Cowles, Briggs and Kurtz Profiled
by Rob Dinerman

August 29, 2004 -Three outstanding mentor/coaches, one of whom also had some extraordinary playing achievements in hardball, softball and doubles, will be inducted this October 2nd into the USSRA Hall Of Fame. The ceremony honoring Harvard men's coach Harry Cowles (posthumously), '76 National singles and (with Ralph Howe) doubles champion Peter Briggs and Dartmouth women's coach Aggie Kurtz will take place at the USSRA 100th anniversary dinner, hosted by the University Club Of New York, at which time the three Class of '04 Hall Of Famers-elect, namely Sharif Khan, Demer Holleran and Ned Bigelow, will also (posthumously in Bigelow's case) be inducted.


Harry Cowles demonstrating a stroke, photo © 2004 SquashTalk archives.
Although the late Jack Barnaby, a USSRA Hall Of Fame inductee in 2001in recognition of his 44 glorious years at the Crimson helm, is widely acknowledged as the greatest coach in the history of North American intercollegiate squash, Barnaby himself always insisted that the person most deserving of that prestigious moniker was his own coach at Harvard, Harry Cowles, whom Barnaby would succeed at this position after Cowles ended his 13-year coaching career after the 1935-36 season. During that span Cowles's teams won 11 national collegiate titles and never lost a formal dual meet, an extended performance Barnaby attributes largely to the ability Cowles possessed to think "out of the box" when necessary and to tailor his approach to the individual characteristics of each player.

The fact that Barnaby himself was known by HIS players (including his own successor and protege Dave Fish, whose 13-year coaching career from 1976-89 book-ended the Cowles era and completed Harvard's 70-year coaching trilogy) for this exact trait is itself a tribute to the gift he perceived, and later emulated, in his role model. Examples of the foregoing are when Cowles famously substituted cheap silk string for high-quality gut in the racquet of the power-hitting Beekman Pool, whose streaking drives thereby didn't come off the back wall and instead turned his shots into winners and himself into a national champion; the manner in which he maximized Germain Glidden's exceptional quickness by encouraging him to hit the kind of high-return but high-risk shots (like the three-wall) that he would have discouraged in others, since Cowles knew that Glidden was fleet enough to out-run the set-ups that would occasionally result from his daring salvos; and the subtle fashion in which he played off the egos and aspirations of his top players against each other in a way that would keep all of them at top competitive pitch.

Harry Cowles Landmark Squash Book; photo © 2004 SquashTalk archives.
Barnaby also claimed that Cowles was not only the game's greatest teacher but a terrific player, an aspect of the Cowles persona that is more difficult to quantify, since Cowles gave up all tournament play and confined himself to coaching upon assuming his position at Harvard. The immaculate footwork, flawless execution of every shot (especially the drop shot, often hit for surprise value from behind his opponents), and power to deceive that were the leading elements of his game were all qualities that he tried to impart to his young charges, while also requiring them to evince the total commitment to impeccable manners and clean play that became praiseworthy hallmarks of the Harvard squash program.


The same torch-carrying responsibilities that a grateful Barnaby took on throughout his own splendid career for the legendary achievements of his coach Harry Cowles were equally enthusiastically shouldered on Barnaby's behalf by one of HIS star products, namely Peter Briggs, whose early-career insouciance and long-haired Harvard-days self-presentation belied the extraordinary squash achiever and citizen that he would become.

Peter Briggs on the left wall, photo © 2004 SquashTalk archives.
Blessed from the start with the remarkable athletic and racquet talent that brought him in '69 to the New England Interscholastic championship and No. 1 U. S. Junior ranking, Briggs would combine his innate gifts with the humility to buy into Barnaby's ministrations (resulting in Intercollegiate Individual crowns his junior and senior year), the ambition to achieve his potential and the sense of the dramatic to muster his best performances precisely when the pressure was at its apex.

Whether he was rallying from 4-12 to 15-13 in the fifth game of the '75 Nationals semis against Jay Nelson, conquering a bad case of the flu and an early deficit against a first-team all-American opponent to contribute a crucial win in Harvard's 5-4 squeaker over Penn for the '73 Ivy League and national college championship or winning all seven doubles tournaments he entered (with FIVE different partners!) during his magical 1983-84 campaign, Briggs could be counted on to come through in flamboyant and charismatic style. His '76 singles/doubles Nationals parlay was unequalled for 27 years until Preston Quick did so in '03, and that year Briggs also won the Mexican Nationals, the annual Harvard Club Of New York invitational named, fittingly enough, in honor of Cowles, and (again with Howe) the Canadian National Doubles, while reaching the final of the Canadian National singles and the semis of the Boston Open (whose final round Briggs had attained two years earlier), where he took the virtually invincible Sharif Khan all the way to 10-all in the fifth before Khan finally escaped with the win.

