A Bit of Destiny: Petrucci and the Class of 1986
BY: REBECCAH BARGER
For 60 years, Harland “Pink” Baker was as normal a sight on the Princeton football field as a football itself. He attended every freshman and varsity game for those six decades, except for the seasons he missed during his time serving in the two world wars. But what Jim Petrucci and his other class of 1986 teammates remember was Baker’s presence during their practices and his keen attention to the freshmen defensive players.
Baker, himself a defensive tackle, would yell encouragement and advice from the sidelines. During breaks, Petrucci and the others were often treated to stories of Baker’s own time as part of the 1922 Team of Destiny.
A bit of destiny must have rubbed off on Petrucci, who became close with one of Princeton’s greatest football players. Freshman nose guard Petrucci won the Harland “Pink” Baker Award ’22 the second year after its establishment, which was awarded to the freshman or sophomore starting for the first time in their career that made the greatest contribution to the defensive side of the ball.
“The Baker award was really, really significant for me because I had the opportunity freshman year to become great friends with Pink Baker.,” Petrucci said. “Pink really loved the fact that I was a walk-on, and he and I spent a lot of time together.”
Perhaps Petrucci had a bit of that destiny to start with. The Flemington, NJ native didn’t originally intend to play football at the collegiate level. Instead, Petrucci met with recruiters interested in his wrestling potential. More than that, his heart was set on Wesleyan University. With an opportunity to become a three-sport athlete in lacrosse, wrestling and football for the Cardinals, Princeton hadn’t crossed his mind.
“Back when I was thinking about schools in the early 80’s, although I lived only 45 minutes away from Princeton, I really didn’t know much at all about either Princeton or the Ivy League and the opportunity that it was going to represent,” Petrucci said. “One day at Delbarton, where I went to high school, I told one of the priests about Wesleyan and he said ‘no, Jim, I think you should send a letter to the Princeton wrestling coach and see if you can go there.’”
Petrucci applied early decision to Princeton and was accepted. By the end of wrestling his high school senior year, he had even changed his mind: he would walk on and try to play football for the Tigers. Petrucci, along with tailback David Ackerman, were voted Co-Captain of the freshman team. They led the team to a 3-3 finish their freshman season.
“It was both a great honor and a lot of fun to be in that role [as captain] having started out as a walk-on. Although I understand the reasons the League abandoned it, I think freshman football was a real positive,” Petrucci said.
When Petrucci made the transition to the varsity team, he entered a rebuilding year under Head Coach Frank Navarro. The Tigers were slated to finish seventh in the league after coming off a 3-7 record in their 1982 season.
Fleshing out the team with more young Tigers started the 1983 season moving the right direction. They opened against Cornell and, in the last 17 seconds, jumped ahead of the Big Red to win 41-36. They succumbed to Bucknell the following week 35-17, but caught another win in week three over Brown. Petrucci, in week four, would start on defense as nose guard for the Tigers who were now 2-1.
But young blood like Petrucci would take time to mature on the varsity squad. The rebuilding took its toll on Princeton, which faced losing records of 4-6 in the fall of 1983 and 4-5 in the fall of 1984.
The Tigers football would take another loss in the form of resignation of Head Coach Navarro. Navarro had taken over the team after Princeton suffered seven consecutive losing years. He brought the team winning records in 1979, ’80 and ’81.
Petrucci, whose performance in his junior year earned him a second-team nomination to All-Ivy and title of co-captain his senior year, would have a hand in assisting the new leadership. Princeton football was on the verge of something great: all they needed was someone to push them past the tipping point.
Petrucci, fellow co-captain Anthony DiTommaso, and previous captain Kevin Guthrie, met with Ron Rogerson in the winter of 1984. Rogerson was the Head Coach at University of Maine with nearly two decades of experience behind him. But for the three Tigers, they were looking for more than a resume. They were looking for someone special.
It only took them ten minutes to realize Rogerson could move Princeton in the right direction. He was named Head Coach in January.
“It was a fabulous experience – to this day Coach Rogerson is a larger than life figure to me,” Petrucci said. “It was the honor of serving as Co-Captain to a great bunch of guys, and being at the right hand of Ron Rogerson.”
Early in their senior season, it seemed that Rogerson had sparked something in the team. The Rogerson staff installed an aggressive defense, focusing on individual talents. The offense was also outfitted with a new Wing-T formation. With three running backs in the backfield, the Wing-T adds blocking strength and creates more opportunities for misdirection plays.
“[The Wing-T offense] had quite an impact!” Petrucci said. “Our offensive line couldn’t figure it out for the first few games, and it was actually getting to the point where our defense was starting to question the whole thing – until they scored 44 points against Colgate, and we managed to give up 49 points. That shut us up real quick.”
Princeton would face Dartmouth first. The Big Green were formidable opponents, and the Tigers would match them with inexperience in the new Wing-T and three years’ worth of losing records.
But nothing seemed to slow the Tigers down in Hanover. The offense balanced its attack between rushing and passing to gain a 10-0 lead.
The defense proved a potent threat as well. With two minutes left in the game, the Big Green was sitting on the Princeton forty at first and ten. Princeton had faced a similar game in their 1984 season, when Yale went 98 yards for a touchdown in the same amount of time.
The Tigers were ready for it this time. They shut down the Dartmouth offense to win the game 10-3.
