Harutunian, Henry

“A game of chess played on your feet, requiring agility, power and intelligence.”

That’s how coach Henry Harutunian describes fencing. It’s a sport that provides strength of character for one’s entire life. For more than 30 years, Yale fencers with the will have been counting on Harutunian to hone the skill.


Harutunian has produced numerous All-Americans and an NCAA men’s foil and women’s sabre champion during his tenure. Remarkably, a number of those honored had never touched a weapon before coming to Yale. The men are 238-125 (.656) under his guidance and captured the NCAA sabre title in 1994. The women, meanwhile, have a 269-69 record (.796) and have won three national titles (1982, 1984, 1985).

Harutunian, the 1996-97 USFCA Coach of the Year, had a distinguished career as a fencer and coach in his native Armenia. He was named eminent coach of the Republic of Armenia in 1963, while serving on the coaching staff for the Soviet national team from 1962-1966.

One of his pupils made the U.S.S.R. Olympic team in 1956 and went on to become the first Soviet to claim the individual epee title at the Junior World Championships in 1958. Harutunian came to the United States in 1966 and coached at Brandeis for three years prior to joining the Yale staff.

Before long, Harutunian had joined the U.S. coaching elite. He began working with the American national team in 1977, and in 1984, he served as one of three U.S. Olympic coaches. He also coached the Americans in the 1979 and 1983 Pan American Games and in the 1979, 1981, 1983, 1991 and 1993 World University Games.

Harutunian was named Coach of the Year by the National Intercollegiate Women’s Fencing Association in 1982 and by the IWFA in 1984 and 1985 at the NCAA Championships. In 1986, the U.S. Men’s Fencing Coaches Association selected him Coach of the Year.

He has also choreographed stage fencing for both theater and the screen, and has acted in films. Harutunian’s philosophy of fencing is guided by the following passage from The Works of Moliere: “The eyes which watch and warn, the brain which evaluates and decides, the hand which executes the decision must harmonize precision and speed to give real life to the sword.”

Henry Haratunian Hall of Fame Speech
by Steve Blum for Jack KeaneHenry Harutunian Hall of Fame Induction: Introductory RemarksNot long ago, there was an ESPN documentary on the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi.There was plenty of exciting football to watch, but what really made the program memorable were the reminiscences of the great athletes who had once played for Lombardi.

One of those athletes was a Hall of Fame cornerback, Herb Adderley. By the time the documentary was made, Adderley had become a very successful businessman.

Back in his football days, I  can assure you that if the hard-nosed Mr. Adderley had made contact with you during  a  game, you’d remember not to head in his direction again…that is, if you could remember anything at all.

As the interviewer  tried to draw out Adderley’s innermost thoughts about his old coach’s influence on him, Adderley fell silent for several  moments.

Then he said:  “Let’s put it this way…my father was a good man…a hard working man…a  decent man…and I loved him.  But I don’t think about my father every day like I do with Coach Lombardi.”

What kind of men can spark that kind of deep-seated emotion? How do they  create such deep reservoirs of gratitude in their charges? Where can you find them these days?

I suggest you begin your search at Yale.


It’s no exaggeration to say that you can graduate from Yale but you can’t graduate from Henry Harutunian.

This is something you quickly sense as you watch him direct training in Yale’s historic fencing salle.

There he is, patiently working with a freshman who’s never before picked up a sword. The kid is one of hundreds of absolute neophytes that Henry’s developed in his illustrious career.

Perhaps that youngster will turn out like another of the Henry’s pupils who recently sent a personal check for $100,000 to the Yale Fencing program in Henry‘s honor.

Or maybe Coach Harutunian is sizing up a group of walk-ons doing line drills.  He’s probably looking for signs of the fabled “three lefties”–the championship collegiate saber team that Henry created out of three skinny youngsters who had no prior fencing exposure–Dave Jacobson, Edgar House and Steve Blum—and  who went on to compete on United States international teams in the 1970s and early 80s.

Or maybe Coach is giving a lesson to a couple of All Americans who’ll need to be replaced next year because of graduation.

That’s the way it is, session after session: Henry searches for talent at a world-famous university that offers plenty of scholars but no scholarships.

And yet, season after season, Yale surprises. They win when people say they won’t.

As Leon Trotsky might have put it–something happened  “unforeseen though not accidental.”

Henry has been at work.