His '83-'84 doubles season, arguably the best in squash history to that point, saw him win the Cambridge Doubles and North American Doubles with Mark Talbott (his co-recipient of the WPSA Doubles Team Of The Year designation in a unanimous vote), the Heights Casino event with Gul Khan, the Racquet & Tennis tourney with Larry Hilbert, the Elite and Metropolitan Opens with Dave Johnson and the U. S. Mixed with Joyce Davenport. He also won the Cambridge Club tournament with Ralph Howe in '77 and '81 (and got to the final with Talbott twice in the late 1980's), the North American Open with Jeff Stanley in '95 (after falling just short in the final the previous year), the City Athletic Club invitational with Howe in '77, and the William White twice in the late 1980's with Gordy Anderson. Even as recently as this past spring, Briggs, now 53, collaborated with Peer Pedersen (his partner as well two years earlier in their successful drive to the 2002 U. S. 45-and-over crown) to win the Worlds 45-and-over title in Philadelphia, the host city of his Nationals win 28 years earlier.
In addition to his career exploits on the hardball singles and doubles fronts, Briggs also played on the '76 USA team that competed in the World Team Championships in the international (i.e. softball) game and coached the men's team in '89 in Singapore and '91 in Finland and the women's team in '92 in Vancouver. During the past dozen years of his 16-year (and counting) tenure as the head pro of the Apawamis Club (whose prestigious annual invitational he won four times during the 1970's) in Rye, NY, no fewer than 58 high-school and/or college captaincies have been attained by the products of the highly praised junior program he heads, and the establishment last year at Apawamis of the Briggs Cup, a biennial event on the ISDA pro doubles tour whose $100,000 purse is the highest in the history of squash on this continent, compellingly reflects both its honoree's own competitive accomplishments and the personal regard, admiration and respect that he has richly earned over his 35 years of intense, varied and richly rewarding involvement with the game.


It was just as Briggs was beginning his career at Apawamis that another squash icon, Aggie Kurtz, a true pioneer in the annals of women's college squash and later an inductee into the U. S. Lacrosse Hall Of Fame as well, was leaving her position at Dartmouth after 17 distinguished years. In contrast to Briggs, who at both Harvard and Apawamis entered and greatly enriched programs that already were steeped in outstanding traditions of excellence, Kurtz became in
1972 the first woman appointed to the Dartmouth athletic staff. Charged with establishing, coaching and building up the field hockey, squash and lacrosse women's programs during the first year that women were admitted as undergraduates in Hanover, Kurtz laid the groundwork for the perennially successful programs that emerged in each of these widely differing sports, while playing so integral a role in Dartmouth women's athletics as a whole (including developing intramural programs involving women) that the college wound up naming its annual award for the undergraduate woman "who best combines proficiency in athletics with dedication to the furthering of women's sports" in her honor.

In the competitive sphere, Kurtz (whose participation in the '77 Bancroft Open, the first-ever U. S. women's squash tournament to offer prize money, was part of a playing career that included several top-ten rankings) coached the Big Green to winning dual-meet records in all 17 of her years at the helm.

Highlighting her 117-67 won-lost record (a .649 winning percentage) during that extended span were a dramatic 5-4 (from four matches to love down) first-ever upset win over a favored Princeton squad in '87 and a best-ever second-place Dartmouth finish in the Howe Cup the following year. The Howe Cup itself, emblematic of the women's intercollegiate team championship, owed its very inception in '73 largely to a movement spearheaded by Kurtz, who through her initiative and that of a few of her college coaching colleagues during that critical formative period in the early 1970's made an important contribution to the health and expansion that women's college squash would undergo.

It is in recognition of her continuing efforts to build up the Howe Cup to the exalted status it holds today that in '98 the tournament division in which the Nos. 9-16 teams play off was named the Kurtz Cup in honor of the woman who also received the Achievement Bowl in both '76 and '90, the only two-time recipient of that coveted USSRA citizenship award in its half-century history. The multi-front contributions Kurtz made to the growth of the women's college squash game during a crucial formative period in its existence make her fully deserving of the spot she will take this autumn alongside her Crimson counterparts Cowles and Briggs as USSRA Hall Of Fame inductees in the class of 2005.

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