by Mike O’Neal
Where’s Dick was the humorous question asked at Coach Dick Crawford’s retirement roast on a recent balmy evening at Spenger’s seafood restaurant in Berkeley. The clear and serious answer is that he was and will always be in the hearts of every player he ever coached in his 27 year career as coach of the University of California squash team. This answer was written in the smiles and words of all those players, great and small, who returned this night to the college of their youth to honor this man who had, indeed, helped shape their lives.
United States Squash Racquets Association (USSRA) President Alan Fox, a graduate of UC Berkeley Law School and a good friend and contemporary of Crawford’s, attended the roast and, on behalf of the USSRA presented Crawford with the first Northern California SRA Sportsmanship award. This award was endowed to the USSRA by the San Francisco Olympic Club and the NorCal Squash Association and its intent is to honor persons who have made outstanding contributions to the sport of squash in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In a moving tribute to his good friend, Fox offered his opinion that, in 27 years of selfless service, no one had done more than Crawford to put California squash on the national map. Fox praised Crawford as a persuasive motivator, a tireless promoter, and a generous teacher of young people. There were no dissenting opinions from this audience of over 100 former players, their families, and friends.
In his years at Berkeley, Crawford brought Cal squash into the national limelight. In 1977 , he took the team back east to compete in the National Intercollegiates for the first time. Cal squash teams have now been back to the Nationals a total of 14 times under Crawford. In the period of 1990-1992, they won three straight division III national titles. Thanks to Crawford’s coaching and his promotion, Cal squash players gained the invaluable experience of competing on a national level. And the nation learned about the caliber of play on the West Coast.
And there were a host of great squash players who came out of Dick Crawford’s program at Berkeley. Floyd Svensson, Alex Eichman, John Lau, Kris Surano, Jim Huebner, Paul Gessling, Ted Gross, Paul Kohler, to name but a few. These names are legend in California squash and, among them, these players hold numerous national titles. Some are now squash professionals and Naniche is the vice president of the USSRA. But how many people know that all these great players came from the same program, and that, almost to a man, they had never even heard of squash until an ex-quarterback from Western Michigan University took them out on the court and introduced them to a game they would play for a lifetime? The stories of these players will provide a hint of the greatness of a man who is leaving, but will never, ever be gone.
Big, raw-boned Jim Huebner was perhaps Coach Crawford’s best player ever. A fabulous natural athlete, Huebner had been an excellent high school tennis player as well as the best miler in the state of California. It probably didn’t hurt that he had good genes—his father had been an All-American tennis player at UCLA. With broad shoulders and a big hearty laugh, Huebner exudes the easy confidence of one familiar with achievement. After spending two years at San Jose State on a (track/tennis) scholarship, Huebner transferred to Berkeley. Crawford worked with him for two years and, as a senior in 1979, HueUner was named an All-American, the only squash All-American Cal has ever had. After college, Huebner went on the world professional softball tour for two years. This was quite a feat at the time, because none really played softball seriously in the United States. So for Huebner to have any success at all in a game that was essentially new to him was truly remarkable—a testimony to his athletic talent and, perhaps, not completely unrelated to the wind that had made him a great hign school miler. Now Huebner has settled down with his family—a wife and three children in Fresno—but he was not too busy to make the long drive to Berkeley to honor his coach, Dick Crawford.
It was Huebner who told a great story of Crawford’s coaching legerdemain. Just before one trip to the Nationals, the Coach presented the team with brand new fluorescent blue-and-gold warmup suits. While moved at the generosity of the gift, some players suggested that Crawford might be getting a kickback from the manufacturer as the suits were garishly bright and actually came with a free pair of sunglasses to protect the wearer from their glare. The method in Crawford’s sartorial madness was soon apparent, however. Huebner said that while warming up for one of his key matches, he noticed that his opponent was having an inordinately difficult time hitting the ball, actually missing it completely on a number of occasions. When he saw this same hapless adversary shielding his eyes to receive the first serve, Huebner suddenly understood. The guy was blinded by the fluorescent warmup suit. So, even as his body temperature soared over the 100 mark in the fifth game, Huebner was seen still wearing the suit. He had not even rolled up the sleeves. As he left the court victorious, stepping over the broiled remains of his glarestruck victim, Huebner raised his hand in triumph. Reporters at the time were unclear as to whether he was making the V sign for victory, or an IV sign for a transfusion. But it little mattered, as yet again, Crawford, had found a novel way to win.
