Bob Callahan '77: Hall Of Fame Coach, Hall Of Fame Person
There was a problem, though. It was taken.
Sitting there was Sean Wilkinson, in his brand new “Princeton Athletics” orange polo. This was now Wilkinson’s office, Wilkinson’s team and Wilkinson’s program.
Apparently, though, he wasn’t comfortable taking the chair behind the desk.
Can you blame him?
For 32 years, a man who helped shape both college squash and Princeton Athletics sat there. A man who bookended his Hall of Fame career with heart-stopping championships worked there, dispensing both wisdom and guidance for more than three decades.
That chair — and Princeton Squash — belonged to Bob Callahan.
And he will remain with the program forever.
• • •
Callahan was already an important part of the program before he ever coached a single match. The two-time All-America was part of three Ivy League championship teams, including the 1976-77 squad that went undefeated while he was a senior captain.
He was so respected that Bob Myslik, then the Director of Athletics, asked Callahan to be part of the search committee to replace Norm Peck, whose brief three-year tenure followed Callahan’s days on the court.
Callahan’s thoughts then centered on the possibilities of business school, and his current job with IBM. But Princeton Squash still mattered to him, so he accepted the invitation. At the time, he never could have imagined that the committee’s selection — and the man who would ultimately win 316 matches for the Orange and Black — would be him.
It was a friend of his, former Princeton soccer goalie Guy Cipriano ’78, who first suggested to Callahan that he should consider the position. The notion intrigued him enough to call his own former Princeton coach, David Benjamin, to gauge his thoughts.
“He was very positive about it,” Callahan remembered. “At the time, the head squash coach was also the tennis assistant, so I would be working with him, and he knew that I coached tennis as well.”
Intrigued enough to consider it a little further, Callahan asked Myslik if he could be a late entry into the process.
The rest is Princeton history.
• • •
Rich Zabel ’83 was Princeton’s last hope against Harvard.
It was the 1982 season, Callahan’s first as head coach, and the Tigers were all square at 4-4 in Boston. The Crimson had the edge, though, as its player held a 2-0 lead over Zabel in the final match on court. At 13-all in the third, Zabel chose the first-to-five overtime system. And to make it even more exciting, he spotted his Harvard opponent a 4-0 lead.
Down four championship balls, Zabel fought back for the game and, ultimately, the match. The 5-4 win over Harvard gave Princeton a stunning Ivy title, and the Tigers would go undefeated the rest of the season to win both the Ivy and national crown.
Plenty in the world would change over the next 31 years of Callahan’s tenure.
Ironically, the path to the Ivy title, at least his final one, would not.
• • •
Callahan never had a bad team at Princeton. He won more than 82% of his matches, and the only time one of his teams had a losing record at any point in 32 seasons was when the 2004-05 team lost its season opener to Cornell. (That team, by the way, finished third in the nation.)
Prior to 1986, Callahan also hadn’t coached an all-time player, though. That changed when Jeff Stanley ’89 took his first step on campus.
“I remember Bob being very relaxed and getting along well with all the players,” said Stanley, the 1987 and 1988 individual national champion. “While there wasn’t really much difference in age between Bob and his players in the 80’s, the separation was obvious. Bob showed incredible maturity, patience and restraint for our often-juvenile antics.
“While our team conversations often devolved into something out of Animal House or Porky’s, Bob seemed to be like a character out of the 1950s, like Leave it to Beaver or the Andy Griffith show,” Stanley added. “He remained above the fray and almost unflappable.”
That was Callahan’s style, both on and off the court. He was unflappable. Off the court, you never heard an unkind word from the man, nor anything that could have even been remotely confused with poor sportsmanship.
As for on the court, every stroke in every point mattered.
“Bob’s real strength was his ability to teach proper stroke work and fundamentals,” Stanley said. “At that time, Bob was willing to spend hours on court with people on an individual basis to refine their technique. He taught people to make their games better for the long term and to enjoy the sport for life.”
Through the years, that philosophy made its way beyond the team and through the athletic department. Callahan taught the sport he loved to coaches and staff members alike, so much so that rarely a day goes by when Courts 9 and 10 aren’t being used by his peers.
They may have no idea the differences between a let and a stroke, but they play and love the game. And when Callahan would walk by, he’d always have a proud smile and a coaching tip.
