Last week we got the news of Dave Talbott’s retirement as head coach at Yale. It was sudden in a Fletchian kind of way—we knew it was inevitably happening at some point but it was still unexpected when it finally did occur.
Talbott is sixty-eight and he has now put in a full half century as a coach. For years and years he’d promise that he would step down. Instead, he kept on, clocking thirty-eight seasons at Yale. Since John Skillman arrived at Payne Whitney in 1934, the men’s team has had just three coaches, so this is a seismic moment for one of collegiate squash’s flagship programs.
Talbott was a legend long before he arrived in New Haven. He played for Deerfield Academy for two years. The highlight was a dramatic 18-17 in the fifth victory over Exeter’s Dave Fish in 1969, giving Deerfield an upset 4-3 win. Turning pro at age eighteen, Talbott rose to No.12 on the North American men’s pro hardball tour. People forget now but he was a very good player. “Dave is an outgoing, likable pro whose strength lies in a strong, consistent backhand,” read his player profile in the 1982-83 tour program. “Additionally, he has the ability to execute change-up shots (especially from deep in the court) and to retrieve seemingly unreachable shots.”
After working as a teaching pro at a couple of clubs, including five years at the Detroit Athletic Club, Talbott came to New Haven in 1983. Since then, a tremendous legacy. His teams captured six national championships and more than five hundred dual match victories. In January 2012 his men’s team snapped Trinity’s epic 252-win streak. He helped build the iconic Brady Center in Payne Whitney and hosted more than a hundred junior tournaments there—probably the most of any tournament director in U.S. history.
The loyalty from his Eli players was always startling—almost cult-like in devotion. It stemmed from Talbott’s free spirit attitude, his storytelling and his deep engagement. For many years he scheduled weekly (or more frequently) one-on-one matches with every player on the team. One squash alum told me after hearing the news of the retirement about showing up on campus as a highly-recruited freshman. He was shocked to find that Talbott trained and concentrated as much on the last guy on the ladder as the first. It was one of the reasons Yale often overachieved and beat stronger-on-paper squads.
People loved him dearly. So many players from other Yale sports teams came to dual matches in part because Talbott had befriended them. (He sometimes knew them better than their own coach.) Another squash alum told me that today there are literally hundreds of people out there who think they are Talbott’s closest friend, that they have a unique relationship with their coach. They all do.
It is an end of an era. With Dave Talbott’s retirement, there are no more men’s team coaches who were at their current school during the hardball era (only one original women’s team coach is left either, Wendy Bartlett, who started at Trinity in 1984).
Why did he step down now? Perhaps in part because his mother, Polly Talbott, the Talbott family matriarch, died on Christmas Eve at the age of ninety-two.
Dave and his wife Ann (perhaps the most active and astute squash coach spouse in collegiate history) have one daughter and a thirteen-year-old grandson. Talbott will continue to be a presence at Squash Haven, the urban program in New Haven that he helped found. He’ll walk his eight month old German shepherd. And he’ll gracefully glide into a collegiate eminence grise role that no one, especially him, could have predicted fifty years ago when he graduated from high school and joined the coaching ranks.