John Lau is well known to veteran San Francisco squash players and also to anyone who follows the national squash scene. In the early 1980s, John and Berkeley classmate Paul Gessling dominated California squash, as they took virtually every state and local title imaginable. John moved on to become the pro at the City’s University Club where he has continued to refine his already exquisite game. In 1991 and 1992, he won two consecutive 35+ United States HardbaIl Championships. In 1992, he was a semifinalist in the United States Softball Championship. With all this accomplishment, it is hard to imagine that John had never even seen a squash court until, as a freshman at Berkeley, he stumbled into an a class taught by Coach Crawford. Crawford recognized John’s talent and steered him into squash. The rest is history. And in John’s case, the benefits turned out to be more than just sport. Like a number of other players, John met his wife, women’s A player Evy Kavaler, through squash. And so his debt to Coach Crawford is even greater than most.
Three of the other students in that storied advanced tennis class were Paul Gessling, Andre Naniche, and Mark Rosenstein. Gessling, who traded titles with Lau in the 80s, is now at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. And like Lau, Gessling met his wife Irene Naniche, through squash. Clearly, Coach Crawford’s influence extends beyond the court. Andre Naniche was an accomplished tennis player out of Berkeley High School (class of 76) who went on to become an excellent men’s A singles and doubles player. With a political prowess perhaps superior even to his squash, Naniche has ascended to the vice presidency of the USSRA. Rosenstein used his squash experience as a springboard to a fabulous lacrosse career, and now, as his lacrosse days seem numbered, he is returning with enthusiasm to the game he first learned from Coach Crawford.
Alex Eichmann was perhaps the craftiest player Crawford ever coached. If anyone could find a way to win it was Eichmann. Lefthanded and gifted with preternatural quickness and anticipation, Eichman won everything in sight in California in the early 70s. His list of accomplishments included not only numerous state championships, but also a victory over the legendary national champion Victor Niederhofer. Forgotten by many as Eichmann moved forward in triumph was the origin of this great player—an origin that could be traced to ancient subterranean courts reached by rickety ladders and ruled by a special molder of men—Dick Crawford. In addition to all his playing accomplishments, Alex founded two popular squash clubs in the 1980s—the Peninsula Squash Club in San Mateo and the San Francisco Squash Club in the City. Numerous players, new and old, learned to love the game for the first time, or again, at one of these great clubs—both now sadly defunct.
Floyd Svennson is perhaps the most remarkable of all the players associated with Crawford. Svennson, a champion long distance runner at the University of Washington, got into squash as a civil engineering graduate student at Cal. He then proceeded to have one of the most incredible squash careers in history. Beginning at the age of 40, Swenson rapidly climbed from D to C to B to A status. And then, unbelievably, he won the California state men’s A championship at the age of 50! He went on to win numerous national age group titles. On one memorable weekend, at the age of 53 in Salt Lake City, he played seven matches in one day including semifinals and finals in three different classes (Men’s A’s, Men’s Senior A’s, and Men’s Doubles) and won each of the three events. A true phenomenon. (Floyd also accomplished an unprecedented Triple Crown winning the Canadian Seniors, US Nationals Seniors, and the Mexican Seniors in one calendar year.) And now at the age of 72, Floyd journeyed from his home in nearby Concord and arrived clear-eyed and bright smiling to honor Coach Crawford. What greater tribute than that such wonderful and accomplished people would come to do you honor?
