It’s Not Only Next Man Up but Next Coach Up, Too.
BY JAY GREENBERG
The surest way to keep your staff together is to continue to go 5-5. Following two Ivy League championships in four years, the coaches at the top undergraduate academic school in the nation somehow have become that much smarter. Other schools want Princeton’s brains.
“We have built a really good program,” said Coach Bob Surace. “We have overcome some tremendous challenges and yet are still successful doing it the right way.
“Maybe people outside see that. When I get phone calls asking for permission to talk to our people, that’s a good thing. Not just our coordinators, but also our operations interns and coaching assistants are getting opportunities.”
James Perry, the offensive coordinator who twice schemed Princeton to the top scoring and yardage totals in the league and developed two Ivy Offensive Players of the Year, has become a head coach, at Bryant University. Jim Salgado, who shared coordinator responsibilities for a defense that in 2016 gave up 74 points in seven league games (28 of them when Princeton had huge second-half leads), has taken a defensive assistant position with the Buffalo Bills.
After four years as coach of the running backs, the last one doubling as special teams coordinator, Sean Gleeson is now in charge of the offense, replaced as the director of the special teams units by Stephen Thomas, who also will continue to coach the inside linebackers.
Offensive line coach Eddie Morrissey left for non-football reasons a year ago, when Andy Aurich moved into that position from special teams coordinator. This leaves Thomas and receivers coach Dennis Goldman as the only two position coaches still in place from the 2013 championship season and Thomas’ service has not been continuous–he came back last season after a year with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Tight ends coach Mike Willis and outside linebacker coach Mike Mendenhall are only entering their second seasons. Yet, despite all these butts in different chairs, the music hasn’t stopped. The Tigers won another co-championship in 2016.
“We have been successful at developing coaches and putting new responsibilities on their plates,” said Surace. “We have had guys who were ready for the highest levels.”
One constant is Steve Verbit, a Princeton coach since 1985, who will again be the sole defensive coordinator in 2017. Another is Surace, entering his eighth season of developing depth not only on his roster but also in his brain trust so that the head coach doesn’t hit the panic button when his lieutenants can better themselves.
“It’s always gratifying to see them reach their goals,” said Surace. “Plus this keeps us from getting stale.
“The objective is to grow your own coaches. We were able to promote Sean and Stephen Thomas, like we promoted Andy a year ago, positive things.”
Aurich, who also has the title of assistant head coach, is a Princeton grad. Gleeson has a degree from Williams. New running back coach Jamel Mutunga played at Gettysburg, comes from three years of coaching the Lehigh backs. Just-named defensive backfield coach Marvin Clecidor is a Lafayette grad who coached the corners for William and Mary’s FCS-leading pass defense in 2016.
There is a pattern here. More Princeton coaches than not are coming from schools that hardly are easy admissions.
“We don’t limit ourselves to just guys from good academic schools but that fit has been successful for us; you can see that in the history of our hires.” said Surace.
“If you look at the New England Patriots’ staff, they have people from good academic schools who are creative thinkers. Bill Belichick is not into a mindset of, ‘This is how it always has been done.’ I never want us to get into that way of thinking here. It’s ‘How do we get better?’”
One way of doing that is to have a good coach who learned from a good coach. Despite how many apples have been picked off the Belichick tree, he goes on winning regardless. Just as when players become injured, it’s next coach up, even if the task of replacing a successful one seems formidable.
Surace knew he wouldn’t have Perry forever. Gleeson has been groomed as the replacement almost since his hiring in 2012.
“Sean was ready to be a quarterback coach and a coordinator four years ago,” said Surace.
“It starts with him having played for James (who was offensive coordinator) at Williams. Sean then did a great job coordinating the offense of my brother (Brian) in an offense not that different from ours at Fairleigh Dickinson. Sean also coached at a very good high school program (The Delbarton School in Morristown, NJ).
“In the four years we have worked together he has done an exceptional job in every responsibility we have given him. There is no job he hasn’t had, whether it is coaching the running backs (2013-16) coordinating the special teams (2016) and being in front of the whole team and motivating them. The players have a great respect and understanding of Sean that way.”
One of the first things Surace did upon taking the Princeton job is make sure Verbit, who was a Princeton assistant during the head coach’s playing time here (1987-89) wasn’t going anywhere.
”I really needed him,” recalls Surace. “I was an alum, but still didn’t understand fully how Princeton works, so I leaned on him for every summer camp decision, every administrative duty, alumni event, and recruiting. At some schools, they have one full time person to do each of the things he was doing.
“I now am going into my eighth year. I have a better feel for these things and have two assistant coaches who are alums (Aurich and Willis). I can take some things off Steve’s plate so he can call the defense and coach football.”
Verbit’s defensive lines have included two players – Mike Catapano and Caraun Reid currently playing in the NFL. Salgado mentored a secondary that in 2016 made a lightning improvement from Game Two to Game Ten. The game day deployment for 2017 is not yet set in stone, but, like Gleeson, Verbit likely will stay on the sideline while Clecidor goes upstairs, as did Salgado.
“You always like to have the guy coaching the four guys in the back being up top because you need that vision,” said Verbit.
Salgado’s was 20-20 from up there; also ultimately saw eye-to-eye with Verbit in the meetings rooms as they solved problems together through different perspectives.
“In seven years, we came together with a lot of similar thoughts,” said Verbit. “We lose a good person with a lot of experience.
“But new people always step up. When we interviewed Marvin two years ago, he was a young coach with a positive personality and a lot of energy. Two years later he has that same personality and is a more mature coach from experience at a school (William and Mary) that plays top competition. He grew from a more demanding role.”
Like beating Yale, Verbit never gets old. He has outlasted even the Naked Olympics, plus too many assistants to name. Surace is Verbit’s fourth boss.
“Everybody on the staff plays off the head coach, so the key component is to have the right guy at the top,” said Verbit. “And we have the right guy there.
“He points us in the right direction and is a tremendous organizer. He always seems to put together a good staff and the key component is that everybody gets along with each other.
“There are a lot of staffs where there are good coaches but not a great fit. We have been fortunate to find good team players.”