In 2002, Bob Surace ’90 was a successful young head football coach at Western Connecticut State, and the associate athletic director asked what it would take to keep him at the Division-III college.
“I said, ‘I’m here unless the NFL or Princeton calls,’” Surace remembered.
Two days later, the Cincinnati Bengals asked Surace to interview for a job as an assistant coach. He joined the Bengals and remained there for eight seasons, most recently as the assistant offensive line coach, until that second call came.
On Dec. 23, Surace was introduced as Princeton’s new head football coach. The former All-Ivy center is the first alumnus to lead the team in more than three decades, and he spoke about his new job with a long-term view.
“There are so many athletic programs here that have sustained success,” Surace said. “It’s a goal of mine to hopefully be someone who’s able to do that in football.”
Consistent success has eluded the Tigers, who have been mired in mediocrity since their 2006 Ivy League championship season. Princeton’s last long stretch as an Ivy power began when Surace was an undergraduate: From 1987 through 1995, the Tigers posted eight winning seasons and earned three Ivy titles. Surace started on three of those teams (1987–89) and won a share of the Ivy crown as a senior, helping the Tigers snap a 20-year championship drought.
Shortly after graduation, Surace began his coaching career, following in the footsteps of his father, Tony, a successful high school coach in Millville, N.J. The younger Surace started coaching running backs at Springfield (Mass.) College while earning a master’s degree in sports management. He found a more permanent home as an assistant at Western Connecticut State, and after four years, he was promoted to head coach. Surace thrived in two seasons at the helm, posting a 20–3 record before heading to Cincinnati.
The Bengals reached the playoffs twice during Surace’s time on the coaching staff, including this season, when the team won the AFC North championship. Returning to the college ranks will change Surace’s daily routine — the countless hours that pro coaches and players spend in meetings and practices far exceed the limits laid out by the NCAA. But Athletic Director Gary Walters ’67 said that the new coach’s background as an alumnus will help his transition from the NFL to the Ivies. “He knows our institution, he knows our philosophy, and he’ll be able to educate through athletics,” Walters said.
Surace continued to coach in Cincinnati until the end of the Bengals’ playoff run while assembling his new coaching staff. His Princeton hires include offensive coordinator James Perry, a former Brown assistant who helped to shape the Ivy’s most prolific passing attack, and defensive coordinator Jared Backus, part of the Temple staff that recently led the Owls to their first bowl game in three decades. Veteran defensive coach Steve Verbit was retained as an associate head coach.
The NFL schedule prevented Surace from seeing Princeton play in person last season, but he watched the team’s 24–17 win over Yale on television — perhaps the Tigers’ best performance of the season. After dropping lopsided games to Columbia, Harvard, and Penn, Princeton won three of its last four games, and the team will return 12 starters, including quarterback Tommy Wornham ’12.
“I saw a group of guys that played inspired football,” Surace said. “I saw a group of guys that really had some talent, and hopefully, we’ll be able to get them pointed in the right direction so they can do that on a consistent basis over a long period of time.”