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> Jack Barnaby 1910-2002; Legendary Squash Coach at Harvard

Jack Barnaby
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Barnaby: A Retrospective

Barnaby – Harvard Coach, Squash Legend

By Rob Dinerman, March
5 2002

Peter Briggs ’73 gratefully noted
that his revered college squash coach was the only constant in his life
during the turbulent period of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Glen Whitman ’74, who succeeded Briggs
as team captain, admiringly declaimed the freedom his mentor gave his
charges to integrate the game into the larger context of their overall
educational experience at Harvard.

Dinny Adams ’66, who won many matches
during his varsity career despite unexceptional athletic skills, praised
the legendary icon’s unique ability to develop players of widely varying
characteristics and to tailor their individual traits to achieve success.
Jay Nelson ’62, who played only at No. 7 but has since gone on to win
numerous age-group national championships in both hardball and softball,
related how much of a transforming impact his middle-aged role model’s
obvious respect and enthusiasm for the game he taught had on the way Nelson
himself came to view a sport he previously had been guilty of under-valuing.

And Dave Fish ’72, captain of the
Crimson squads in both tennis and squash and Barnaby’s successor as head
coach of both programs, marveled at the extraordinary and rare blend of
professorial sophistication and boyish enthusiasm that imbued his role
model throughout the latter’s 44 glorious years at the helm.

What all of these men, plus thousands
of others, shared was a boundless respect and affection for exponentially
the greatest coach in American intercollegiate squash history, John Mortimer
Barnaby II, known to all as Jack, who on the morning of February 13th
peacefully passed away at age 92 in his home in Lincoln, MA.

Affectionately referred to as “the John Wooden of Squash” and “Barnabus
Rex” (Latin for “Barnaby the King”), the avuncular and bespectacled Barnaby
coached Harvard squash and tennis teams for seven decades and, more importantly,
became for all of his proteges an enormously (in many cases, the most)
important influence in their lives. His coaching record compellingly speaks
for itself—346-95 in men’s squash from 1937-76 after his five years
as assistant to his predecessor Harry Cowles; 28-4 as women’s coach from
1979-82, during the last year of which the team added a Howe Cup (the
women’s equivalent of the national team title) to the 17 National championships
and 16 Ivy League crowns the men’s team had won on his watch; and 371-158-3
in tennis, including six EITA/Ivy League titles.

Eight of his squash players won the
Pool Trophy as Intercollegiate Individual Champions, and of this group
Ben Heckscher, Victor Niederhoffer, Anil Nayar and Briggs all went on
to win the USSRA Nationals as well, as did Michael Desaulniers, who entered
Harvard immediately after Barnaby’s retirement in ’76 as part of the latter’s
determination to get his hand-picked successor off to a good start.

Since Barnaby himself attended Harvard
from 1928-32, when he graduated cum laude with a degree in Romance Languages
and as the No. 2 player and an Intercollegiates semi-finalist on Harvard’s
USSRA National Championship squash team, and since even after ending his
three-year tenure as women’s coach in ’82, he remained active in both
programs as an associate head coach for 15 more years, he wound up playing
a major role in the Crimson program for SIXTY-NINE YEARS, from 1928-97
(except for a brief period during World War II when Harvard didn’t field
formal teams), during which he received a host of awards and appointments
while compiling a competitive record that, barring an absolute miracle,
will never be approached, much less equalled.

He was inducted into the Intercollegiate
Squash and Tennis Halls of Fame in ’89 and ’82 respectively and USTA/New
England and USSRA Squash Halls of Fame in ’95 and ’01 respectively. He
also received the Gardner Chase Memorial Award, given to the person who
has contributed the most to New England Tennis, and the Presidents Cup
and Man Of The Year Award by the national amateur and pro squash associations
respectively for his efforts in furthering the sport.

With Barnaby’s induction in ’95 into
the Women’s College Squash Hall of Fame, he became the only coach to be
in the Hall of Fame of both the men’s and women’s intercollegiate organizations.

The world-famous university itself
has bestowed a number of honors upon one of its most successful and articulate
alumni, including the Harvard Varsity Club Award in ’88, the Major “H”
by the Department of Athletics in recognition of his accomplishments in
both squash and tennis while an undergraduate and the Harvard Medal, the
only University-wide award honoring extraordinary service to Harvard,
which he received as a highlight of commencement exercises in the spring
of ’85. In addition to his extensive two-sport coaching commitments, Barnaby
also served as an officer of several regional and national tennis and
squash associations and is considered the primary force in the establishment
of a credible training, testing and certification program for aspiring
squash teaching professionals.

But far more important than any of the foregoing, both in Jack’s eyes
and in the perception of his many devotees worldwide, is the vision he
always maintained in running his racquets programs, the coaching philosophy
he espoused, the importance of his books and lectures in the growth and
enhancement of the college game and, most important of all, the impact
he had, which included but extended way beyond the squash and tennis courts,
on the character and morals of everyone fortunate enough to play for and
learn from him.