• • •
From Stanley’s 1986 Ivy League Rookie of the Year season through the 1992-93 season, there would be plenty more smiles from Callahan. Following Stanley’s individual titles in 1987 and 1988, Princeton won the 1989 Ivy League title and upset Harvard to win the 1993 national team championship. Princeton also won the now-defunct Six-Man championship in 1988.
“I remember Bob was very patient with us,” said Jack Wyant ’96, the Ivy League Rookie of the Year on the 1993 championship team. “He gave us latitude to make mistakes, and we made many, and the freedom for each team to create its own structure and personality. We had great captains my freshman year, Chuck Goodwin ‘93 and Eddie Fishman ‘95. They worked closely with Bob and, together, molded a talented but rag-tag bunch into an unexpected winner.”
From the 1993-94 season through the turn of the century, Prince-ton had some of the best teams in college squash. Several only lost one match per season. Unfortunately, those were all to Harvard, a riddle Princeton wouldn’t solve until the next great Tiger player — and his younger brother — arrived on campus.
The 1999-00 season started a chain reaction — Yik to El Halaby to The Amigos to Harrity — that can hold its own against any almost any era among the 38 teams at Princeton.
• • •
Peter Yik ’00 was inducted into the Men’s College Squash Hall of Fame last fall, a well-deserved honor after a Princeton career that included four All-America honors and both the 1999 and 2000 individual national championship.
Beyond the individual highlights — and there were many — Yik finally helped Princeton solve that Harvard riddle during the 2000 season. With the match tied at 4-4, it was his victory over the Crimson’s Tim Wyant that all but clinched the Tigers’ first Ivy League crown since 1989.
“The thing about Bob during that run was the quiet confidence he had in the team,” Yik said. “You could just tell that he knew we were going to travel to Harvard and were going to win that Ivy League title. But I think what stood out for me once we got there was how nervous Bob was during the match. I remember watching him pace back and forth between courts, trying to watch every match at all times.
“This was a guy who had coached the Princeton squash team for nearly 20 years at that point, and you could still see that every point meant as much to him as it did to the players on the court,” Yik added. “When we won, the relief followed by happiness he showed, not for himself but for the team, was obvious. He didn’t have to say anything, you could see it right there on his face. Pretty amazing.”
Peter Yik was the leader of a youth-dominated team. His younger brother and 2001 national champion David, along with future CSA finalist Will Evans and both Dan Rutherford and Eric Pearson, were all freshmen in a program that was just about to catch fire.
Princeton missed the 2001 Ivy title by one individual match to Harvard, but it came back with 5-4 wins over Yale and Harvard in 2002 to earn another league crown.
That foursome entered the 2002-03 season as seniors. They had learned from Peter Yik, whom Callahan had called “the best squash player I’ve had the pleasure to watch in action on the college level.”
And they were about to meet somebody who would take that title with a four-year run like the sport has never seen.
• • •
Yasser El Halaby ’06 didn’t magically appear in the fall of 2002. Honestly, he wasn’t even somebody that Callahan grinded after on the recruiting trail.
But his presence at Princeton had plenty to do with Callahan’s effort to grow the sport beyond the collegiate level. When he took over as head coach, Callahan founded the nation’s first major squash camp in 1982; he ran it continuously ever since. He got the young to love the sport, and to play it as best they could.
In 1998 he directed the World Junior Men’s Championships at Princeton, the first time the U.S. had ever hosted a world singles championship. That event, while an incredible success at the time, would grow even more important in Princeton Squash lore. It attracted several of the top young players in Egypt, who apparently enjoyed the experience so much that they told a young prodigy in Cairo.
A couple years later, a man knocked on Callahan’s office door to talk about a recruit. If Callahan had a nickel for every one of those experiences, he could have retired long ago. But this would be the shiniest of all those nickels.
The man shared that El Halaby was interested in Princeton. It was akin to sharing with your child that Santa Claus was coming next month, but only to your house.
It was incredibly exciting, but it didn’t really compute on an intellectual level. No player at that level — El Halaby had already won several age level competitions at the British Junior Open — had chosen college over professional squash at that point.
