End Of One Era, Beginning Of A New One

At the end of 2012, the coaches of both our U.S. eventing and show jumping teams will step down after decades in their influential posts, and the process to succeed them is already underway. So far, though, it’s been fraught with controversy and clumsy handling. Capt. Mark Phillips has been the eventing team?s coach since 1993, having been hired in the aftermath of our team?s debacles at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics. Since then, his teams have won numerous medals, including the team gold at the 2002 World Championships and David O?Connor?s individual gold medal at the 2000 Olympics. As the coach, and as a cross-country course designer and a course advisor, He’s largely directed the course of American eventing for most of the last two decades. We could debate until well into the night whether you like that direction. George Morris has been even more influential in show jumping. Although He’s only been the team?s actual coach since after the 2004 Olympics, He’s been extremely influential on the team and on the sport in general for 50-plus years. George moved into the top level in the mid-?50s, under the direction of his mentor, Bertalan de Nemethy, who was the team coach from 1954until 1980. When Bert retired, George and Frank Chapot (also a star student of Bert?s) took over the mantle and jointly ran things. After a long decline in terms of international success, Frank stepped aside (even though the team won the 2004 gold after Germany was taken down for a drug infraction) and let George take over.? He required more authority than Frank ever had, and he led the team to the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. George?s retirement truly marks he end of the de Nemethy era, half a century in which dozens of the riders he trained (especially Morris, Chapot, the legendary Bill Steinkraus, Kathy Kusner, Joe Fargis and Conrad Homfeld) revolutionized training for and competing in show jumping. The U.S. Equestrian Federation has only announced the committee that will choose George?s successor (a committee that includes George), but the eventing coach?s selection process is nearing completion. Seven qualified individuals threw their helmets into consideration, and I feel sorry for the selection committee, as there was? really no bad choice, at least among the candidates we know. The five who were announced have conducted their campaigns for the post rather publicly. But two of them weren?t announced, and I’m not going to try to guess who they were. The committee has narrowed down the list to two final candidates?David O?Connor, who?ll step down as USEF president at the end of 2012 and who last September guided the previously hapless Canadian team to the silver medal at the World Equestrian Games, and Leslie Law, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist from Great Britain who’s been training and competing here for about five years. Controversy and displeasure have erupted over the process as it’s happened so far, some of which is related to which candidate the onlookers favor. USEF officials announced before the process began that it would not be done secretively, that input from all interested parties would be invited and considered. The internet world of onlookers thought that sounded great and chimed in, but that promise hasn?t been kept, at least in appearance. The most serious public-relations mistake, at least so far, has been announcing that the committee had narrowed the candidates to O?Connor and Law, without saying what credentials or plans these two had that the others did not. Why did they do that’ The ?smurfs,? as Phillips so infamously described lower-level riders and fans in a column about a decade ago, have had a fit. Their pique is largely because the popular favorite was Jimmy Wofford, followed by the team of Phillip Dutton and Bobby Costello. The ?smurfs? feel as if they’ve been lied to, as if the promise of open input and consideration was, after all, just window dressing.? If the committee?s plan never really was to consider the rank and file?s input, why annoy them by ballyhooing the openness of the selection and then announcing the top two’ Why not just pretend everyone was still in it until they made the decision’ So, USEF, welcome to the new era of coach selection in the world of the internet, where everyone has an opinion and a computer or a magic phone with which to express it. USEF officials have simply failed to use the internet to purposefully and usefully communicate. Instead, they’ve looked bumbling, uncertain and other-motivated?especially since O?Connor is the president of the organization that’s picking the coach. I wonder if Bert and Jack Le Goff, who coached the eventing team to its greatest successes from 1971 to 1984, would have gotten their posts in today?s so-connected world. They were just little-known guys from Hungary and France who had gotten the attention of influential guys at the old U.S. Equestrian Team?Whitney Stone in Bert?s case and Neil Ayer in Jack?s case. Each of these gentlemen believed that, in the wake of team failures, they had the right man to lead the team in a new direction, and they presented their candidates largely in a way best described as, ?Here’s the man for the job. let’s hire him.? In the case of both, the rest is history and legend. That couldn?t work today, with instant communication, both person to person with cell phones and person to thousands with internet chat rooms, Facebook and YouTube. Today?s connectedness has created a belief that members of our equestrian organizations, whether directly involved or affected or not, have a right to voice an opinion on any decision, or even to make the decision. So it’s bad PR to make a decision like this behind closed doors, but it’s also perilous to try to do it on a brightly lit stage. Hiring a team?s coach is, after all, a personnel decision, and there will always be at least some negotiation points (including salary) that are confidential and must be done in private. Team selection is a similar situation, as horses? soundness is a key and private issue, so it’s somewhat ironic that this controversy is about the leaders of our teams. One of the things we don’t know is what sort of plans, or requirements, they each presented to the selection committee. So Here’s some advice to the USEF?s leaders as they move forward on picking George?s successor and on picking a new chef d?equipe for the endurance team: You should have a committee chairman who is a very good communicator, both verbally and on the social networks. At the least, you should have a spokesman for the chairman who’s good at those things. Somebody needs to be able to talk with (not just to) your members, to accept and understand their thoughts, and to, as honestly as possible, explain the committee?s actions. It won?t work to just hide behind a series of annoyingly ague and uninformative press releases. And if you’re not going to explain coach selection and other important issues better to your members, then stop pretending. Just do it in secret and tell us about it when it’s done. don’t do it halfway.

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