And then there was Bob Tuck, better known now as the Berkeley Bear—the madcap mascot who drives the basketball fans into a feverish Blue and Gold frenzy. Tuck’s puckish humor was evident early in his college career, when after some brief tutoring from Coach Crawford, he became a good journeyman squash player and a perhaps world-class showman. For it was Bob, as some will remember, who one chilly night in a late sixties fall, waved uanabashedly to a cheering throng from his lofty and naked perch atop the Biology building. As his embarrassed girlfriend held his clothes, a bemused Coach Crawford happened by with his buddy Alan Fox. “Isn’t that Tuck?” Crawford inquired. And, of course, it was. Tuck was perhaps the first squash streaker.
And to this day his zeal is undiminished. Tuck was so eager to honor his old coach that he actually arrived a week early for the dinner. But this turned out to be a stroke of good fortune, when the Spenger’s maitre’d’ told him that that’s how long he’d have to wait for a table.
And youth was also served. Paul Kohler, captain of the 1991 UC Berkeley team, past vice president of the NorCal SRA, and current nationally ranked A player, spoke fondly of his days with Crawford. No, Paul’s long softball experience would not let him master the coach’s beloved reverse corner, and oh how Paul longed to just play the game when Crawford called them together for yet another boring strategy session. But Kohler smiled quite broadly from the heart when he recalled how Coach Crawford told them he just wanted them to “rip it.” And that smile truly said it all. Player and coach had struggled together in a game they loved. And in the end, they loved each other.
Ashley Kaye, a fine player from the 1992 team was the prime mover behind this event and he told the story of how Crawford had arrived late on the scene of the team’s eastern tour and was aghast at reports of their eating habits, apparently supervised by one Bill Branson, a player whose gastronomic sense has been equated with that of Bluto in the Popeye cartoon series. The team, which was due to play Wesleyan, in the Division 1 (??) tournament, had just ordered up a round of cheeseburgers and fries, when Crawford entered the restaurant. Where’s Dick? Well, here he was and he was horrified. Crawford cancelled the cheeseburgers and ordered instead a nutritious round of fruit cocktails. The team went on to lose to Wesleyan, and many, Ashley Kaye among them, blamed the fruit cocktails.
Steve Morton, a Crawford squash player back in the late 70’s (class of 79) and a serious surfer now out of Monterey delighted the audience with his reminiscences of the team trips back east. A personal story about a late night adventure, possibly with a member of the opposite sex, but unelaborated on piqued the crowd’s interest. Although the audience kept begging for more details, sometimes in a rather unseemly fashion, the essence of the tale remained a mystery at press time.
A less sensational, but perhaps more memorable, Eastern swing story was of the time Crawford was a little late in getting his team back to the New York airport and saved time by leaving the rental car with a skycap. Apparently, the car was never seen again in one piece and the insurance company, to this day, questions Crawford’s wisdom. But not so his squash players.
And these players were out in force on this special night. In addition to those already named, there were Jeff Mackiewicz, Jay Prince, Guy Lampard, John Schutt, and Steve DeLuchi to name a few. Other attending luminaries included Terry Eagle, Bill Murray, Bill Garratt, Murray Smith, Tom Dashiell, and Eddie Marr, Ted Gross, a great Cal player who went on to work as a hardball squash professional back east, was unable to attend in person, but he did send a letter praising his coach and thanking him for the contribution to his career and life. And hundreds more who could not come tonight hadbeen buoyed in spirit and in life by this ambassador of sport.
As just one more example of the breadth of Crawford’s influence, consider obstetrician and popular women’s C player Sonia Soo Hoo and her husband, Irish singer and polymathic sports coach Michael Black. As a student at Cal, Sonia was in the advanced tennis class and Michael, in the course of earning his degree in physical education, was student teaching. They met on the court, and, in a very unusual result, both were winners at love. And whom do they have to thank, but the one and only Coach Crawford. After many years of marriage and squash, Sonia and Michael journeyed together across the Bay on this night to honor their friend, Dick Crawford.
And where did this man who meant so much to so many begin his journey?
Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1935, Crawford came to California after an impressive sports career in college and then the army. Crawford had played quarterback on the Western Michigan football team and also played three years of varsity tennis. Football was Crawford’s passion in those days, and tennis just something he did for fun. That has changed a little now, as Dick no longer plays football, and he is ranked in the top 10 in the world in the 55+ masters tennis.
After college, Dick played semi-pro football just long enough to be belted by a 250-lb linebacker and then he entered the army. And it was while in the service, at a god-forsaken base in Fort Greely, Alaska, midway between Fairbanks and Anchorage, that he played his first squash game on a jerryrigged racquetball court in an airplane hangar in 1958. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows him now, that Crawford, a special services officer, was in charge of virtually everything on the base—he ran all the athletic programs, the bowling alley, the store, game rooms, libraries, movies, etc. He also played quarterback for the football team, guard on the basketball team, and even found time to run a little track. There was also an unconfirmed report that he captained an Iditarod dog sled team.
After the army, Crawford came to California to coach football at Mountain View High School. The tennis coach at that school was a then unknown guy by the name of Dick Gould. Gould, of course, went on to Stanford to coach the likes of Dick Stockton and John McEnroe. When Crawford learned that his good friend, Chet Murphy, the tennis coach at Cal, was going on sabbatical in 1968, he leapt at the opportunity to enter the college ranks-moving to Berkeley to coach tennis, sailing, and squash. (As an historical aside, squash started at Cal in 1933 when the Harmon gym was erected. Ralfe Miller, for whom a the annual UC tournament is named, was the first Cal squash coach.)When Murphy returned Crawford focused on teaching tennis classes, while continuing to coach sailing and squash.
Crawford’s approach to promoting squash and recruiting players was this. He taught the advanced competitive tennis class and when he saw a really promising athlete, he would suggest that he give squash a try. His very first recruit was Michael Jenson-Akula in 1968. His last was 18-year-old Derek Moulaison, class of 1997. Both were here at the roast to honor their mentor.
To help them gain experience, Crawford sent his players all over the Bay Area, and beyond, in search of competition. If there was one, there were fifty stories at the roast of players sent over to the University or Olympic Clubs with instructions that parking would be no problem and that parking tickets were an extremely unlikely event. Almost, to a man, the players came back— not always with their cars, and frequently with tickets, but always with the rich experience of competition and a slightly recast opinion of their coach.
In 1970, Crawford founded the Northern California Squash Racquets Association and served as its first president. He also organized an extremely successful interclub league system. And he did it all for nothing, for nothing save the good it did his players. He even spent a good deal of time trying to organize a Western States Squash Association (to include the likes of UCLA, the Air Force Academy, Washington, Stanford, Berkeley, etc.).
Now, at the age of 59, Crawford is retiring as Cal squash coach and planning to devote more time to playing the world senior tennis circuit. He already has an exotic itinerary planned. Like everything else he has touched in life, it seems likely that the senior tour will never be the same after Dick Crawford is through with it. Certainly that can be said of all the players he coached at Cal, for they were all a little different and a lot better when Dick was through with them.
And now the long ride is over and the dinner done. But still, there at the end, was Crawford, the once and always coach, the consummate molder of men and spinner of dreams, there he was with a bright and hopeful smile reading the tiny numbers off raffle tickets and giving away new squash balls to lucky recipients, even as most of the attendees had donned their coats and headed for home. No one but Crawford could see the thrill in this, just as no one but Crawford had seen the bright hope of Cal squash in 1968, just as no one had seen the coming legions of young men who would on one bright day in college step on a court they would never leave, a court they would play on til the twilight of their days. A man of vision and selfless effort, Crawford took his teams sometimes to glory, but always to sport—to the true joy of hard work and to always giving everything they had. And by giving everything, his players had gained the world.
But none gave more than Crawford. For 27 years, he gave his players absolutely everything he had. You could see it in their smiles and you could hear it in their words. They loved their coach. He had made a great difference in their lives and what nobler achievement can there be? Coach Crawford will be missed, but there is a little bit of him in everyone he ever taught and the whole world can be thankful for that. “Rip It!”