So Callahan, who can transform a brief office visit into an hour-long conversation about a variety of subjects, turned on the mute button. This seemed like such a longshot anyway, but there was certainly no reason to give anybody else the chance to dream.
El Halaby’s interest was real, and he was eventually accepted. His visa didn’t come in until the day before classes were to begin, so he basically flew into a new country and went to class.
And then he changed college squash forever.
• • •
In many ways, El Halaby and Callahan were the perfect match.
“Playing for Coach Callahan’s team is a privilege that one recognizes after the first few team training sessions but only truly understands with time,” El Halaby said. “I have a tremendous respect for a one-in-a-million individual who exudes kindness, generosity and character integrity. The many lessons I have learned and continue to learn from Coach Callahan are not restricted to the game of squash, but encompass all aspects of life.
“A father-figure, friend and life mentor, Coach Callahan’s greatness as a squash coach rests in his innate ability to recognize the team’s needs and do everything in his capacity to create the most conducive environment for success,” El Halaby continued. “I cannot imagine what my college experience would have been like without Coach Callahan. I have much love and respect for Princeton squash’s leader, one of the greatest squash coaches I have come across.”
Under Callahan’s tutelage, El Halaby became the first collegiate player to win four straight national championship matches, and he never lost a single game in any of the four. He led Princeton to two Ivy League championships, one with a dramatic rally from 2-0, 8-3 down at Yale, and two CSA team finals.
He also won the Skillman Award, one of several players under Callahan to take the top individual honor centered on sportsmanship in college squash.
When remembering Callahan’s legacy within the sport, this fact should be noted in the lead paragraph. While he wanted to win, he expected it to be done the right way. The sport was becoming a bit uglier than Callahan liked, with players trying to force lets or strokes with overly physical play. For these players, El Halaby provided the perfect on-court role model.
‘’[El Halaby] was so fast that he would get around players and never block them off,’’ Callahan said in an interview with The New York Times. ‘’It was clear by his second year that the top players would try to emulate him because it would be too embarrassing not to. He really set the example and set a new level of sportsmanship for the sport.”
He was referring to El Halaby, but Callahan set the ultimate standard over more than three decades.
• • •
El Halaby’s final match in Jadwin came in 2006, during the CSA national team championship match against Trinity. El Halaby played No. 1, while a trio of international freshmen that would be affectionately termed “The Amigos” took the next three spots.
Mauricio Sanchez, Kimlee Wong and Hesham El Halaby (Yasser’s younger brother) comprised one of the great classes ever recruited by an Ivy League program. They held spots two through four behind the elder El Halaby, and each member of the quartet won their final that day.
That would be four. Trinity got the other five.
That was number eight for the Bantams. Sanchez, Wong and El Halaby got opportunities in both 2007 and 2008, but both finals went Trinity’s way in fairly convincing fashion.
They knew that they would have one more shot, and, if they could get there, it would be at the Jadwin Squash Courts.
Thus began the journey to the greatest collegiate match ever played.
• • •
Before we get to 2009, there was a match in 2006 that will hold a significant spot in Callahan’s heart forever. It came from one of his five favorite squash players in Princeton history.
Yes, he loved Stanley and Yik and El Halaby and Harrity. And he loved the guys that never got a headline, but gave of both their own heart and soul to raise the level of Princeton squash. But the ability to share time with Greg, Scott, Tim, Peter and Matt Callahan was truly special.
“I loved every minute of that,” their father said. “To see them everyday was amazing. I let Neil [Pomphrey] coach them, and their challenge matches were tough for me, but who wouldn’t love seeing their sons every day in college?”
The Callahan boys were never fixtures at the top of the lineup, but Tim played a critical match at the No. 9 spot against Yale in 2006. With El Halaby injured, he was called upon for the biggest match of his career, and took the first two games against Yale’s Francis Johnson.
Johnson took the next two, but Callahan bounced back to grab a late 9-8 lead in the fifth. With El Halaby sitting in the front row and both Bob and Kristen Callahan nervously watching, Tim hit one final drive past Johnson for a thrilling 10-8 win.
It left both parents in tears.
• • •
In the maze that is Jadwin Gym, there is a small staircase between the squash offices and a hallway that can take you to either the swimming pool or the locker rooms.
It is a small, non-descript set of stairs.
