Most Yalies probably didn’t know Mark Talbott left, much less who he is or his significance to the game of squash. I didn’t even realize we had the Michael Jordan of squash.
But this weekend, Talbott, who guided the Bulldogs women’s squash team to an undefeated season and a national championship in 2004, was back in Brady Squash Center as the coach of the Stanford men’s and women’s teams. The younger brother of men’s and women’s head squash coach Dave Talbott, Talbott is by consensus the greatest American squash player after owning the No. 1 ranking from 1983-1995 and winning 70 percent of the tournaments he entered.
During the summer of 2004, just months after leading the Eli women to the first undefeated season and national championship since 1986, Talbott took the job as director of Stanford’s squash program. While that is his official title, “program” was as much an overstatement 18 months ago as it is now.
Since 1998, the Stanford men’s and women’s teams have competed as clubs, without athletic department support. In the first year, the men’s team finished 36 out of 37 teams, defeating a Bard team that was down two players.
In 2002, women’s captain Cate Crowley remembered, the team was wearing raggedy uniforms and struggling not to finish last. Next fall, the Stanford women will become the West Coast’s first varsity team.
That step had been in the works for a while, but the hiring of Talbott came as a complete surprise, said Crowley, whose only connection to squash before Stanford was her uncle who plays. Knowing the athletic administration was vying to add women’s squash, Crowley remembers “shopping” for coaches on the Internet. Talbott’s name came up once, she said, but his accomplishments were so extensive that they never believed he would consider Stanford. Instead, they named him “Squash God.”
“I remember being like, ‘We want him for our team,’ ” Crowley said. “But we were just joking.
“But he came. Squash God.”
Taking Stanford into the realm of squash dynasty will be a challenge, even for Talbott, whose Bulldogs went undefeated in their 2004 campaign just six years after finishing sixth in the country with an 8-6 record. The Bulldogs have not lost since the 2003 season.
While Stanford’s teams have improved considerably, with the women ranked an all-time high No. 17 and the men at No. 21, cracking the top five is a whole different ball game. In a January 2004 match between the Stanford men and the Yale women, when Talbott was still coaching the Bulldogs, the women rolled to a 9-0 victory.
“They smoked us,” remembered George Kwon. “But it was a good experience.”
On Friday night, the Stanford men were swept yet again, this time by the Eli men, in the first match with Talbott coaching against his older brother, Dave.
Still, says Alex Tilton ’06, no one in the squash community underestimates Talbott’s abilities.
“Give him five years,” said Tilton, “before playing the match against Stanford. Everyone agrees: Five years.”
Anyone outside of the fold might balk at this assertion. After seeing the Stanford players repeatedly whiff the ball and whack the glass walls inadvertently, I, for one, did. Let me say, I was cringing.
Talbott is basically starting from scratch: Few of Talbott’s players had ever heard of squash before Stanford. But his name and a newly constructed facility have been enough to draw former tennis and racquetball players to try out.
“We put fliers in the bathroom,” explained sophomore Esther Cheng. “That’s what got me started.”
Added Crowley: “But now [the fliers] say, ‘Learn from a world champion.’ ”
While admitting the level of play isn’t close to Yale’s, Talbott said he has enjoyed the process of trying to bring squash to the West Coast. While all of Yale’s women had played several years in school and on the junior circuit before college, Talbott’s players are green. “These guys play with a love for the game,” Talbott says. “They’re new to the sport and they are so enthusiastic. It’s fun to try and build the program around them.”
That being said, Talbott conceded he misses his Yale team in some respects, especially the close relationships he formed with his players during the 2004 championship season. It is obvious that the feeling is mutual, as Yale captain Amy Gross ’06 threw her arms around Talbott on Friday night. “We miss you,” she said, as if speaking with a family member. Gross said later that Talbott will always hold a special place in her heart.
It was easy to see how Talbott gains such rapport with players, bending down to fill water cups for an exhausted player and pacing through the Brady Squash Center, gently encouraging players, but not in an overbearing way. Universally, the first word used to describe the greatest American player is “laid-back.”
When asked about Yale’s 2005 squad and their chances for a three-peat, Talbott paused and smiled softly. As if simultaneously recalling the championship season and thinking of things to come at Stanford, Talbott said softly:
“They look good, I think they can win it. Maybe the other teams have closed the gap some, but [Yale has] a shot.”