That latter term is revealing; Barnaby
was first and foremost an EDUCATOR rather than merely a coach. While he
fully endorsed the views of former Harvard President Charles Eliot, who
declared at a speech he gave at Johns Hopkins in 1889 that athletics is
a significant part of a fully lived life, he strongly believed that the
primary reason a student was at Harvard was to get an education, and that
squash should be integrated into that larger mission rather than vice-versa.

This was true of his own undergraduate
experience after his high school years in Hackensack, NJ, and, unlike
virtually all of today’s coaches, he was delighted that he wasn’t allowed
to go out and recruit, preferring instead to take whomever showed up and
develop them to the top of their potential. In that spirit, he ran a remarkably
unstructured program.

Rather than mandate a certain afternoon slot for “team practice,” he allowed
his players to schedule their own practice times and partners, with the
understanding that his players had varying academic requirements and could
be trusted with the responsibility of arranging their time in such a manner
as to fulfill those responsibilities while still making sure they made
their squash commitment a priority as well. Such was the comraderie and
self-policing power within the roster and the respect Harvard players
internalized for the program they were representing and the tradition
they were upholding, as well as for their teammates and especially their
coach, that every player was spurred by such a strong sense of responsibility
to live up to that degree of autonomy that, if anything, he practiced
longer and harder than he otherwise would have done.

Barnaby also believed that he had
a responsibility as coach not only to devote as much time and energy to
his second- and third-echelon players as he did to his stars, but also
to tailor each player’s game to his individual characteristics. His longtime
rival, Yale coach John Skillman, whose 39-year tenure fully overlapped
with Barnaby’s and who had himself won three pro titles in the mid-1930’s
by volleying virtually every ball, tried to get all of his players to
employ the same tactic that had worked so well for him, regardless of
whether or not they were best suited to that approach. By marked contrast,
Barnaby had a unique ability to size a young player’s strengths and weaknesses
up quickly, to seize upon a game plan that would maximize that player’s
potential and to communicate that plan with a degree of confidence and
conviction that caused that player to embrace the course his coach was
laying out.

Thus did the feline Nayar and explosive
Desaulniers ramp up the pace to a level their opponents could not sustain,
the ungainly Niederhoffer and broadly built Whitman use their size to
create space and their precise execution of the shots he taught them,
especially the feathered straight drop shot, to hit winners, the slight
Adams and physically unimposing Fish and Eddie Atwood perfect their short
games, vary their pace and shot selection and “hold” their shots long
enough to enhance their deception and the powerfully built Fritz Hobbs
and Richard Cashin, Olympic oarsmen both, use their length and leverage
to dominate their opponents.

And thus did Barnaby completely trounce
his coaching counterpart in New Haven, against whose squad Harvard won
the last 14 dual-meet matches of their rivalry, the last seven of which
were by 9-0 shut-out tallies. Thus also did the Nos. 6 through 9 members
of the varsity, and for that matter the entire junior varsity as well,
fill those normally anonymous positions with an ardor and dedication that
rival colleges lacked at those nether regions of the program.

Though he was a fine tennis player in
high school, Barnaby himself had never played squash prior to entering Harvard
and it took him several years of gradually improving and winning challenge
matches before he worked his way up by the end of his junior year to the last
spot on the varsity team that won the first of two consecutive National Team
Championships. By the middle of his senior year, he had advanced all the way
to the No. 2 position. His own first-hand experience taught him the value
of maintaining morale throughout the roster, as well as the importance of
“coaching deep.”

If anything, he seemed to derive
more pleasure from the exploits of Johnny Francis, who won the deciding
match of the Ivy League title-deciding meet against Princeton at No. 9
with a fifth-game rally from 9-14 in ’64, or from Steve Sonnabend’s comeback,
also at No. 9, from down two games to love that clinched another 5-4 win
over Princeton for the league crown, than he did from the individual Intercollegiate
championship trophies his octet of Pool-winning superstars brought back
to Cambridge.

And he seemed as well to take more
pride and satisfaction from the progress made during their college years
by the many players who, like himself, had never touched a squash racquet
before arriving at Harvard than he did from those who had already won
Interscholastic and/or Junior championships by the time they graduated
from prep school.

In this vein, the upset Crimson tennis
victory in 1958 over a heavily-favored Yale squad that featured Davis
Cuppers Donald Dell and Gene Scott, keyed by a win in second doubles that
involved surviving a total of nine match points, is an especially favorite
Barnaby memory, as are Eddie Atwood’s win in squash from two-love down
against Penn star Jeff Condon, whom Atwood had never previously come close
to defeating, that gave Harvard the ’70 title, the ’73 team that rallied
from four matches to one down to overcome a powerful Penn squad at Penn
and the ’50 team that was so crippled by injury and illness that the No.
17 player was actually playing at No. 9 by the time the crucial matches
came around in late February, yet still managed to win that season’s Ivy
League championship.