With both the No. 1 players for both Princeton and Trinity battling at the end of the six-hour marathon 2009 championship match, and with an overflow crowd nearby positioning themselves to see any aspect of Court 1, Callahan sat there alone.
This was now out of his hands.
Six hours earlier, both he and Trinity head coach Paul Assaiante had welcomed the crowd for this much-anticipated final between the 10-time reigning national champion and a Princeton team that had just pushed Trinity in a 5-4 loss one week prior.
Whatever had been anticipated couldn’t have possibly lived up to what would happen.
Five of the nine matches went the distance, and neither team held more than a one-match lead at any point. It was 3-3 entering the final shift, and the drama only intensified. Both teams rallied from a 2-0 hole on the back courts to get within one match of the title, leaving only Sanchez and Trinity’s Baset Chaudhry — another British Junior Open champion — to determine the title.
Sanchez went up 5-0, but in this final match without rally scoring, Chaudhry had time to make up the deficit.
Callahan quietly listened to the crowd reaction on each point, painfully knowing by the volume of the cheers that the momentum has turned in Trinity’s favor. He didn’t see the final point, and he didn’t need to. He knew when it happened, and he calmly got up, went down the stairs to gather and comfort his team.
He was devastated, of course, but far more for his guys than for himself.
At some point afterwards, in the quiet of his office, or perhaps on those nearby steps, Callahan had to wonder if he would ever hold the team championship trophy again. With the Amigos gone, and the international likes of Yik and El Halaby now having more options in the collegiate landscape, it wasn’t looking good.
Of course, sometimes we look so far, and the answer is right in front of us.
And Callahan found his back home.
• • •
A graduate of the Episcopal Academy outside of Philadelphia, young Bob Callahan had big plans at Princeton. He was going to excel at his sport, both in college and beyond.
That sport, of course, was tennis.
Callahan was a fantastic tennis player, and he planned on focusing on that sport when he arrived at Princeton. Fortunately, an old Episcopal teammate, David Page ’75, convinced Callahan to come out for squash as well.
So Episcopal had sent Page, who delivered Callahan. More than three decades later, Episcopal was at it again; Todd Harrity ’13, easily the top American recruit in years, chose Princeton over a host of suitors and immediately gave Princeton that powerful No. 1 player that had carried the Tigers throughout the previous decade.
Harrity, like Yik and El Halaby and so many others, was equal parts talent and sportsmanship on the court, and he reached back-to-back national finals in his first two seasons. As a sophomore, he became the first American to win a national individual title in more than 20 years.
As a junior, he was part of a match that will never be forgotten.
• • •
In 2003, 2006 and 2009, Princeton had hosted Trinity in the national championship. Combined, the Bantams held a minimal 15-12 edge in those three matches; that would be good enough for all three titles.
The three-year cycle landed back in Jadwin on Feb. 19, 2012, and another packed house hoped that this, finally, would be the day.
The first three hours had highlights for both sides, but Trinity came out with the 4-2 edge going into the final shift. On Courts 1 and 3, play was about to begin. On Court 4, Trinity led 1-0. It seemed like another chapter in the same story.
Then Dylan Ward won a game at No. 7. And another. Harrity won his opening game at No. 1. Kelly Shannon fought out of a 5-0 hole in his first game and took the opener at No. 4. Ward finished his match in four. Trinity 4, Princeton 3.
Harrity swept Vikram Malhotra, who, as a freshman, won a key match for the Bantams in the 2009 final. Trinity 4, Princeton 4.
Shannon led 2-0 and started inching closer to the title. This time, the stairs outside of his office were barren. Callahan was under the stands, waiting with an exuberant set of players who were counting down the points before they could celebrate the impossible dream.
Then came the drop shot, a roar from the crowd, and a championship.
The stands erupted as both the winning team and its vociferous fans filed on to Court 4 to celebrate the victory. Assaiante, who introduced Callahan in his Hall of Fame induction and whose requests for one comment or another on his coaching peer were always answered both positively and immediately, said afterwards that he always hoped that, if the streak ever ended, he could hand the title to his good friend Bob Callahan.
“Bob is probably one of my best friends,” said Assainte before the Hall of Fame ceremony. “He does everything with total class. He’s like my brother. He is an iconic figure, bigger than the game of squash. We work in a business of the highest intensity, but none of us have ever seen him lose his balance.”
