Paul Assaiante Inducted into College Squash Hall of Fame
by Rob Dinerman

photo Trinity Athletics

Dateline March 31st, 2021 --- Paul Assaiante, whose Trinity College men’s teams have won 17 Potter Cups --- emblematic of the men’s college national team championship --- and reached the final round 22 times in the 23-year period from 1997-2019, was inducted into the College Squash Association Hall of Fame last week. Assaiante’s teams have posted a 463-26 overall won-lost record during his 27 years in Hartford, including one period from November 1998 to January 2012 during which the team won 252 consecutive dual meets and 13 straight Potter Cups, both all-time records by a wide margin. A national champion player himself in the 1994 U. S. National Doubles 40-and-over division (with Gordon Anderson as his partner) and in the 2003 50-and-over softball singles flight, he has also distinguished himself as an author, lecturer and the U.S. National Coach for many years.

    Assaiante’s coaching career began at Army West Point in 1974, when he was initially hired as an assistant coach in gymnastics, his first-love sport. After that school’s longtime head tennis and squash coach Ron Holmberg retired two years later, Assaiante was appointed to those positions, where he served for nine years before becoming first the head pro at the Apawamis Club in Rye from 1985-88, then the men’s squash coach at Williams College from 1988-90, then the head pro at the Baltimore Country Club from 1990-93 and finally the head pro at the Princeton Club of New York prior to starting at Trinity College in November 1994 on the eve of the 1994-95 college squash season.

  It took only two years for Coach Assaiante to make the program into a contender. His first major recruit was Marcus Cowie, who as a freshman led the Bantams to the 1997 Potter Cup final (where they lost 5-4 to three-time defending champion Harvard) and won the Intercollegiate Individual championship, known as the Pool Trophy. The following year, Trinity defeated Harvard in the midseason dual meet, but lost when the teams met again a few weeks later in the 1998 Potter Cup final. But beginning in 1998-99, Trinity went wire-to-wire undefeated for 13 consecutive seasons, more than doubling the previous record of six straight held by Harvard from 1983-88. During that historic winning streak, there was a host of times when it was in serious peril, perhaps the most prominent of them being the 2009 Potter Cup final at Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium, where the host Tigers, leading 4-3, had one of their players, David Letourneau, up 2-0, 7-2 (nine-point scoring) against Parth Sharma. Even after the latter somehow surmounted that daunting deficit en route to an eventual 9-7 fifth-game victory, in the one remaining match, Princeton’s No. 1 player, Mauricio Sanchez, who had defeated Baset Chaudhry in the dual meet between these two schools one week earlier, earned a 5-0 lead in the fifth game of this rematch for the college team championship.

 But Chaudhry wound up winning nine straight points (albeit with a number of hands-out) to give the Bantams their 11th straight championship. After successful defenses each of the next two years, Trinity finally saw the consecutive-dual-meet streak end at the hands of Yale and the consecutive-Potter-Cups streak broken by Princeton during the 2011-12 season. Trinity did regain this title in 2013 and win it as well in 2015, 2017 and 2018 before losing in the finals to Harvard in 2019 and suffering a rare semifinal loss to Penn in 2020.

  Even though by then 35 years had passed since Assaiante’s time at West Point, one statement by General MacArthur has stayed with him and greatly influenced the way he coached (and continues to coach) throughout that lengthy interim.  The General’s declaration that, “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields, will bear the fruits of victory” was engraved on a statue of him that stood right outside the West Point gymnasium, which meant that Assaiante read it when he passed by the statue on his way to the squash courts every single day. Although winning championships is certainly a significant marker of a coach’s success, when asked to share his view of the essence of his coaching philosophy, Assaiante’s response was/is that his status as a coach has given him the opportunity, through the vehicle of sport, to better prepare the student-athletes on the squash team for the challenges of living their post-college lives.  When given a chance to elaborate, Assaiante emphasized that in the crucible of athletic competition one learns how to win, how to lose, how to strategize, how to make adjustments on the fly, how to maintain control of one’s emotions and to cope with and rebound from temporary setbacks, bad luck, unexpected obstacles --- pretty much all the contingencies that one will run into in living one’s broader life present themselves in the microcosm of sport.

   Assaiante’s other major mantra besides the lessons embodied in MacArthur’s dictum are that, even though he initially viewed himself as coaching an individual sport, he learned over the years that it is really all about the team, which made him realize the importance of impressing upon his players that they “are not in this alone,” and that they will be more productive, effective and fulfilled when they are focusing on the greater good rather than solely on themselves. Trinity College’s teams have always been known for being close-knit, for the fierce loyalty among teammates and for their awareness that each player owes it not only to himself but to the team members competing on the courts next to theirs to give his absolute maximum effort in each match that he plays. Indeed, even though three of Assaiante’s players --- namely Cowie in 1997 and 1998, Bernardo Samper in 2002 and Chaudhry in 2008 and 2009 --- have won a combined five Individuals titles, there have also been years in which his players expended so much of themselves in the Potter Cup tournament that none of them were able to win even a single main-draw round in the subsequent Individuals tournament.

 Assaiante has acknowledged that when he started out as a coach more than four decades ago, his main ambition was to attain success and receive acclaim, but he now feels that what matters most to him are the times he has shared and the relationships he has formed with his legion of current and former players, more than 125 of whom turned out to share the moment with him when he was inducted into the U. S. Squash Hall of Fame at a ceremony at Drexel College during the 2016 U. S. Open. The original plan had been to have a similar “live” ceremony when he and Dave Slosburg, the other CSA Hall of Fame inductee from the Class of 2021, were honored last week, but, in prudent deference to the Covid 19 pandemic that caused the cancellation of the entire 2020-21 college squash season, the ceremony had to be conducted “virtually.” Two of Assaiante’s former players, Chris Binnie ’12 and Rick Penders ’18, both of whom later became his assistant coaches, spoke on his behalf during the video tribute, as did two of the school’s administrators, namely Joanne Berger-Sweeney, the President of Trinity College, and Drew Galbraith, its Director of Athletics. The hope is that, when life eventually gets back to normal in the U. S., there will be a live ceremony at which time these inductees can be, albeit belatedly, honored in person.

    Although Assaiante has always claimed that, “When you are inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player, it’s all about you, but when you are inducted as a coach, it’s all about your players,” it is worth noting that, through a half-dozen student generations of Bantam squash players, the only common denominator in nearly a quarter-century’s worth of championships has been Paul Assaiante himself, and he seems to be fully on track to continue mentoring his charges and giving them life lessons that they can use on and off the court for many years to come.