Men's Squash: Hall of Fame coach Bob Callahan '77 has unforgettable year
The 32-year presence of Bob Callahan ’77 at the helm of the Princeton men’s squash program never actually began with squash. He arrived at Princeton in 1973 as an undergraduate recruited to play tennis. Though Callahan grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd playing both sports, he intended to focus on tennis year-round. That is, until the captain of the men’s squash team approached Callahan during his freshman year and begged him to try it, just for a few weeks.
“I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I’ll try it,’ ” Callahan explained. “And I loved it from day one. It’s kind of funny how life works out.”
Not only was it funny the way it worked out, but it was also extraordinary. Callahan has since become one of the important figures in the history of collegiate squash. As the Tigers’ head coach, he holds a .827 career win percentage with 306 wins and 63 losses. He has led Princeton to 10 Ivy League titles, two five-man titles and three national titles — the most recent last season’s victory that snapped Trinity’s 13-year win streak.
After that first day at squash practice in 1973, Callahan went on to earn All-Ivy and All-America honors both his junior and senior year. For three of the four years Callahan played for the Tigers, Princeton won a nine-man national title, one of which Callahan was captain in 1977. He managed all this while still playing tennis through his junior year.
Callahan graduated with a degree in economics and left to work for IBM but returned after just four years to take the position as head coach in 1981. That season would set the bar high for his coaching career — very high. The Tigers went undefeated, earning both the Ivy League and Intercollegiate Squash Association national titles. Callahan said he was surprised at the success because Princeton wasn’t expected to win. But as the victories kept adding up, the Tigers found themselves on the verge of a national championship.
“It was so crowded I couldn’t even watch the squash,” Callahan said of the championship match.
Instead, he paced back and forth in the lobby as Princeton came from behind to beat Harvard in a thriller at the national championship in Williamstown, Mass.
Callahan continued to build on his extraordinary inaugural season with even more titles and some astonishing players. Yasser El Halaby ’06, arguably one of the best collegiate squash players in the world, won the Collegiate Squash Association individual championship an unprecedented four straight times under Callahan’s mentorship. Callahan’s squad has also won nine of the last 14 Ivy League titles.
The culmination of his achievements as Princeton’s coach came in the form of the victory over Trinity last season. However much skill the Tigers needed to end Trinity’s streak, Callahan also accredited much to plain old luck.
“I came to the realization that to win something like a national championship, you have to be pretty good, but you also have to be pretty lucky,” he said.
That luck that helped give Princeton a national title struck Callahan in a different way too. Shortly after the national championship, Callahan was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He underwent successful brain surgery in early March at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York to remove the mass. Surgery was followed by chemotherapy radiation, and a clinical trial followed that. Callahan said the trial seems to be working, adding, “knock on wood.”
“As I said back then, I still believe I’ve just been remarkably lucky,” Callahan said. “The tumor came at the right time; it came at the right place.”
Callahan’s return to coaching following his cancer diagnosis is one fully supported by the University and athletic department, and he credits assistant coach Neil Pomphrey with playing a huge role in coming back.
“He and I have been working together for 22 years, and he has stepped in to do even more this year,” Callahan said. “I owe so much to him. I couldn’t do it without him. I couldn’t have done it the last 20 years without him.”
Callahan started this season on a positive note when he was inducted into the U.S. Squash Hall of Fame this October.
“I think it was after seeing all these impressive people being inducted into the Hall of Fame, I said [in my speech], ‘Well how was I even included?’ ” Callahan said. “The answer was that I’ve been around squash so long that I have dirt on everybody. So the option was either they put me in the Hall of Fame or I publish my first book, and so they decided to put me in the Hall of Fame so I wouldn’t publish my first book.”
But ever focused on his team’s own success, Callahan is already looking forward.
“Life goes on, and it doesn’t give us any lead against Trinity this year,” he said.
Since then it’s been nothing but victories for Callahan’s Tigers: Princeton kicked off its season at 4-0, including three shutout wins. Callahan said that last season he thought there were six teams capable of capturing the national title and that he believes the same six are in the running again this year.
He was careful to note that this year’s squad is very different from the one that beat Trinity. Princeton graduated four of its nine starters, and Callahan said he is confident in developing the young team’s obvious talent.
Princeton’s squash players look up to Callahan for his obvious superior knowledge of the game as well as the moral code he preaches to his players. He holds the team to a hard dress-code policy on traveling days: polo shirts, hard shoes and nice pants. Violators are docked $1 per day from their daily meal allowances.
“He is one of the most respected and classy people I have ever met, and we attempt to represent him in the best way possible on and off the court,” sophomore David Hoffman said. “He does the right thing in every situation, no excuses.”
“More than anything Coach Callahan wants gentlemen on his team who represent the University with respect, sportsmanship and selflessness,” junior Dylan Ward said, echoing those sentiments.
Ward continued to point out it was Callahan’s squash team that won the Sloane Award for Sportsmanship, awarded by the men’s CSA, “to recognize the team that best exemplifies the ideals of sportsmanship throughout the season.” The winner is chosen through nominations from coaches around the league. Callahan’s combination of this kind of character and athletic expertise manifests itself in his team to attract not only nominations from his colleagues but also players looking to play under him.
“I think one of the main reasons we all wanted to come play squash at Princeton was because Bob Callahan is the coach,” Hoffman said.
Callahan’s love for Princeton and his players is undeniable. He was thrilled when each of his five sons decided to attend and play squash for him in the Orange Bubble.
“They all had the great experience that I had,” Callahan said.
A member of Cottage Club and a seller of hot dogs to other students on the side during his time at Princeton, Callahan still has annual get-togethers with his college roommates. He recalled stepping into Jadwin Gymnasium for the first time as a freshman in high school looking to play Princeton’s JV tennis team.
“I walked into this building and said, ‘Oh my goodness I want to come to this school. I want to come to this campus,’ ” he said. “It’s a hard place to beat.”
Callahan has now worked in that building for the past 32 years. “I guarantee if you ever have the chance to meet him he’ll greet you with a smile,” Ward said before Callahan’s interview. He didn’t disappoint.