Fourteen stacks of DVDs, arranged by each prospective player’s position, lined the desktop of new football coach Bob Surace ’90 this summer. The carefully chosen highlights, sent in hopes of encouraging coaches to pick up the phone or send an e-mail, are boiled down from hundreds of hours of high-school game tapes. It’s one of the great efficiencies of recruiting in the digital age.
The rest of the process, though, is not so different from what it was 25 years ago, when another new Princeton coach, Ron Rogerson, was wooing Surace, a standout lineman from Millville, N.J.
Surace, who has spent the last eight years as an assistant coach for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, was named Princeton’s head coach just before Christmas, and since then he has been talking with prospects and their parents about football, academics, and life after college. He’s also shared stories about his former teammates, the professional paths they’ve taken, and the lasting bonds they formed on campus.
“The recruits were able to really follow what Princeton is about,” Surace said. “They’re going to get an education that’s unmatched, and we can give them a football experience that equals that. I think that’s a pretty powerful presentation when you’re an 18-year-old kid.”
Surace has an effortless way of talking about nearly all things Princeton, from Heisman Trophy winner Dick Kazmaier ’52 to Reunions. He also has an abiding belief in the link between sports and education, instilled when he was just a kid pacing the sidelines as a water boy for the high-school football and baseball teams that his dad coached. Whether any of this will aid recruiting — or help Surace’s Tigers win games — remains to be seen. Princeton starts the season at Lehigh Sept. 18 and hosts Lafayette in its home opener Sept. 25.
The Tigers’ football pride endured a few bruises last year in lopsided losses to Columbia, Brown, Harvard, and Penn, but victories over Yale and Dartmouth in the last two weeks of the season restored a modicum of health. This year’s team returns 14 starters, including the entire offensive backfield, and with the arrival of Surace and a retooled coaching staff, Princeton hopes to return to Ivy League title contention.
Surace paid his dues as a coach at a series of small colleges and had only one head-coaching job, at Western Connecticut, before landing in the pros. The leap from NCAA Division III to the NFL presented challenges. On one hand, he saw a need to learn from the players: If a 10-year veteran makes a block in a certain way, you better find out why he does it before you tell him to try something different. But in other cases, all eyes turned to the coach. “If a certain blitz came up and you didn’t have an answer for it, you were not going to last long in the NFL,” he said.
Now Surace faces a jump in the opposite direction. The defenses that he’ll face in the Ivies won’t have the speed and strength of, say, the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he also won’t have Bengals star quarterback Carson Palmer zipping spirals down the field. The adjustment, he insists, is not as extreme as one might think.“The level of competition in the Ivy League is terrific,” Surace said. “We don’t play Michigan or Ohio State or Florida, but ... there are great athletes playing on our team and other teams. The difference is our guys, all 110 of them, happen to be students capable of excelling. I don’t know if many other schools can say that.”