Unfortunately, that balance was taken from him.
• • •
Callahan felt the first of a series of “tingles” in his arms, usually lasting about 30 seconds apiece, two days after the victory over Trinity. When they occurred again, and more often, the following day, he decided to get it checked.
A few days later, less than one week after his greatest professional win, he learned of his most daunting personal opponent: Glioblastoma, a malignant, aggressive brain tumor.
With both the support of his family and a set of doctors Callahan raves about on every opportunity, the treatment process began immediately. First came surgery, and then a six-week session of radiation and chemotherapy. When he could, Callahan would still walk around inside Jadwin, sporting the same smile and optimism he possessed over the previous three decades.
At the time, there seemed no reason for him to return. Why not walk away now, following his ultimate professional achievement?
Simple. Callahan wasn’t finished.
• • •
When Wilkinson was named head coach this spring, his first order of business was to make sure that Neil Pomphrey, Callahan’s right-hand man for the last 22 seasons, stayed on as assistant coach.
Shortly afterwards, Pomphrey was in the hallway on D-Level, just outside of Court 10, reminiscing on the 2013 Ivy League championship season, the last — and arguably most amazing — of Callahan’s career.
“People ask how we lost to Cornell,” Pomphrey said. “The question is, how did we beat Harvard? I think part of it was for Bob.”
Princeton lost four starters from the 2012 national championship team and figured to be closer to the middle of the Ivy League this season, especially behind a loaded Harvard squad. The Crimson had the reigning national individual champion and a group of veterans who seemed ready to break through and finally reclaim the Ivy title.
But Callahan and Princeton Squash had one more magical 5-4 victory left this past January — the other bookend to the Zabel-led 1982 triumph.
Princeton led 2-1 after one shift and got a third win from senior co-captain Steve Harrington. Sophomore Samuel Kang, on his way to a first-team All-America season, won an 11-9 thriller after dealing with leg cramps in the fifth game; his diving winner sent Princeton to the brink of victory.
Ward, part of the heroic final stretch against Trinity, finished the job with a 3-1 win at the fourth spot. Ultimately, a talented Cornell team did beat Princeton 5-4 late in the season, but the Tigers’ 6-1 Ivy mark was good enough for a share of the Ivy title. Callahan, now dealing with a life-threatening illness, once again rallied his group to a championship level.
“He is always encouraging of the team,” said Pomphrey, whom Callahan considers one the greatest squash minds around an integral part of more than two decades’ worth of success. “He gets them feeling like one unit. He created that environment, and he has maintained it. Sure, he has gotten some very good recruits, but every year it feels like we overachieve. The guys enjoy coming down to practice, and they play extra.
“It is not a chore for the guys to play squash here.”
From one Episcopal Academy product to another, Harrity understands the special significance he and his classmates — and the rest of this 2013 team — will have.
They will forever be part of the final chapter of Callahan’s professional odyssey.
“Steve Harrington, Chris Greco and I have talked about that a lot,” Harrity said. “We’re the last players to play all four years for Bob. We take a lot of pride in that. Bob has meant so much to us, and it’s been such a pleasure playing for him, and winning for him.” Callahan came in a champion. Harrity and a gutsy group of Tigers made sure he left the same way.
• • •
For all the young men who have played such a vital role in Callahan’s life, there are two women whose impact on Callahan can’t possibly be measured.
Gail Ramsay, the women’s head coach, has an old photo on her desk of both herself and Callahan as kids.
They may have been friends growing up, but they have been inseparable since Ramsay took over as the women’s coach prior to the 1994-95 season.
“Gail is such a special coach,” Callahan said. “We grew up a few blocks away from each other. I want nothing but the best for both her and the Princeton women. It is an incredible group of young ladies, and I’m not sure anybody works harder in college squash than Gail.”
Though Ramsay and Callahan had been working together in squash camps for about three decades, she really relied on him when she made the move from Williams College to Princeton.
“When I got here, I had a ton of questions,” Ramsay said. “He makes you feel like you are the only person in the world. He stops what he’s doing, he listens to everything you say. You feel connected. He was really important for me in my transition here.
While the first year or two may have been a transition, the next 15 were a beautiful partnership. The programs supported each other, mainly because their leaders shared one shared voice and direction.
