Fire & Enthusiasm
Photo by Frank Wojciechowski
PU Alum Bob Surace Guides the Tigers to a Perfect Season
By Bill Alden
The office of Princeton University football head coach Bob Surace on the second floor of Jadwin Gym is pleasantly cluttered, with a pile of football tomes on one table, motivational books spread out on another, and signed footballs throughout the room.
On the wall across from Surace’s desk is a framed No. 64 Princeton jersey, the number that he wore during his years as an All-Ivy League performer for the Tigers in the late 1980s.
This past fall, the number 64 took on a deeper significance as Surace guided the Princeton football squad to a 10-0 record, the program’s first perfect campaign since the legendary 1964 team went 9-0.
As he wrapped up his time as a Princeton student in 1990, Surace made a connection with some members of the 1964 team, developing relationships that helped him guide this fall’s team to perfection.
“I got to work their reunion and I bonded with those guys,” says Surace, 50, who played for the Tigers from 1987-89 and earned All-Ivy honors in his senior year as a 6’2, 235-pound center for a league championship team.
“Little do you know that I would become the head coach in late December 2009 and they would be some of my closest allies and supporters of our program.”
Surace did know from an early age that he loved sports, tagging along with his father, Tony, a decorated high school baseball and football coach in Millville, N.J., who has been inducted in several halls of fame.
“I was involved in everything — football, basketball, wrestling, baseball — you name it, we played it,” says Surace, with his voice rising in enthusiasm.
Photo by Charles R. Plohn
“It was partly because my dad loved it. I was the bat boy in baseball. In football, I was the guy who rode the buses and put the motivational signs in the locker room. When I was 7 years old, I put the playbooks in binders.”
Once he was at Millville High, Surace gravitated to baseball and football. “I loved playing, the friendships, and the people; the guys coaching me were my dad’s best friends, the guys he worked with,” recalls Surace, a star linebacker and center in football.
When it came time to go college, Surace had decided to play football at the next level, centering his focus on the service academies along with Patriot League and Ivy programs.
Initially concerned about the elitist image of the Ivy school across the state from him, Surace found a home when he made his official campus visit to Princeton.
“One of my hosts put a mattress up in his room and we did tackling drills into his mattress,” says the affable Surace, chuckling at the recollection in his high-pitched laugh. “I am a football coach’s son — this place is for me.”
With freshmen not allowed to play varsity in those days, Surace was able to develop confidence by going against other first-year college players.
“I had a good freshman year. It was like being a PG, you only played other freshman,” says Surace, who started lifelong friendships that year with the Garrett brothers — John, Judd, and Jason — the latter of whom is the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. “It helped the acclimation to football; I was 210 pounds as a freshman. At the end of the year, I got to move up to practice against the varsity.”
Once Surace moved up to varsity in the fall of 1987, he continued that progress, seeing plenty of action as a sophomore and then becoming a fixture in the starting lineup as a junior.
Princeton associate head coach/defensive coordinator Steve Verbit, who has been on the Tiger staff since the mid-1980s, saw qualities in Surace the player that led to his coaching success later in life.
“Bob loved football, he loved competing,” recalls Verbit. “He was a grinder. He came to work each and every day and he is tough as tough can be. Many of the same traits he portrayed many years ago in 1987, ’88, and ‘89, he portrays today.”
In Surace’s senior year, things worked out very well for the Tigers as they went 7-2-1 overall and 6-1 Ivy, earning the program’s first league crown in two decades.
“The team my senior year was the closest team and the hardest working team,” says Surace. “Instead of just having one leader, like Matt Whalen or Jason Garrett, everybody jelled and we stayed healthy. In my junior year and sophomore year, we got hit by injures. There were a lot of things that happened. In my senior year, everything jelled and it was a great season. It was so much fun, we had the first Ivy League title in 20 years for Princeton football.”
Having written a senior thesis that examined management’s role in the integration of Major League Baseball, Surace was looking to stay around athletics after graduation.
“At the end of the day, you have to find your passion. I knew my passion was sports,” says Surace, who found another passion at Princeton as he started dating Tiger women’s soccer player Lisa Tanners ’92, who later became his wife. “I wasn’t sure what side of sports I wanted to be on. I didn’t know if I wanted to be on the management side or on the coaching side.”
Photo by Charles R. Plohn
In order to figure out his future path, Surace headed to New England, going to Springfield College where studied for a master’s degree in sports management and served as a running backs coach in 1990.
