Jack Barnaby Obituary

by Rob Dinerman

March 3, 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 ago.

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 them.

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 1989.

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. And 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."

This first appeared on squashtalk.com

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