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College Squash – A Worthwhile Investment

Providence, RI — During the college squash season, a professor walking through Brown University’s newly renovated Kate Brodsky Squash Pavilion stopped to notice how the space had been transformed. New flooring for the courts, new carpeting and seating, graphics on the walls featuring Brown players, and a new video recording system are among the upgrades to the facility.

“It’s now so exciting!” the professor exclaimed.

The Brodsky Pavilion’s facelift is the most visible sign of the recent investments in Brown’s squash program. Both the men’s and women’s head and assistant coaching positions have been endowed this year.

While Brown University has been supportive of the squash program, most of the financial backing has come from outside the school. “We rely on annual funds and endowment funding to be able to compete, travel, and recruit, to have a great program,” explains Steven King, Brown’s Senior Vice President for University Advancement.

According to King, a number of people have rallied around the Brown squash program. Brown alumni have consistently and enthusiastically supported the program for years. One alumna, for instance, had such a positive experience on a team training trip to Amsterdam that she funded the women’s team’s recent trip to the Cayman Islands.

It’s not just former players who have supported the Brown teams. The Broadbent Family Head Coaching Chair for Squash Racquets was the gift of William S. and Camille W. Broadbent, whose daughter captained Brown’s squash team for multiple seasons. Stuart leGassick has held the men’s and women’s head coaching position at Brown for over twenty years and has been the only head coach in the men’s team’s history as a varsity sport.

The Steel Family Assistant Coaching Chair in Squash was the gift of the Steel Family, parents of two Brown graduates, one of whom also captained the women’s squash team. Former Bates captain Sean Wilkinson joined the program this year as assistant coach and has made an immediate impact on the teams.

In fact, all three recent major gifts – the endowed head coaching chair, the endowed assistant coaching chair, and the facility upgrades – have been made not by former players, but by players’ families.

Brown's Sophie Scherl, Leila Driansky, and Carolyn Tilney receiving the 2011 Kurtz Cup from Tournament Director Craig Thorpe-Clark
Brown's Sophie Scherl, Leila Driansky, and Carolyn Tilney receiving the 2011 Kurtz Cup from Tournament Director Craig Thorpe-Clark

What moves an individual or institution to invest in college squash? Squash fans are loyal and passionate, but college matches won’t fill stadiums or bring in millions in television revenue.

For some institutions squash’s appeal is in its social cachet. A recent article in The New York Times Magazine described how the success of the Trinity College men’s squash team has raised the school’s profile. Squash was an attractive investment for Trinity because winning a national title meant beating Ivy League schools at what has essentially been their own game.

However, Trinity has pretty much cornered the market on men’s national team titles, and even before the Bantams started their championship run the list of schools that have won national team titles was remarkably short. Only four other schools – Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale – have won a national nine-player team title in the championship era, for men or for women.

If the only way to reckon a college squash program’s worth were its number of national titles, most teams would be in the red. Beyond that, the majority of schools with established squash programs already have national and even international reputations as elite, academically rigorous institutions; they don’t need squash to enhance their image.

However, Brown’s recent fund-raising successes show that there’s something beyond ticket sales and titles that makes squash worth investing in. This is not to say that the Bears haven’t had competitive success; they certainly have accomplished a great deal in their comparatively short time as varsity programs. Brown’s varsity men’s and women’s squash teams have been a consistent presence in and around the top ten since they were founded in the late 1980s. The women, for instance, finished third in the 1996 dual meet season. The women also won the Kurtz Cup (B Division championship) this year, after making it to the B Division finals last season and winning in 2009.  The men won the Hoehn Cup (B Division championship) in 1999, 2000, 2003, and 2005, and have finished as high as 7th in the national in the end-of-year rankings.

But what families, alumni, and Brown University itself have recognized is that playing a sport like squash can have a powerful impact on students’ lives apart from titles and win-loss records. An investment in squash can in fact be an investment in education, in the fullest sense of the word.

Brown captain Adrian Leanza and Thomas Mullaney (Harvard)
Brown captain Adrian Leanza and Thomas Mullaney (Harvard)

To understand the impact of squash on student athletes at Brown, you have to go to the shores of the Dead Sea.

