Jack Barnaby: A Remembrance

There is a T-shirt in my vast collection that I take out only on special occasions: on the front it reads, JACK BARNABY'S 80TH/ SEPTEMBER 23, 1989. It's a souvenir of the birthday party at Harvard that gathered about a hundred of Barnaby's friends and former athletes, some of whom traveled hundreds of miles to see the coach who had meant so much to them. The back of the shirt bears the motto of the aging jock: THE OLDER WE GET, THE BETTER WE WERE. Jack Barnaby, who died on February 12 at the age of 92, was one of the few souls for whom those words might have been literally true. He couldn't wait to turn 80, he said, because then he'd be one of the youngest players eligible for 80-and-above tennis tournaments, where he planned to clean up.

Harvard University Sports Information
Jack cleaned up at almost everything he did in life. He was an excellent tennis and squash player, a successful author of books like Winning Squash Racquets, a prosperous businessman who built Har-Tru tennis courts during the 1970s tennis boom. He was also a skillful fisherman, gardener, and gatherer of wild blueberries—his personal record for a single season was allegedly 72 quarts. But above all, Barnaby cleaned up as a coach. When he retired in 1976 after 40 years at the helm of Harvard's tennis and squash programs, he was the "winningest" head coach in Harvard history. Jack's squash teams went 346-95 (a .784 winning percentage), while his tennis squads were 371-158-3 (.697). From 1961 through the 1972-73 season, Harvard squash went 120-3, winning 11 intercollegiate championships in 12 years. In 1979 Barnaby emerged from retirement to coach the women's squash team for three years; they went 28-4 (.875) and in his last season won the 1982 national championship, earning the Howe Cup. The older Jack got, the better he was.

Barnaby never separated sports from the rest of life. "Jack passed on to me, and to many others, the idea that you don't just coach a sport, you coach the whole person," says Rocky Jarvis '69, the men's tennis coach at Brandeis. Even players from opposing teams sometimes sought him out with lists of questions, grateful to learn whatever they could from "Barnabus Rex." On road trips, Jack would discuss world affairs, agriculture, philosophy, science, or music into the night with the athletes. His skill at the piano instilled a love of Beethoven in athletes like Victor Niederhoffer '64, who continues to play tennis, squash, and piano.

Niederhoffer was a classic example of what Barnaby could do. As a Harvard freshman, he had never hit a squash ball; four years later he was U.S. intercollegiate champion and in the 1970s he and Sharif Khan were the two top players in North America. Those awed by Harvard's success sometimes asked Barnaby what his system was. "My system is to avoid all systems like the plague," he would explain. "Adapt to the individual." If a woman had power, Jack made her a hitter; he'd encourage finesse from a fellow with touch, or steadiness from a player with great endurance. Jack also knew when to leave well enough alone. Mike Desaulniers '80, probably the fastest player ever, was already a Canadian phenomenon when he got to Harvard; after seeing him play a match, Barnaby took the freshman aside and said he wanted to tell him something about his game. "Yeah?" Desaulniers replied warily. Then came Barnaby's advice: "Don't let anybody change you."

Jack didn't need to change his own style, either: he was a natural-born teacher. Brandishing his two stimulants—a Coke in one hand and a cigarette in the other—his mind gushing with ideas and excitement, Jack was a voluble presence and a font of visual imagery. On court during practice, he might go through a complete doubles point, acting out the parts of all four players, demonstrating all the shots—return, volley, lob, then the crushing, conclusive overhead—and ending with a gasp of defeat from the losing side. It was a performance you could not forget—and that, of course, was the point.

~Craig Lambert


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