“I ended up running a sports camp for football in Shippensburg, Pa., and I got to move around to some other different locations,” says Surace. “That was all coaching, it was running coaches. Right then and there I knew that my love was coaching.”
From there, Surace took a winding road as he moved up the coaching ladder. He took a job as an offensive line coach at Maine Maritime in 1993, and served as an assistant for the Shreveport Pirates of the Canadian Football League in 1994.
He returned to the college ranks as an offensive line coach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in 1995 and then took a job as offensive coordinator at Western Connecticut State in 1999. He was elevated to head coach at Western Conn the next year and guided the Colonials to an 18-3 record, including a run to the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs in 2001.
With an assist from former Princeton teammate John Garrett, Surace hit the summit of football, landing a job in the NFL as an offensive assistant with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2001.
Garrett had joined the Bengals staff the previous year and received a promotion, and saw his college friend as a good fit for the resulting opening.
“He recommended me to the owner, he calls me up and says ‘are you interested in the NFL?’” says Surace.
“I said ‘yeah sure,’ and he said ‘good, because you are on a flight tomorrow at 8 a.m.’ He went over things with me, saying be prepared for this, this, and this.”
Surace took that flight and had a marathon session on the whiteboard with head coach Dick LeBeau, going through plays and responding to defenses to demonstrate his football acumen.
Surace got the job as an offensive assistant. LeBeau was fired the next year and new coach Marvin Lewis retained him on the staff.
Lewis had a great influence on Surace, who was eventually promoted to assistant offensive line coach.
“I loved working with him; so many things that we do now — how we organize practice, how we meet — I learned from him; he was the first guy I ever worked for who brought the coaching staff together,” says Surace, noting that he holds dinners each Sunday evening during the season with his coaches and their families to help build that spirit of togetherness.
“You don’t realize when you take a new job that the wives know nobody. We are all married and you come to a new situation and they are moving to a new town. Marvin was the first guy who got everybody together.”
Photo by Charles R. Plohn
In late 2009, Surace got the chance to come home to Princeton as the Tiger head coaching position opened up and he got the job.
“It was surreal, we love Princeton,” says Surace, referring to his wife Lisa and their daughter, Alison, and son, A.J.
“We have been back on campus every year. Whether it was just walking our kids through or whether it was reunions, there had not been one year where the two of us hadn’t come back on campus. Whether it was to spend the day and walk on campus or eat at Hoagie Haven, this was our place.”
Surace’s dream job turned into a bit of a nightmare as the Tigers posted back-to-back 1-9 seasons in 2010 and 2011. Coming into his third season at the helm, the upbeat Surace believed the program was on the verge of turning the corner.
“We are going in the right direction, we have the right people,” says Surace, recalling his message to an officer of the program’s Friends group after the second season. “We have to continue to recruit and get better in that end and continue to be better in the weight room, but if we take these positive strides, we are headed in the right direction.”
Verbit concurs, seeing success on the horizon despite the steady diet of losing. “You didn’t see the results in wins and losses, but you can feel it on the classroom, you can feel it on the practice field, you can feel it in the winter workouts and you could see it when you watch the game video,” says Verbit.
“We knew we had a chance, we knew we were moving in the right direction. He was the same guy. He continued to teach and really stress the fundamentals…the techniques. He stressed work ethic and commitment to the game and good things are going to happen.”
Good things started to happen in 2012 when the Tigers went 5-5, setting the stage for an Ivy League title campaign the next fall when Princeton went 8-2 overall and 6-1 Ivy, tying Harvard for the league title.
“This is a great league, it is so hard to win this league,” maintains Surace. “The teams are just continuing to get better. What you saw was that we built a foundation, our culture got better, our captains were now taking over.”
That foundation yielded another title in 2016 as Princeton posted an 8-2 overall record and a 6-1 league mark, sharing the crown with Penn. Coming into this past fall, Surace sensed that 2018 team had a championship culture.
“This was a great group to coach, whether we were going to go 5-5 or be undefeated,” says Surace.
“I knew it from December when I saw that the rising seniors were such a strength. I felt so comfortable that this group understood work ethic, understood commitment, understood teamwork more than any other team at any level, I played on or coached. They had that ‘it’ factor.”
The players displayed a daily commitment to excellence, focusing on process rather than results.
“Their expectation was ‘let’s just be good today, let’s just have fun today.’ They got it,” says Surace.
“They understood what Princeton is all about. You don’t need to have straight As to go on and be successful, you just need to embrace things.”
