Excerpt from Run to Roar
Over and over they've tried it -- they being entire regiments of television producers, directors, lighting technicians, fiber-optic engineers, robot software gurus, computer swamis, grips, gaffers, and construction crews -- over and over they've tried to turn squash, the racquet sport, into TVisible entertainment. I've seen them. They love the idea! The possibilities -- infinite! Squash is the fastest intercollegiate sport in the world, if you consider defense as well as offense. Baseball's fastest pitcher, Nolan Ryan, could throw the ball a shade above a hundred miles an hour. Tennis fans gasped when Pete Sampras hit 130-mile-an-hour serves. But professional and Division I college squash players routinely hit a ball just 15D 8 inches in diameter 160 miles an hour or more. They rocket it into ricochets off any or all of four walls plus the floor inside a two-story enclosure, creating bewildering trajectories. What with the bursts of speed, the lunges, and abrupt changes indirection required to defend against such shots, the top players windup with thighs as massive as a speed skater's or a racing cyclist's. They have to have the aerobic fitness of boxers and Olympic wrestlers, since a one-on-one squash match can go on at top speed for two hours. Soccer players? Compared to squash players, soccer players spend most of their time on the field loitering ... expertly, of course.
Sadly, I have also seen our TV troops as they straggle home after the fray ... eyebrows lowered and wrapped around the nose ... ditches down the middle of the forehead ... mumbling ... defeated by the very thing they came to capture: the speed, strength, and gymnastic bravura of the players, the velocity of that damnable little ball, the dizzying ricochets ... these three, all at once ... demanding purple-dimension jumps from one camera to another camera to another camera and another camera and another -- at a speed that baffles even the best TV sports directors.
The absence of the TV eye has largely spared squash from TV sports' three STDiseased, shanks-akimbo harlots: Cheating, Gambling, and Greed. Greed? There's no money in squash! None! Top-10 squash professionals fly to major international tournaments in herd class, at brain-grating off-peak hours, no-food flights, aboard AAAs (Almost An Airline) on the order of Aeroflot, Song Air, and Carnival. But the TV darkness has also deprived millions of sports fans of the most astounding story they have never heard ... the story of the hottest and statistically most successful American college coach ever -- by far -- Paul Assaiante, and the dynasty -- the most omnipotent in the history of intercollegiate sports -- he has created at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
As I write, he and his boys are riding the crest of 12 straight undefeated seasons and 12 straight Division I national championships. Their won-lost record over that stretch is 224-0. No other team in any college sport has ever come close. The second-longest streak is the University of Miami tennis team's 137 straight half a century ago.
In the pages before us Paul Assaiante tells the Trinity saga himself. Before I knew it, I was devouring it in job lots.
This sweet science, as it were, was the outcome of a single, simple, direct order. One day in 1996, Trinity's then-president Evan Dobelle called Assaiante into his office -- they barely knew each other -- and said, with very little backstory, I want you to go forth and assemble a squash team that can compete with the Ivy Leaguers. At the time Harvard, Yale, and Princeton -- especially Harvard -- dominated the sport. The meeting lasted all of two minutes.
As Assaiante was leaving the room, the president called out, "And don't mess this one up!"
Assaiante had never heard of the game of squash until he was 27 and found himself forced to coach the army squash team at West Point, like it or not. He had graduated from that well-known training ground for coaches Springfield College, barely 30 miles north of Hartford, in Massachusetts. Now he was offered the job of tennis coach at West Point. Seven highly regarded coaches had turned it down. Assaiante soon found out why. The contract came with two riders, or jokers, depending on how you looked at it: the tennis coach had to lead his boys on a cross-country run every morning at reveille -- and coach the squash team, too. Assaiante took a deep breath and signed anyhow. He didn't want to be anybody's assistant coach any longer.
By that day in 1996 in Evan Dobelle's office, Assaiante had coached squash at West Point, Williams, and Trinity for 11 years in all. While he was at it, he had learned to play the game himself and won two New York State regional championships. But his most important asset was what he had learned, en passant, coaching the U.S. national team in international competition in Europe. In Europe one day, a lightbulb went on over his head. Wherever the British had stayed long enough to build squash courts -- Australia, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, South Africa, Canada, Malaysia, even Bermuda, not to mention England and Scotland themselves -- the players were superior to ours. The British had left here too soon. He didn't have to look far to find the most promising young international junior players. Their competitions took place in Europe at the same time. They were all conveniently on view in one place.
Assaiante became a great recruiter ... out on the Old Colonial trail. He was charming and good-looking. He always had the sunniest disposition, broadest smile, and readiest laugh in town, whatever town, whatever continent. He knew each prospective recruit's own history backward and forward. He knew squash technique forward and backward and had proved it as a player. He was well-spoken ... and not too glib ... yet definitely glib enough. In fact, he struck the cynically inclined as too good to be true, like Meredith Willson's Music Man or Huckleberry Finn's Duke and Dauphin. But he proved to be the real thing. He was straightforward to a fault. He developed a genuine personal interest in every recruit and maintained it as long as the young man was at Trinity -- and often long after. You will get to know many of their stories in these pages.
Assaiante's decoding of squash's British Colonial secret paid off in 1999, the first year of the streak. Seven of Assaiante's international players, along with two talented Americans, routed Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Dartmouth, Brown, and Cornell. The Ivy League's hold on squash was broken -- just like that.
Right away the Ivies made known their resentment of Assaiante's international players, even though they themselves had been recruiting abroad for a century. In 1980 Cornell's entire ice hockey team was made up of Canadians. In 2004, after Trinity's sixth straight undefeated season, the Harvard Crimson created a big stir with an editorial calling Assaiante's monarchy "The Evil Empire." On February 27, 2005, Trinity clenched its seventh straight championship by defeating Harvard at Harvard's own Murr Center courts. The moment the match ended, Assaiante's assistant coach, James Montano, handed out navy T-shirts to the Trinity team. On the front, in bold gold letters, each T-shirt read, THE EVIL EMPIRE; on the back, WELCOME TO THE DARK SIDE. The Dark Side! By now the two coaches couldn't help but get a laugh out of this Evil Empire business. Well before that moment in 2005, the Ivies no longer thought their own joke was funny. They were out combing every former British colony on the globe for squash players themselves. By 2006 they had loaded up ... Oh, yeah.
But I especially remember that night at Harvard in 2005. Lest you think I have any bias in Trinity's and Paul Assaiante's favor, let me make one thing absolutely clear. I was with my son, Tommy, the moment James Montano handed him his EVIL EMPIRE T-shirt and congratulated him on the match he had just won.