At work turning neophytes into neo-fighters…building multi-decade record of success …success that underlines (as one of Henry’s first Yale pupils recently told me) “how unsuccessful time and Mother Nature have been at dimming Henry’s fire and passion and freshness and  humor and intensity–and how his body is a time machine in reverse.”
Then one day a fresh new face enters the room. She’s from  Atlanta. And she’s no neophyte fencer. She’s been beautifully prepared by another Olympic coach, Arkady Burdan, for the highest levels of competition.

She’s come to Yale to experience the education and culture that did so much for her father.  She’s Sada Jacobson, daughter of Dr. David Jacobson, one of those fabled three lefties of long ago.

Sada, like her father, will earn the title of Captain as she leads the Yale women’s team to even greater collegiate heights. Then, as a Yalie still, she’ll capture the individual bronze medal at the Athens Olympic Games. After graduation, she’ll top it all off with silver medals in the individual and team events in Beijing.


So just what is it that Coach Harutunian teaches his pupils?

In an interview a couple of years ago, he said his philosophy of fencing is guided by this passage from the works of Moliere, the 17th century French dramatist and fencing aficionado :

“The eyes which watch and warn, the brain which evaluates and decides, the hand which executes the decision, all must harmonize precision and speed to give real life to the sword.”

Lofty language, without question.

But philosophy is philosophy… and performance is performance.

And Coach doesn’t have a lot of time: with only one part-time assistant, he’s Yale’s Head Coach for both the men’s and women’s teams.

So he says it his way:

“Grob blade…extend arm…shoot to target…now go be doing everything same in bout!”


Moliere stripped to its essentials, don’t you think?

Even so, there are those who will argue that it’s some sort of secret code Henry’s developed to help his Yalies, who’re always short of practice time because of heavy classroom loads.

Another particularly interesting theory is that it’s actually an early form of twitter requiring no cell phone.


At any rate, his philosophy and methodology have served Henry, his pupils and the sport handsomely both here and in the former Soviet Union.

But before we look at the record book let’s look at something that Henry prizes above all else: the success of his alumni.
How’re they doing?

As Ed Koch , the former mayor of NYC would put it, “Pretty good.” (Ed didn’t go to Yale or he might have said: pretty well.”)

For openers , there’s Henry’s legion of lawyers, including one—Henry’s very first Yale captain—who’s run one of the world’s leading firms. (He’s a trial lawyer, out-dueling even his wiliest court opponents.)

Then comes Henry’s phalanx of physicians, women and men that would turn ER, Gray’s Anatomy and House green with envy.

There are Henry’s battalion of bankers, his hedge fund managers, his CEOs…all out there in abundance.

Perhaps you expected this. But how about a nationally acclaimed poet? And an Academy Award winner? Yes indeed, Henry’s been at work: his Yale alums are winning at the game of life, as well.

Now let’s look at the record book.

Early in his coaching career in Armenia, Henry developed a junior world epee champion and USSR Olympic team member.  A bit later, he was named Eminent Coach of the Republic of Armenia while serving on the coaching staff of the USSR national team from 1962 to 1966.

Then came a truly lucky break for the United States: Henry emigrated in 1966 and took a post at Brandeis, spending three years there before moving to Yale and starting his fabulous run.

The US record book has lots to tell you about Henry Harutunian:

•  Pupils representing the US in countless international events from the 70s onward, including 3 of the past 4 Olympics
•  1984 United States Olympic team Coach
•  Twice Pan Am games coach–1979 and 1983
•   Five times World University Games coach– 1979, 1981, 1983, 1991 and 1993
•   Original member of the US National team coaching staff 1977-1984
•   Chosen Coach of the Year by various divisions of the coaching fraternity.

What the record book won’t tell you is that Henry was the first fencing master to volunteer to help launch the original United States national training program.

And that he co-authored the original teaching manuals for the Coaches College, and that he co-produced the outstanding Coaches College Nazlymov/Mindirgasov saber training video.

Or that soon Henry will shortly set a record no one else is ever likely to break: This season Henry starts his fortieth year as Yale’s head coach.

In all of Yale’s illustrious sports history—and by that I mean all Yale sports–Henry is the longest-serving varsity coach. And maybe in all of college fencing.

Ladies and gentlemen—my fellow friends and fencers—let us welcome into the Hall of Fame the man who knows how to win with scholars instead of scholarships, the de facto dean of Yale Athletics—Coach Henry Harutunian.