That’s where Clarke Miller found himself in 1998. Miller, a 1995 graduate of Brown, had traveled to Jordan for the wedding of Fouad Dajani, his former squash teammate and co-captain. Miller and three of his former teammates – Dave Woo ’95, Ed Culotta ’96, and Blake Myers ’96 – spent a week traveling in the region, taking day trips to Petra and Jerusalem and floating in the Dead Sea.

Miller describes Fouad’s wedding as the culmination of the trip, but in a way it was also a beginning. “More weddings since Fouad’s have brought the team together on a regular basis,” explains Miller. “While the squash racquets aren’t always brought out at those events, the tall tales certainly are!”

If you look in the record books, you won’t find any Brown players on the 1994-1995 All-American or All-Ivy teams. The Bears didn’t win the Ivy title that year or win their division at the Men’s National Team Championships. But the experiences the players had on that team laid the foundation for relationships that have continued for years and spanned continents.

While the friendship between Miller and his teammates is special, it’s not unusual among Brown teams. “The most immediate thing I think of when I think of what I gained from playing squash at Brown are my friendships with my teammates,” says Carolyn Tilney, one of the Bears’ senior captains this year. “From when I was a freshmen until now, my senior year, the team has always been such a great group of girls, and I am really fortunate to be a part of that. Obviously I have learned a ton about the game of squash itself but also I have learned how to always have fun and enjoy the game, which seems simple but can at times be quite difficult.”

Institutional support has been an essential part of making experiences like Miller’s and Tilney’s possible. The Brown University Sports Foundation has provided a framework to facilitate fund-raising. “The fund-raising success for Brown athletics has a lot to do with the tremendous work done by the Sports Foundation.  They work tirelessly to aid our student athletes,” says Mike Goldberger, Brown’s athletic director.

Ultimately, though, it all comes back to what players gain on and off the court. “The success of the Sports Foundation has a lot to do with the experience that our student athletes have,” Goldberger goes to explain. “There is a great appreciation for the value of sports and the place it has in the educational mission of our University.”

Competition is part of that educational experience. One of senior captain Adrian Leanza’s favorite memories is of Brown’s 6-3 win over Navy in the 2009 Hoehn Cup consolation finals. “Although I personally lost badly,” he says, “The rest of our team really played their best, and I was so happy that we came together and all played well when it really mattered.”

That’s the kind of spirit that defines the Brown squash program, and King and Goldberger both attribute that atmosphere of learning to leGassick and his coaching.

Stuart le Gassick (Brown)
Stuart le Gassick (Brown)

“Coaches are educators,” King observes, describing leGassick as “a first class individual who does a great job.”

Goldberger explains that the educational value of athletics starts with the leadership of head coaches. “Stuart is a truly special individual who gives a great deal to his student athletes,” he says. “They know it and appreciate it.  He is one of Brown’s finest educators.”

Assistant coaching is another key component. LeGassick is quick to point out all Wilkinson has already been able to contribute in a short period of time. In addition to his energy and enthusiasm, Wilkinson has had the chance to work with some of the world’s top coaches and players through his summer squash camp work. “This in turn has allowed him to pick the brains of the world’s best coaches and players,” leGassick says. “He is passing this knowledge onto the Brown players on a daily basis.”

What players learn – about the game, about hard work and discipline, about themselves – has been what has made Brown squash something people are happy to support.

“At the end of the day,” King says, “parents and families feel good about the experience their children have under Stuart, who looks out for them as people. Families appreciate the experiences and life lessons students have [through Brown squash].”

Brown University also appreciates the value of squash. According to Goldberger, a long-range goal is to build a stand-alone squash facility, “so that we can encourage more people to participate in this wonderful sport and to enhance the opportunities that we can bring to our varsity programs.”

“These recent gifts demonstrate clearly to the entire Brown community that squash is a sport that people love and want to support.”

Of course, not every school has alumni and families with the resources to be able to make major gifts to squash programs. But the underlying educational values and the types of relationships fostered at Brown are something that many programs share, whether they are newly founded club teams or well-established programs with multiple national titles.

And that’s what makes college squash a worthwhile investment.