HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — Chris Marlowe was well ahead of his time when, in 1984, hours before he was set to play in the biggest match of his circuitous and successful volleyball career, he took a quiet moment to himself and put pen to paper.
“If gold is our destiny…” he began.
It’s a sentence that, nearly four decades later, would become the eponymous title of Sean P. Murray’s first book, If Gold is Our Destiny: How a Team of Mavericks Came Together for Olympic Glory. The book provides a deep look inside the 1984 United States men’s indoor volleyball team, the 12 players — and, more importantly, the coaching staff — who would forever change the culture of indoor (and beach, in both direct and indirect ways) volleyball in the United States.
Before that 1984 team? The men were a moribund morass of mediocrity. The coaches knew it. Players knew it. The fans — or, perhaps more accurate, the absence of them — knew it.
And then everything changed.
It’s that change in culture, the rapid turnaround, that appealed most to Murray. The founder and CEO of RealTime Performance, a company that provides leadership and organization development services to corporations, Murray was fascinated by how American coaches Carl McGown, Doug Beal, and Bill Neville, among others, shifted the culture of a cellar dwelling program into the best in the world.
“It all started with a gift from my wife, a book she gave me. It was called The Boys in the Boat,” Murray recalled on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I was really inspired by the story, and I come from a world of leadership development and organization development, I help companies develop cultures and build winning teams and help organizations align their people and talent for business success. I teach these principles but people love to learn from sports stories. I often hear ‘How would Michael Jordan do it?’ Or ‘How did Bo Jackson get to be so great?’ ‘Tom Brady, why is he so great?’ I thought to tell a story about a team and really understand how they did it, how they became the best in the world. I started thinking about teams and the one that popped into my head was this 1984 USA men’s national volleyball team that went to the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.”
They didn’t just go to those Olympics — that team won gold, kicking off a dynastic decade for the Americans, one in which they’d win their first gold, then their second, in 1988, then nearly a third straight, in 1992. Where most writers looking to study dynasties might lean to the Boston Celtics squad that won eight NBA titles in the 1960s, or John Wooden’s indomitable UCLA team, or Geno Auriemma’s UConn women, the 1984 men’s national team was an easy choice for Murray. While the aforementioned teams have been studied ad nauseam, the mavericks of 1984 had a fascinating story that hadn’t been told, a story that aligned perfectly with Murray’s business. It also helped, of course, that Murray was there, in the Long Beach State gym, to witness Karch Kiraly, Pat Powers, Steve Timmons, Dusty Dvorak, Craig Buck, Aldis Berzins and the rest of the Americans win gold.
“I was there,” said Murray, who was 13 at the time. “My dad [Don Murray] was the team’s sports psychologist. He was helping Doug Beal and the coaching staff coach what I call mavericks, many of whom played on the beach, to play together as a team. I knew they won gold and I knew they went on to dominate. I knew it wasn’t a fluke. They went onto win a World Cup, World Championships, another gold medal in Seoul, and they almost took gold again in 1992. So it was just a dominant, dynastic team and I wanted to study it.”
Study he did, interviewing dozens of players and coaches, getting access to Marlowe’s journals, telling sometimes hilarious, sometimes gripping, sometimes almost impossible to believe stories of the team that would become the best in the world.
“I think you can learn a lot by studying this team. I’m not saying you take everything this team did and do it, but you can look for shared significant life experiences, you can look for ways to build relationships outside of the sport, you can look for ways to serve for one another,” Murray said. “I’ve found that caring for one another as teammates is very important. I’m a huge fan of Ted Lasso. I know that’s fictional, but the reason it resonates, and the reason we love that show is we all instinctively know we need those two things… he’s successful because they completely took the strategic element away from Ted Lasso and they said let’s just make this coach purely be psychological, building a culture, and have some fun with that. The reason it’s so successful is we all know that intrinsically. It reveals a truth: As coaches, you have to build a culture.”
Beal and assistant coach Bill Neville, however, weren’t simply tasked with building a culture. They first had to scrap the old ways — assemble 12 talented players, practice for a week, compete — and begin from scratch. They experimented with concepts well ahead of their time. They developed a full-time, year-round training center…in Dayton, Ohio, of all places. They employed not one but two sports psychologists, who were chidingly referred to as the shrinks. They cut some of the best players — Tim Hovland, Sinjin Smith, Randy Stoklos, to name a few — and kept several who were viewed as, while not necessarily the most talented, better fits for the team. They invented an American style of indoor volleyball, in an era when the Americans had no such signature.
It wasn’t just the players who were mavericks, see: It was the coaches as well.
“You have to make tough decisions as a coach,” Murray said. “You have to make tough decisions as a program to move forward. That’s one of the things Doug [Beal] said was that he couldn’t be afraid of looking foolish, and he was accused of being foolish, like when he put two passers back there, putting Karch Kiraly and Aldis Berzins, back to receive serve. It was unorthodox, it was unheard of, and when they first rolled it out, people thought it was a little strange, but he said we’re going to try it, we’re going to learn from it, and we’re going to grow. Same thing goes with Hovland not being on the team; a lot of people thought that was foolish, but they won a gold medal, and those are just some of the tough leadership calls you have to make.”
“It had a big impact on the sport. Just the impact this team had on volleyball and putting volleyball on the map in the United States. The interest level in volleyball after that Olympics went through the roof. During that Olympics, they became the most popular team sport with the coverage from ABC Sports at the Olympics. Every night they were playing, they’d get highlights and fans across America started rooting for this team and they just kept winning and they went all the way to gold. They really put volleyball on the map and laid the foundation for the next generation and we should be really grateful for them.”
None of them — not the players, not the coaches, not the “shrinks” — had any idea if their trailblazing style would ever work. But if gold happened to be their destiny, as Marlowe wrote before their gold medal match, “then so be it.”