As a role model and builder of character, Coach Barnaby was without peer.
Notwithstanding the freedom he allowed his players and his genius for
tailoring each person’s game to his own individual traits, he indoctrinated
in everyone the importance of fair play and good sportsmanship; he never
wanted any Harvard player to win a point the equity of which his opponent
could, or did, question.

All Harvard teams were thoughtful,
well schooled, invariably poised and very aware of the legacy they were
advancing. This Barnaby ensured with the potpourri of anecdotes, reminiscences
and parables from the past that both were instructive and conveyed to
his proteges an appreciation for the breadth and magnitude of the tradition
they had been vested with the honor and responsibility of enhancing. ’93
Pool finalist Marty Clark, who would go on to win four S. L. Green USSRA
softball titles, fondly recalls spending hours in the small Harvard coaches
office at Hemenway Gymnasium just listening to Barnaby’s tales of the
exploits of Harvard players from decades ago and the understanding he
thereby gained of the context within which his own career was positioned,
almost the way one better appreciates his ancestors after researching
a family genealogy.

Adams, who had learned
very little squash during his two prep-school seasons playing at Andover
but who eventually cracked the top ten of the USSRA national rankings
several years after graduating from Harvard, noted that he learned more
about history, ethics and even economics from Barnaby than he did from
anyone else.

Briggs, citing Barnaby’s
multiplicity of skills and interests (which included chess, French, investing
and the piano, at all of which Jack excelled) and who has posted five
rules on conduct for the many junior players he coaches in his current
position as head professional at the Apawamis Club in Rye, NY that are
a distillation of Barnaby’s aforementioned blue-ribbon code, said his
coach was the only person he could converse with for hours without squash
ever being discussed. He also noted how moved he was when his aging decades-long
mentor, who by then was well into his 80’s, went way out of way to be
present for Briggs’s induction into the College Hall of Fame eight years

Bill Doyle, who coached
the men’s and women’s programs for the seven-year period from 1993-99,
during which the Crimson teams won 13 of a possible 14 Ivy League championships,
marveled both at the energy the by-then octogenarian Barnaby still exuded
and, more significantly, by the selflessness this nonpareil coach demonstrated
in subverting his ego and fully supporting Doyle in the latter’s head
coaching position, even going so far as to adopt the humorously self-effacing
signature line “Jack The Hack” at the conclusion of the numerous and incredibly
insightful hand-written letters of coaching suggestions he penned for
Doyle’s benefit.

And Fish—who played
for and apprenticed for several years under Barnaby, just as Barnaby had
played for and apprenticed for several years under Cowles, and who faithfully
and frequently visited Barnaby right to the end in the assisted-living
center where he and his wife, Charlotte (who survives him, as do their
three children), spent his last years, just as Barnaby had done the same
with Coach Cowles five decades earlier during the latter’s last years
of confinement in a hospital—lauded his legendary predecessor as a “cerebral
coach, an easy-to-read author, an ethical leader and a heady businessman.”

Never was the continuity of Barnaby’s influence on his multitudinous disciples
more graphically displayed than at the Harry Cowles Invitational, an annual
late-January highlight of the amateur season which was held in midtown
Manhattan on the Harvard Club of New York’s stately sixth-floor courts.

The event, which had a brilliant half-century
run from 1947-96, was founded by three-time National champion Germain
G. Glidden, who won both the Intercollegiate and National championships
in the mid-1930’s period when Cowles was still head coach and Barnaby
was his assistant. Beginning with his arrival Thursday evening, when he
always gave a much-anticipated pre-tournament clinic in front of an overflow
gallery to get the weekend festivities started, Barnaby would invariably
spend the entire next three days surrounded by admiring squash alumni,
who took turns in what almost devolved into a pilgrimage to pay homage
to The Master and receive his benediction.

Totally in his element in that setting,
Jack would spend much of that time holding court in the pro shop or the
lounge area outside the courts, regaling his listeners with an endless
supply of occasionally apocryphal but always copiously detailed remembrances
and reminiscences of past Harvard or Cowles performances and protagonists,
dominating his opponents to their admiring chagrin on the chess tables
close to courtside or renewing friendships and acquaintances with Harvard
Club denizens and (especially) former members of teams he coached.

Particularly fascinating were the
interactions with this latter group, effectively Barnaby’s squash offspring,
with the legend who had coached and counseled them, often to outstanding
individual achievements, during their formative years as undergraduates
at one of the nation’s foremost universities. Many of these alumni had
subsequently experienced extraordinary professional and financial success
in such anointed pursuits as finance, medicine and the law, which had
caused them to receive confirmation in any number of ways of the formidable
standing they had attained, in spite of which when they respectfully approached
their aging former mentor to “catch him up” on what they were up to, the
enduring power of their desire for his approval was quite visibly written
on all their faces.