Princeton would experience growing pains in its next two games, falling to Lehigh 34-13 and Brown 17-0. But by the time they hit winless Columbia in week 4, the Tigers were ready to make a comeback statement. The Lions fell 31-0. The next week, a 49-44 loss over Colgate would leave the Tigers with a 2-3 record.
Princeton would then face Harvard. The Tigers were predicted to lose. Harvard hadn’t lost in the Ivy League yet, and Princeton hadn’t seen a Big Three Championship since 1981.
For Petrucci, it would be one of the most memorable games of his time with Princeton football.
With 4:31 to go, Princeton was down. Senior Tom Urquhart would be the one to make the difference after running back a free kick after a safety. Princeton had topped Harvard 11-6.
“It was a perfect fall day, a full stadium, and a thrilling win,” Petrucci said. “Tom Urquhart’s 75 yard touchdown on a free kick return is indelibly stamped on my brain. It was almost a divine moment – like the Red Sea parting – and the locker room after the game was positively electric.”
Unfortunately, the electricity from Harvard wouldn’t be enough to carry Princeton through its next two games against Penn, currently top of the league, and William and Mary. But the Tigers had thoughts on a bonfire – if only they could break the Yale jinx.
The Tigers hadn’t earned a Big Three Championship since 1981 and had failed to beat both Yale and Harvard since 1967. They needed to win.
The two rivals were met with cold rain and slippery mud in Palmer Stadium. Princeton would have to rely on an aggressive Petrucci-led defense.
Down at the half, the Eli’s were convinced they would see a comeback. Yet, Princeton’s defense wouldn’t fold. At third and twenty in the quarter, Petrucci earned a key sack and left Yale unable to recover.
Petrucci and the Tigers had secured victories over Harvard and Yale for the first time in 18 years.
“The Yale game was pivotal for us – after we lost to Penn it was pretty clear that an Ivy Championship wasn’t in the cards, and we really wanted something tangible to take away from the season,” Petrucci said. “The Class of ’86 knew it had turned the corner under Coach Rogerson and the Big Three bonfire gave us evidence of that.”
The victory over Yale would leave Princeton a slight chance to capture part of the Ivy Title for themselves. Only Cornell stood in the way.
It was more than the tough Big Green defense that would affect the game. Before kickoff, Cornell experienced technical difficulties with their headphones. Cornell Coach Maxie Baughn delivered a message to the Princeton sidelines saying he would forfeit the game unless it was played without them. This would put the Tigers at a severe disadvantage, as a Wing-T offense requires guidance from the box.
“Rogerson was blistering mad at Baughn – especially because he didn’t have the character to deliver the message himself. His pregame speech – I mean tirade – was one for the ages,” Petrucci said.
The defense would again prove key in the matchup. Cornell would repeat the infamous Yale move from the 1984 season: in the last few moments of the game, the Big Green would attempt to rush down the field to score a touchdown, putting them on top of Princeton.
But Petrucci and Rogerson’s aggressive defense were prepared this time. They stopped the attempt to secure a Princeton victory 33-27. Given the Harvard loss to Yale, Princeton would come out second in the League. The Tigers would finish 5-5 overall and 5-2 Ivy, their best finish since 1981.
“After the game we weren’t so much happy about being second in the League, as in giving Rogerson a win. And to cap off the day we had the Bonfire to celebrate the Big Three Championship that night – it was the perfect day – starting with Rogerson’s slap down of Maxie Baughn – and finishing with a great cigar courtesy of the late Somers Steelman ’54.”
Petrucci was honored with the Charles W. Caldwell Award, given to the player that shows the greatest improvement in football during his years at Princeton. It seemed the perfect award for Petrucci, who began his career as a walk-on and ended leading sacker, All-Ivy second team, and Hall of Famer of the National Football Foundation, Delaware Valley Chapter.
Petrucci would graduate with more than a silver ring. He earned an A on his senior thesis, a Study of Patronage during the Harlem Renaissance. He would also leave behind the Student Safeguard Agency, which he organized during his time at Princeton. The agency lives on today, supplying security to campus parties and eating clubs.
The co-captain and defensive leader would also go onto create a legacy of success that many players after him would aspire to. Petrucci founded J.G. Petrucci Company, Inc., a design and construction company. J.G. Petrucci Co. to this point has developed six million square feet of building and now manages a portfolio across three states of three and a half million square feet of space.
“In 1987 just a year after graduation, I started a real estate development and construction company, and we are now 40 people strong,” Petrucci said. “We function very much like a team – taking care of one another, working together – it’s a great, respectful group.”
Petrucci has also sought to personally take up his alma mater’s motto, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” Petrucci started the Petrucci Family Foundation Collection with longtime friend Berrisford Boothe to gather and preserve African-American art, a nod to Petrucci’s roots as a history major.
Petrucci has also been instrumental in supporting local football teams. He sponsors the Irvington High School football team’s end-of-year banquet and provides them with SAT tutoring using Princeton’s current varsity football players.
“My Princeton football experience has stayed with me, very significantly over the past 30 years,” Petrucci said. “On the personal side my relationship with my classmate Joe Harvey, who played strong safety and his wife and his two daughters has been central in my life, and that of my wife and four children. A long time ago we crossed the line from friendship into family – we all travel together, celebrate events together – it’s been just great and it all started on the football field at Princeton.”
This article marks the second of a three-part “Class of ‘6’” series. Check back for upcoming features on the Class of 2006 or browse our news section to see the first installment on Royce Flippin and the class of 1956.