Volleyball coach Sato speaks out after dismissal

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

You are given a big project and asked for a long-term commitment. And then you are ousted based on your short-term showing?

It just doesn’t sound right.

But that was apparently what happened between the Japan Volleyball Association and Gary Sato.

Late last month, Sato was fired by the JVA after a little less than a year since he took over as head coach for the men’s national team.

If head coaches and managers in top sports programs and leagues are to be judged solely by their win-loss records, the JVA certainly had a reason to let Sato go. Last year, his team dropped all five matches in the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup and failed to qualify for the 2014 world championships.

But remember this: The Japan’s men team had been awful internationally for years until Sato took the gig.

How bad? Japan had earned a a spot in the Olympics (2008 Beijing) just once in its last five attempts.

And obviously, transforming the noncompetitive squad, which once was an Olympic champion (in the 1972 Munich Games), into a global-level team could not be done in a few days or months.

It’s a project that should require years.

Sato, however, wasn’t given the time.

On Wednesday, the day Sato’s dismissal was revealed, he summarized his frustrations over being fired in an email to The Japan Times, saying that he “barely had a chance to scratch the surface” with the limited time he was given on the national team.

“I was really looking forward to building on what we started,” wrote Sato, whose contract for the national team was through the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. “In addition, the younger players coming in show lots of potential.

“The year of exposure to new things helped expand the awareness of volleyball to the players and coaches of ways to enhance what they are already doing.”

And he emphasized that success wouldn’t come so easily.

“The right set of circumstances have to come together at the right time and you do what you can to put them all together,” said Sato, who had been a long-time assistant for the United States men’s national team.

At an introductory news conference on Thursday for Masashi Nanbu, Japan’s new head coach, none of the JVA executives, including president Yuichiro Hamu and national team general managers Haruhito Kuwata and Yuko Arakida, would blame Sato for his lack of success in 2013.

They said that the Japanese players were not mature enough to match Sato’s coaching, including asking them to voluntarily think on the court, not just move how the coaches would instruct them to.

Fair enough.

But shouldn’t they have spotted issues like that way before? Before they hired Sato a year back?

The JVA executives didn’t give a clear answer to that when reporters pointed it out. Instead, they wound up saying that, despite what happened, Sato had immensely contributed to the national team by trying to install his “smart volleyball.”

“We hired (Sato) from the United States in order to change our men’s game, and it wasn’t a mistake,” Kuwata said. “His intelligent volleyball he’s left for us will be our treasure and we’d like to keep that in ourselves.”

Asked if the JVA felt any responsibility for having appointed someone it ended up thinking wasn’t the right person to lead the national team after all, Hamu said that it would depend on how it can take advantage of this experience for years to come.

“It’s a matter of when you take (the responsibility),” Hamu said. “We’ll just have to try to make it into (something) positive that flows out of this.”

Meanwhile, some national team players supported Sato and were upset about the JVA’s decision.

Wing spiker Yu Koshikawa summarized his emotions on this matter via his Twitter account Wednesday, saying, “What was the past year for?”

“(Sato) wasn’t given time for preparation, he wasn’t able to select players on his own, and they asked him to come up with results in half a year? It’s just too tough on Gary,” the JT Thunders player wrote. “And for what have we fought along with Gary?”

In spite of the harsh treatment by the JVA, Sato, a fourth-generation Japanese-American, cherished the time with the national team.

“To be part of the passion that is Japan volleyball is something I will treasure to the day I die,” he said. “I only wish I had more to contribute in my short time here. It has been my honor to work and meet the people of Japan and I wish them only the best.”

Arakida, a former Olympic gold medalist as a player, said that the new coach, Nanbu, wouldn’t be assessed in the near future, adding that nobody would want to take the job knowing he’s to be judged after a short time.

Yes, she got that right.

But seriously, are we supposed to believe that?

  • srsmith

    Welcome home Gary. Japans loss is our gain! Grow the Game!