Such was Barnaby’s continuing influence
on pupils who might have graduated decades ago, that it seemed that only
by receiving his certifying stamp of approval (which was always generously
bestowed at precisely the proper moment and sometimes conveyed as well
in cherished letters he sent them, always laboriously written out in Jack’s
distinctive longhand scrawl, in the aftermath of some achievement he learned
about) could they truly find the fulfilling authentication they had been
seeking. The whole exchange strongly reminded one of the famous baseball
scene a few years ago when the recently retired eight-time National League
batting champion Tony Gwynn, a first ballot Hall of Famer for sure, responded
to a question about hitting posed to him by another New England icon,
Ted Williams, his eyes clearly betraying a wish for the mercurial Williams’s
approval and an anxiety about whether or not he had responded correctly.

As was the case with his legendary coaching contemporary, UCLA Basketball’s
John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, Barnaby’s importance as a role model
for his players, if anything, increased with time’s passage, to the point
where many Harvard squash and Bruin basketball alumni in later years claimed
unequivocally that these men were the most influential figures in their
entire college experience and sometimes in their entire life experience.

As previously noted, Barnaby was often
compared to Coach Wooden, and indeed the two men had much in common. Both
had unthreatening, grandfatherly, bespectacled and professorial appearances
that in each case belied their raging desire to win, and both came up
with their best coaching exactly at the crucial time when their leadership
was most needed. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose Bruin teams won the NCAA championship
during all three years of his mid-1960’s varsity career (which was part
of a Crimson squash-like run of a record seven straight UCLA championships),
could have just as easily been talking about Barnaby when he wrote this
in his autobiography entitled Giant Steps about Wooden after his coach
had steered the team to a tight victory early in Abdul Jabbar’s sophomore
season: “He was always a precise speaker, but in the huddle he enunciated
just a little more clearly, spoke a little more loudly. His eyes seemed
even more sharply focused; he was ALL THERE! He took control of the game….He
guided us when we really needed it, demonstrated his confidence, then
instilled it in us….This man was a killer! This mild-looking middle-aged
midwesterner, who could have stepped out of a Pepperidge Farm ad, was
a cold-blooded competitor when it came time to put everything on the line….He
hadn’t earned our respect, he’d defined it. Over the years there were
several really tight games that he personally won for us.”

That last assertion certainly applied
to Coach Barnaby, who utilized the five-minute break between a match’s
third and fourth games, the only time Ivy League rules allowed coaches
to speak to their players, far more effectively than any of his coaching
counterparts. Many two games to one deficits were successfully surmounted
by Crimson players, who were able to turn their fortunes around by applying
the concise and expertly communicated adjustments Barnaby laid out for

The effectiveness of Jack’s expertise
was augmented by the confidence his charges had in him, just as, conversely,
the confidence of even a superior opposing player was often undermined
by the invidious comparisons he frequently couldn’t avoid drawing between
the advice he was getting from his coach and the wisdom he knew Barnaby
was imparting to his opponent.

The feeling among Harvard’s Ivy League
rivals often was that if you didn’t beat your Harvard opponent in three
games, and thereby prevent mid-match Barnaby’s genius from ever entering
the picture, you might not defeat him at all. It is so rare for someone
to command such respect and convey such a father figure sense of authority
yet simultaneously to exude such irrepressible enthusiasm;

Barnaby was exalted as “Barnabus Rex,”
yet, even as an octogenarian, he was affectionately described as the sophomore
who never seems to graduate. Whitman noted that his coach believed that
the truth should never get in the way of a good story, a spirit that was
eloquently if humorously summarized in the T shirts proclaiming “The Older
We Are, The Better We Were” that were handed out to all of the hundreds
of attendees of Barnaby’s 80th birthday celebration in mid-September of

It seems fitting that probably the
words, especially the declaration in the final sentence, that best summarized
the enduring importance that this absolute hero will have even after his
recent death were spoken by Fish, who as noted was of all Jack’s legion
of proteges the one who most followed in his footsteps.

Speaking at the funeral service on
Monday afternoon, Presidents Day, February 18th, Fish stated that “Above
all, he loved to teach, and never tired of doing so.
while Jack would be the first to say that he was only teaching us to ‘play
a game,’ his lessons served us even better off the court, and will continue
to do so. We will miss him, but we will not forget him.

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Jack Barnaby (above)
Jack Barnaby with rival
Al Molloy Coach at UPENN
Victor Niederhoffer
(above and below)
Charles Ufford
Anil Nayar
Peter Briggs
Jay Nelson
Dinny Adams
Michael Desaulniers