically different than it was when I started.

The positioning of where the sport is, the exposure it’s getting now on television and in the media, the NCAA adopting women’s beach volleyball as a championship sport. The NCAA spinning off a men’s Division III collegiate championship. The rise of all the conference television networks and the amount of exposure volleyball is getting, men, women, indoor, beach, the success we’ve had at the Olympic Games and other international competition. The events that we’ve hosted. All of that has positioned the sport and USA Volleyball to have an opportunity for even greater growth and success in the next four to eight years.

VBM: For example?

Beal: I’m proudest and most pleased to leave the organization in that kind of a positioning where they have an opportunity to get to another level. Whether it’s pro leagues or hosting and increasing events, continuing to expand membership and opportunities in what is becoming one of the most popular sports in the country, at virtually every level. Getting more sponsorship, continuing to grow the staff and regions, I just don’t think there is any area not available to our sport. The future is just as bright as it can possibly be. USA Volleyball is in a position to take advantage of that. There’s so much good going on in our sport and USA Volleyball is in the forefront of that.

VBM: What do you think of the hire of Jamie Davis and have you had any communication with him?

Beal: I think the last time I communicated to our board and the selection committee of the board I suggested that someone with his background would probably be my preference. We always used the caveat of “all things being equal,” I would prefer someone who had a very different background than I had to take advantage of the world that’s out there that I previously explained.

We say all things being equal but all things are never equal. It all comes down to the skills and personality of who’s in that position. I don’t know Jamie and haven’t had an opportunity to meet with him but I think his resume is terrific and I think he has the background that I suggested as something I would favor. I’m optimistic that he’s the right person at the right time to continue the growth and be a very successful CEO for USA Volleyball and I’m rooting for him.

VBM: I would expect nothing less.

Beal: Managing a national-governing body is a pretty unique environment and pretty unique world that we operate in. Part of what makes it so unique and I’m not sure any of us really realize it until we’re working in it and embedded in that position, but the balancing of essentially being three different organizations is quite a challenge.

We call ourselves USA Volleyball and we are a national governing body under the auspices of the U.S. Olympic Committee. To be very succinct and direct about it, really about the only thing the U.S. Olympic Committee is particularly concerned about is are you going to win gold medals? Are you going to win gold medals? So that becomes a really important issue. And you have to pay attention to that because you’re operating under a federal mandate and the by-laws of the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Amateur Sport Act. That’s a hard thing to communicate to the broad membership. It’s even a hard thing to communicate, frankly, and articulate in a meaningful way to your own board of directors and it takes a while for most of them to understand and be comfortable with that.

The second part of who USA Volleyball is that you’re a national federation. You’re one of like 210 national federations affiliated with our international federation, which is the FIVB. And what they really care about is are you hosting events, can our sport gain commercial traction in your country, do you bring sponsors and television broadcasters to the sport so the FIVB can grow around the world. That’s important. They certainly like the fact that USA Volleyball is successful and we have great teams and we win medals, but they’re OK if you don’t as long you provide some commercial viability and the sport has traction in your country.

And thirdly, and the most obvious to most people, is that we’re a national sporting organization. So we govern our sport at some level across the country through our 40 regions and the regional assembly and the junior assembly and the officials assembly and the beach assembly and all the sub-structures of what is USA Volleyball. The 350,000 members and all the championship events we run and the regional events and the thousands and thousands of events that are organized by our regions. The challenge, the difficult part, and it’s not unique to volleyball and is a challenge for most of the NGBs, is how do you balance the resources you have to those three frequently competing priorities? Or competing objectives that you have to meet? You have obligations to the U.S. Olympic Committee, you have obligations to the FIVB, you have obligations to the membership and the region. And you have limited dollars, limited resources, limited time. So that’s a constant balancing act. It’s important to articulate it and for the different organizations you’re responsible to to understand that as best they can. It’s a challenge, a never-ending challenge.

It was always interesting to explain to the FIVB how the governance of USA Volleyball works. It’s always interesting to try to explain to the regions and substructures why our national teams are not available to them to play matches in every region and why our international athletes and Olympians are not available to them all the time. It’s interesting to explain to the U.S. Olympic Committee about junior and youth programs and we need them to help us produce events. At some level all those organizations get it and at some level it’s simply outside their day-to-day world.

Doug Beal at the World League/USA Volleyball photo
Doug Beal at the World League/USA Volleyball photo

VBM: You turn 70 very soon but you have the energy and physicality of someone much younger.

Beal: Is that a question? (laughs).

VBM: I guess. You’re a young 70. Thoughts about that?

Beal: I hope that’s the case for a while. I don’t know. I lost my mother in the middle of last year. My wife lost her father at the end of last year. Sadly, our sport and lots of us individually just lost Carl McGown. I certainly understand the frailty of life. I think keeping active and engaged in things you’re passionate about is a big part of staying young, I guess.

I’ve tried to use this line, I’ve retired from USA Volleyball but I’m certainly not retiring from life. There are some projects that I’m passionate about and committed to. Some are connected to initiatives that I started with USA Volleyball that I’ll have more time to work on, some are outside of USA Volleyball, but most are connected to sport, broadly. I have great interest in those projects and collaborating with a lot of people who I’ve been fortunate to know over the years. I just keep coming back to that I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of people and be at a lot of special events, so I’m hoping to stay connected.

VBM: I assume that would be with the national teams?

Beal: I couldn’t be prouder of the national-team programs we’ve put together with some really terrific leadership over the years. From Hugh to Jenny Lang Ping to Alan Knipe to our current coaches. I think John (Speraw) and Karch (Kiraly) are as good as it gets. The structure that we put together in Anaheim and in Torrance for the beach is outstanding. I think John Ruger and Sean (Scott) are really terrific and that’s a big part of what I’m proud of and hopefully I’ll stay in some level connected to our national-team programs.

We’ve built a really solid pipeline. I want to say that I’m enormously proud of our High Performance program, both beach and indoors. We exposed a lot of kids to a quality experience and got them excited about the national teams, certainly playing internationally but as a sport for a lifetime.

Doug Beal and VBM's Lee Feinswog at the International Volleyball Hall of Fame in October 2016
Doug Beal and VBM’s Lee Feinswog at the International Volleyball Hall of Fame in October 2016

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