“He set a legacy here, and he did it with dedication and class,” said Ramsay, who can’t talk long about Callahan without displaying the emotion she has for one of her closest friends. “He loves Princeton, his players and his co-workers. I don’t think anybody has impacted any program in squash like he has here. In squash, he is the leader.”
The key woman in Callahan’s life, obviously, is his wife Kristen. To be the wife of a head coach — whose success is dependant on scouring the world for the best talent — and the mother of five boys who would eventually graduate from Princeton takes a superhuman effort. She did so with both grace and dignity, and her presence at Princeton matches only enhanced the feeling that this program was truly a family.
When the athletic department honored Callahan at the Shea Rowing Center, she was again the quiet support by his side. Four of their five boys were there, while the fifth waited in Boston for a Memorial Day Weekend with Kristin and Bob’s first grandchild.
“I couldn’t have done this without Kristen, who has been there for me every step of the way,” Bob said. “I would love the opportunity for us to grow old together.”
• • •
Callahan has every intention of being in the front row next year for Princeton showdowns with the likes of Yale and Cornell. Whether he wears his white shirt and orange striped tie remains to be seen, but he looks forward to being around, enjoying the squash and cheering on the program that has been such an incredible piece of his life.
But as Princeton Squash will forever remain in Callahan’s life, so too will Callahan remain in the lives of generations of players he served as both coach and role model.
“The upcoming season will be my tenth coaching,” said Wyant, the men’s and women’s squash coach at Penn. “Bob’s influence is simple; show faith in your team, let them grow at their pace and love them if they win or lose.”
“It is really hard for me to imagine Princeton Squash without Bob Callahan,” said Stanley, the first of five players to win at least one individual championship during Callahan’s tenure. “Until last year I had never considered it. Bob’s emphasis on values and sportsmanship are embodied in Princeton Squash. While his coaching results are impressive, his legacy of doing the right thing is far greater.”
“I know this is cliché, but he has set the bar for all other coaches to follow — not just in squash, but in all sports,” Yik said. “Wins and losses mattered — of course they did — but never at the expense of integrity. To build such a successful program over such a long period of time while staying true to that philosophy is an incredible achievement. To me, that is Bob’s legacy.”
• • •
That chair behind the desk now belongs to Sean Wilkinson, who sits in it with both a genuine humility and an understanding of the legacy he now must continue.
“He is such a legend,” Wilkinson said. “He has transformed the whole landscape of squash, and not only on the collegiate level. He really is an absolute legend.”
Following a legend is a brutal chore, but somebody has to do it. As part of the selection committee, Callahan helped choose Wilkinson, and he has spent hours upon hours just talking about the program.
He does so from the visitor’s chair, and he does it without a hint of regret or anger at how the last 16 months have unfolded. He put his arm around Wilkinson in a photo taken with the team when they met their new coach, and the symbolism of the move could not be clearer.
Yes, this may always be viewed as his program, but this was also his guy to take the reins.
• • •
It becomes nearly impossible to talk about Callahan without hearing or using the term “legacy.”
“The word ‘legacy’ is often overused in today’s society, but Bob’s body of work over a 32-year coaching career merits such a term,” Director of Athletics Gary Walters ’67 said. “I have always believed that a coach’s immortality lies in leaving a vestige of oneself in the character development of one’s players.”
How do you sum up Callahan’s legacy at Princeton University?
You celebrate the wins, the championships, the All-America and Skillman Award honors. You remember the moments and matches, both wins and losses, and you appreciate the way both he and his players handled adversity with the class he both preached and demanded.
You share stories with those who both played for and worked with him, because they all have their favorites. The author has already hit the 5,000-word mark, and he hasn’t even shared a fraction of his favorites.
But most of all, you honor the love. He loves Princeton University, and Princeton Athletics. He loves Princeton Squash, and college squash. He loves those who played for him, and those he worked with. He loved every Ivy League championship won during his 32 years, regardless of whether it was by a squash team.
He loved, and as much as anybody who has been part of the department, he was loved in return. For the last 32 years, and for far longer than the next 32, that emotion will be shared by so many who were touched by his time at Princeton. Love is the legacy of Bob Callahan.
We love you, Bob.
by Craig Sachson