Really, it was the perfect situation.
For three years, Mark Allen was able to play on the pro squash tour and know that if things didn’t work out, he had a full scholarship to Nottingham University waiting for him.
But at the age of 21, the Englishman came to an unexpected fork in the road.
Allen was told that he could no longer defer his enrollment — he had to choose between life as a pro squash player and life as a student at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
Crazy as it sounds, the decision wasn’t easy.
Not when you consider that Allen had spent the preceding three years methodically climbing the rankings and had just cracked the top 50 in the world.
“It was a really difficult decision,” Allen recalled. “I had just started knocking on the door of getting into the big events.”
In the end, Allen chose to go to college.
Today, Allen is one of the most respected squash coaches around, somebody who has his eye on turning the University of Virginia club team into one of the premier programs in the country. The 42-year-old joined the Boar’s Head Sports Club as its director of squash in April.
“He’s had an immediate impact on the program here,” said Boar’s Head manager James Neiderer. “You can tell how passionate he is about [squash] and he has a great background in working with clubs and top juniors.”
Allen grew up in Grays Thurrock, a town just outside of London in which his family owned a grocery store. He dabbled in cricket and soccer, but was drawn to the individual aspect of squash — a sport which originated in England in the 1800s.
“I always preferred the responsibility of it all resting on my shoulders,” Allen said. “If I played well, I won. If I lost, I had no one else to blame.”
At the age of 8, Allen was selected for England’s Under-10 National team.
Allen had always planned on going straight to college, but that went out the window after he won a junior world championship with England as an 18-year-old and a German club offered him a contract that covered all of his expenses.
Following three years on the tour, Allen enrolled at Nottingham. While there, he was a three-time British university champion.
After graduating with a degree in economics, a 25-year-old Allen gave the tour another shot.
However, the pro lifestyle — which included traveling to tournaments around Europe and South Africa — wasn’t as appealing as it had been when he was a teenager.
“The second time around, I just found that I wasn’t as driven as I had been the first time around,” Allen said. “I just said, ‘My heart’s not in this.’”
At that point, Allen decided to go into coaching and has never looked back.
“I enjoy the mental challenges behind it,” Allen said. “As a coach, you learn to understand the game from a technical point of view and then you teach the strategic side.”
Allen has coached in the Channel Islands, McLean, Va., San Francisco and Cape Town. While in San Francisco, he restarted the North American Open, an international pro tournament that has since moved to Richmond. He’s also served as the head coach of the U.S. Junior National women’s team.
The idea of coming to a place where squash was relatively new is was what attracted Allen to Charlottesville.
And, of course, there was the $12.4 million McArthur Squash Center.
Allen says he and his wife, who have sons, ages 7 and 3, have taken to their new home.
“It’s such a family-oriented town and this is such a family-oriented club,” said Allen, referring to Boar’s Head. “I think growing a very successful junior program is definitely possible.
“There’s so much interest and so much support...there’s plenty of kids here to get involved in the game and build a really nice junior program like they have in tennis. We’ve got a template there almost.”
Francis Johnson, who works for the foundation of Jaffray Woodriff — the UVa alum who paid for the facility — says Allen was the perfect choice.
“What really set Mark apart is that he wanted that challenge,” Johnson said. “He was incredibly interested in building something from scratch. That’s exactly what we wanted to hear.
“And he has the tools, the energy and the patience to go do that.”
One of Allen’s chief goals is to build the UVa club team into a juggernaut. Last season, the men’s squad was ranked 36th, the women were 26th. (In college squash, varsity and club teams compete against each other.)
“I’m going to coach them to the best of my ability to see where we can climb from those ranking points with the players I’ve inherited,” Allen said. “And then over the next year to two years, attract some squash players into UVa and take it from there.”
Virginia’s first practice is Sept. 2. The Cavaliers open their season with a round robin at Annapolis in November against Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Bard and Boston University.
The home opener is a round robin in late January against a field that will include Washington State, Cal and George Washington.
“I think this year will be a slightly tougher year in a sense that it will be a transition year,” Allen said. “There will be some kids who are on the team who clearly didn’t come to [UVa] to become part of a program that is as serious as our intentions are.
“We are a club sport, but we’re going to be running the program as if it’s a varsity program in terms of practice and commitment.”
Already, Allen has been inundated with e-mails from prospective players — complete with their latest SAT scores — who have heard about the new UVa facility and are interested in joining the program.
For years, college squash has been almost exclusive to the Northeast. So in a way, the sport moving into Virginia is tantamount to National Hockey League expansion that once occurred in Florida and California.
“Right now, we’re the first school really taking squash seriously that’s considered a southern school,” Allen said. “Up until now, anybody who’s been playing squash who has wanted to play seriously [in college], they haven’t had a southern school choice. They basically had to give up on the idea of going south.
“There are a lot of players out there that want to play squash and want to come someplace with a southern feel. We feel we’re the first and only choice. We’re getting a lot of interest from kids around the country.”
Who knows, if an 18-year-old Allen was coming up the youth squash ranks today, maybe he would have interest in a school like UVa?
But for Allen, there’s no looking back. He wound up at Nottingham — one of England’s top public universities — and has no regrets about his truncated pro career.
Back then, only the very best players in the world made any kind of money — something that remains true, to a lesser extent, today.
“I think if I had kept going, I would have certainly been top-20,” he said. “Higher than that takes a lot of luck.”