Tiger offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Sean Gleeson credited Surace with getting the players to take greater ownership.
“It is like a light touch, he is very consistent; I think this year was unique because he tried to put it in the players’ hands from day one,” says Gleeson.
“The guys were more compelled to talk before the game instead of other years. There was lot of player buy-in this year, that was intentional by him.”
Surace’s even-keeled approach helped keep the players on track this fall as the wins piled up and talk mounted of a perfect season, particularly in the wake of a 14-9 win in a showdown with then-undefeated Dartmouth that left Princeton 8-0 and in the driver’s seat for the title
“Each week is a new competition, you have got to respect every single opponent,” says Verbit, assessing a season which saw the Tigers rise to No. 8 in the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) Coaches Poll and set an Ivy League record for total points (470) in a season and produced a defense that limited seven of 10 opponents to 10 points or fewer. “That is what Bob’s personality is all about. He kept our players grounded throughout the process.”
There was some fire and enthusiasm provided by Surace to spice up things. “He has got the grit and everyday he is on,” adds Verbit.
“Every day he is around you and around our players and in the meeting room or the weight room, you can feel it. You can see it in his step, he walks a little faster. It is encouragement, it is a little bit louder when he is around.”
In the view of Princeton senior linebacker and co-captain Mark Fossati, Surace’s Princeton background helps encourage the players to go the extra mile for him.
“If you don’t love who you are playing for, you are going to have a tough time there,” says Fossati.
“I think that is why you see a lot of kids committed to the program throughout their four years here, because coach Surace becomes a father figure for the guys. Him being a student here, he gets what we have to go through. He knows the people that we need to talk to to get through this.”
Another senior stalwart, star defensive lineman and co-captain Kurt Holuba, got to see Surace’s mentoring in a different context as he suffered a season-ending knee injury weeks before the opener and became a de facto line coach.
“I went from Kurt the player to coach K. It was kind of weird at first, adopting this role as a coach, but I really embraced it as time went on,” says Holuba.
“Coach Verbit and coach Surace both encouraged it. I was more hands on with the defensive line than any other position. I got to sit in on some meetings, have a little family dinner time on Sundays. I got involved in that process, which was awesome. I think the No. 1 quality of coach Surace that just permeates the program and the reason why he has had so much success is that genuine caring for everybody. He embedded that sense when he recruits you and through my five years.”
That genuineness shines through to Surace’s coaching colleagues across campus, according to men’s soccer coach Jim Barlow, a 1991 Princeton alum who knew him in passing during their college years.
“Bob is so well respected, he has time for everybody,” says Barlow.
“He is engaged, He obviously has a million things on his mind but when you talk to him, you get the feeling that you are the only thing that is important right now to him. He has the ability to really focus and be engaging. He has got so many friends and is so popular in the department.”
In the heat of battle on Saturdays, Surace shows a special level of focus, according to Gleeson.
“He is an incredible game day coach; he really does not meddle at all with the offense or the defense,” says Gleeson.
“He is really, really sharp. I have never seen him make a bad decision about a timeout. I never seen him make a poor decision about when to go for it.”
As Surace reflects on Princeton’s incredible campaign this fall, he is proud that the team will join the 1964 squad as having a special place in program lore.
“At the end of the day, your legacy is different; you go in as historic in this place,” says Surace, recalling his message to his players before they defeated Penn 42-14 in the season finale to culminate the perfect season.
“There is 150 years of Princeton football. It is the first team to ever play, but there have only been so many undefeated teams. At the end of the day, we can still be a championship team. I played on one of them, or you can separate yourselves from the others.”
With Surace having been selected as the Ivy Coach of the Year for a second time and getting named as Maxwell Football Club’s Andy Talley Tri-State Coach of the Year this fall, he plans to stay at Princeton and add to the legacy he is creating at his alma mater where he has posted a 48-42 record in his first nine years at the helm.
“I am an alum, I love this,” says Surace, whose wife is currently the associate head of school at Princeton Day School and whose children are both students there.
“I love that my teammates are coming back. I am part of the community. My wife is part of the community. My daughter is a freshman in high school. For the most part, it is hired guns in the NFL. It is not the same as this. You look at the front row at one of our games this fall and it is my son’s baseball team. In two weeks, I am going out to dinner with my son’s coaches. I love being part of a community that way and colleges allow that, especially Princeton. I am not bigger than the president.”
But after what Surace accomplished this fall, he is getting to be a pretty big deal.