It took about five years for Harvard’s fencing program, under coach Peter Brand’s leadership, to gain momentum.
But Brand told the Boston Globe Magazine in 2006 that he had a plan: Lure the best talent to Harvard with the promise of a prestigious diploma. “The coaches here didn’t spend much time recruiting,” he said in an interview after the program’s star had begun to rise.
The Globe reported then that Brand picked his team not only on skill but on their personalities and how they blended with the team. “It’s extremely difficult to get people who are academically viable and who are also excellent fencers,” Brand said. “But the most important thing is character. It’s critical that they’re great team people.”
Now, questions are being raised about one of Brand’s personnel decisions after a Globe report that the father of a student who was accepted to Harvard and joined the fencing team bought Brand’s Needham home from him for an unusually high price. The story has raised troubling questions at a time of a nationwide college admissions scandal that has affected other top universities.
But one thing is clear: Brand has a track record of success in the sport that some refer to as “physical chess.”
He has presided over the “most successful era” in the Harvard team’s 118-year history, according to the university athletics department website.
He arrived at Harvard before the 1999-2000 season, and just five years later, the trophies began to roll in, the university said.
As of the end of the 2017-2018 season, he had compiled a 212-88 overall record, 55-37 in the Ivy League, for the men’s team; and a 258-75-1 overall record, 69-41 in the Ancient Eight, for the women’s team, according to the website.
Over that time, Brand has led Harvard to its first NCAA team championship, a combined four Intercollegiate Fencing Association three-weapon titles, two IFA six-weapon championships, and a combined nine Ivy League titles — four by the women and five by the men, while coaching 67 All-Americans, the university said.
One of his fencers, Emily Cross, won a silver medal in the women’s team foil in the 2008 Olympics, the university said.
In the just-completed 2018-2019 season, the men’s team was 16-3, 5-1 in the Ivy League, and the women’s team was 16-6 and 3-3 in the Ivy League. The men’s and women’s team’s came in fourth in the NCAA Championships.
Before Harvard, Brand was the head men’s and women’s coach at Brown University for six years and before that, he was an assistant men’s and women’s coach at MIT for 10 seasons.
“This is one of the highlights of my life,” Brand said in a 1999 statement when he was named Harvard coach.
Brand had won honors as a competitor himself, qualifying for the US Junior Fencing Team in 1972, and winning a seventh-place finish at the 1975 Canadian national championships and a fourth-place finish at the 1985 US championships.
A native of Israel who is the son of an Auschwitz survivor and a Czech physician, Brand immigrated to the United States at age 13.
He credited his time on a kibbutz with teaching him the importance of teamwork. “The challenge is bringing individuals to a place and convincing them that the only way they will win is as a team,” he told Harvard magazine in 2006.
In 2005, Brand told the Harvard Crimson student newspaper that his secret to success was loving what he does.
“I think the main thing here is my love of the sport and the enthusiasm I bring in,” Brand said. “I think it’s infectious and it helps the athletes. Knowing that your coach cares not just about the sport but about you as a person helps their performance.”
Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane @globe.com.