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In Memoriam: Al
Molloy, college coaching great.

Commentary by Bill Lyon (6/29/22000) © Philadelphia
Inquirer, 2000 reprinted with permission of Bill Lyon and Philadelphia Inquirer

updated on March 18, 2001)

He was a Marine, and as Marines everywhere
are so quick to tell you, there is no such creature as an ex-Marine. He could
be crusty and demanding as a coach, tyrannical on the subject of effort and
despotic about never, ever, cheating yourself. There was about him the aura
of blue steel.

So it might have seemed strange to some
yesterday when, in the polished-beam glory and stained-glass splendor of the
Wayne Presbyterian Church, a granddaughter of Albert George Molloy Jr., a
little girl bright as morning dew, was lifted up until she could reach the
microphone to say, in a tiny but brave voice: “I loved Grampa ’cause he would
let us jump on him, and we could try to pull down his socks and he wouldn’t
care. And once I gave him a hairdo and he didn’t mind.”

The audience laughed. The audience wept.
What struck you was that the eulogists and all those others who remembered
Al Molloy didn’t find it at all unusual that the same cantankerous, crusty,
demanding coach also had a tender, compassionate, nurturing side. That was
what drew them to him, after all.

They knew that, at heart, the Marine was
a marshmallow.
The growl only masked
the gentleness.

Al Molloy was married to Sheila, his widow,
for 46 years. He was married to the University of Pennsylvania
almost as long.
He coached tennis
and squash at Penn, made the Quakers powerhouses in the racquet sports. He
produced national champions and all-Americans, and his teams and players won
443 times.

But the numbers, impressive as they are,
still are just numbers. What mattered to Al Molloy were people, the ones he
shaped and crafted and molded, the ones he encouraged to change, and the ones
he changed to encourage. For half a century he was a teacher and a coach,
and those who came under his spell all testify, with a ringing fierceness,
that they were never quite the same.

They recalled his locker-room monologues,
impassioned and sprinkled with life lessons, frequently running on for as
long as two hours, with the indefatigable Marine rarely pausing even for breath
as he lashed them for their errors and praised them for their trying. As is
almost always the case with the special coaches, the games, the competition,
never seemed quite as important, or as lasting, as the counsel.

Eliot Berry, one of Al Molloy’s players
and his eulogist yesterday, said: “Al encouraged us to look from the heart
out, rather than from the racquet in. He loved us for daring to try. Some
people thought he loved losers more than winners, and maybe he did. He never
pulled punches, and he cared so very, very much for how we did.”

Unhesitatingly, Brian Roberts, of the
Comcast empire, said: “Second only to my dad, Al Molloy had the most influence
of any person in my life. I was a 130-pound freshman walk-on, and from him
I learned how to have fun, how to lose, how to be gracious, how to try hard,
how to be patient, how to persevere. It was a privilege to play for him.”

There was, his players recalled, a calmness
about him that was reassuring to them. They talked about how he would negotiate
the catwalk above the squash courts or the far boundaries of the tennis court
with a rolling-shouldered quick-step that told them all was well. And at the
same time he fairly quivered with competitive intensity. He was a shock for
many of them. More than one spoiled-brat prep school hotshot from a background
of privilege and wealth showed up throwing temper tantrums only to be brought
up short by the gruff Marine. He made them good.

But what mattered more was, he cared about
them, and why is it that the enormous, life-altering impact of such a simple
thing as that always takes us by surprise? In the racquet-sports culture of
Philadelphia, Al Molloy was both dean and legend. He had been a whiz-bang
player himself, and had gone against the best squash players in the world.
Yet no one can ever recall hearing a boastful word from him.

He was 72 when he died, on Sunday, and
not many hours removed from the golf course. Back problems limited his swing
and thus his distance on the course, but he always coached his players to
adjust, to compensate, and so he made himself into a deft putter. Eliot Berry
said that Al Molloy lived and taught much as he held the squash racquet, with
just the thumb and forefinger, loose and easy on the back swing. But then
at the point of impact the grip became that of two men, strong and sure and
without compromising, the resulting stroke a combustible combination of force
and finesse.

He would arrange for his teams to play
in London every couple of years, and he would always find a way to raise the
money for the trip. And one time they landed, bleary and jet-lagged, only
to discover that the coach had misread the schedule and they would have to
bus straightaway from airport to match. It gave them something to tweak him
about. He only pretended to protest.

Some of his other players carry with them
still the memory of those return trips from a competition at some remote New
England outpost in the teeth of winter. His squash teams didn’t enjoy the
easy, pampered life of the mercenary on scholarship. They did not charter
to away matches. They did not even bus. No, they folded themselves up and
stuffed themselves into Al Molloy’s station wagon, and they watched him as
he hunched over the wheel, face pressed almost against the windshield, feeling
for the road through the swirling snow blurs and the snaking drifts, inching
along at 20 miles per hour, venturing where even the snowplows wouldn’t. And
always, always, he got them home. Bill Lyon’s e-mail address is blyon@phillynews.com

SQUASHTALK NOTE: Al Molloy was, in
addition to long-time Penn coach, twice runner up in the US Professional Championships
(now the Tournament of Champions) in 1956 and 1958. Molloy was author of WINNING
SQUASH (1978), Contemporary Books Inc., and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED BOOK OF SQUASH
(1963), J. B. Lippincott.