Every Departure is Another Opportunity

  • February 28, 2019

BY JAY GREENBERG

Stephen Thomas, for two seasons the special teams coordinator and inside linebackers coach, is the latest Princeton assistant taking a step up the coaching ladder–in his case to an assistant position with the Detroit Lions.  His successor in the coordinator’s role, Mike Mendenhall, will be the sixth in that position during the nine-year Bob Surace era. 

The price of success has yet to come at any cost to a program that has won three Ivy titles in the last seasons. So it is a full expectation that the latest shuffling, which includes two internal promotions to coordinator titles, a change of two other roles, and two new hires, will be equally seamless.

“I believe Bob Surace is the only coach during his tenure who never fired a coach and has lost coaches only to other opportunities,” said Mike Willis, the tight end coach and newly promoted recruiting coordinator. “Bob has developed great coaches that have succeeded whatever their next steps because he identifies talent in coaches, not just players.

“The point I’m most grateful for, which speaks to why people love working for him, is that he relentlessly rewards good work.  Coach (Sean) Gleeson started as a running back coach, same as (new offensive coordinator) Andy (Aurich).   I started as a quality control coaching intern.”

Fit is foremost in a Surace hiring, yet nobody get pigeonholed by a head coach who is constantly grooming replacements in full anticipation of losing good people. This current round of change, a consequence in large part of a 10-0 season and a ninth national ranking in the FCS, is no exception:

– Mendenhall becomes the special teams coordinator to replace Thomas. Mendenhall also will continue to coach the outside linebackers, as he has done the previous two seasons.

– As previously announced, Aurich becomes offensive coordinator to replace Gleeson, the new OC at Oklahoma State.

– Mark Rosenbaum, the receiver coach in 2018, now is in charge of the quarterbacks.

– Brian Flinn, for 13 years the receivers coach at FCS power Villanova, has been hired in that role at Princeton.

– Michael Weick, late of Bucknell, is the new inside linebacker coach, replacing Thomas.

– Willis is the new assistant head coach, taking over multiple off-the-field duties, including recruiting coordinator, relieving Aurich of those functions.  Willis also will continue to coach the tight ends.

“In my annual mid-March meeting with the coaches we talk about growth in their careers,” said Surace.  

“Early in mine, my concern was getting labeled an offensive line coach (he was an All-Ivy center at Princeton), so I was happy to coach the running backs at my first job (at Springfield College). Among the things I did was put myself through the drills I was going to teach, not that I was any good at them, but I learned.

“I was fortunate when I got to Western Connecticut in that I got to call plays as offensive coordinator, I worked hard to get to the point where I knew the passing game, nowhere near today’s passing game, but we threw it really well when I was there.

“I hadn’t coached NFL linemen when I got to Cincinnati. Techniques were different. I learned how to punch and do different things from the way I had done them.

“Cross-training serves you well in the long run, as it obviously has served Bill Belichick well. First and foremost you hire the best people, then you want the coaches to grow. I knew two years ago that if Sean ever moved on this would be the next step for Andy, who, working with Sean the last two years as the offensive line coach, had run game expertise.”

Gleeson, like his OC predecessor James Perry, was a quarterback, an obviously specialized position almost requiring prior playing or coaching experience to teach. Rosenbaum played quarterback at Susquehanna University.

“I’m usually pretty far ahead with the next move to make, like knowing immediately what I wanted to do with Andy,” said Surace. “After that, it was going to be either hire a quarterback coach and keep Mark with the wide receivers or hire a receivers coach and let Mark work with the quarterbacks. I wanted to go through the interview process seeing what the best chemistry would be.

“We interviewed a pretty good mix of (QB) guys.  I was amazed at the quality of the coaches interested in the job. And I loved the process. During the late weeks of recruiting travel it kind of revitalized me.  There are people we didn’t hire whom we learned a great deal from, too. Input is good from whatever source. 

“At the end of the day, Rosey wowed us. His level of detail coaching the quarterbacks was off the charts and he also already knew the verbiage Sean and James Perry had been using for the last nine years. Our QB’s aren’t going to have to learn a whole new language.

“Brian will add a lot to our passing game; the guy is an expert in that area.  It fits perfectly. Not that we are going to score more points than a (record-setting) year ago but we can go to a new level. And we had better. If we come back doing the same things, teams are going to pass us by.

“Now we have new challenges. Andy, Rosey, Mike (Mendenhall) all will be hungry. They, and we, will be growing. That always is a positive.”

It says something about the mounting stature of Surace’s program that Flinn, who turned down an OC position at a good Ivy program within the last few years, looked at Princeton as a step up, even in making a lateral move in title. Villanova is a perennial FCS playoff team that won a national championship with Flinn on the staff in 2008. His job there was secure. But there is an expectation of having a greater role here in design. And he likes the fit.

“Bob wanted to talk to me about my ideas for the pass game and my role [at Villanova],” said Flinn. “That level of input excites me. So does the opportunity to learn their system and see what I can add. 

“To lose (receivers coach) Dennis Goldman (retired before the 2018 season), a legend in coaching circles and still have the production they had a year ago, Mark has to be the real deal. He is a spectacular coach.  One of the things that impressed me in watching every game from 2017 and 2018 was that they scored different ways. Andy and Mike Willis were heavily involved in that, too. 

“It hurts to lose [seniors Jesper Hosted and Stephen Carlson]. But the standard is the standard.”

New experience, old experience, it is all good experience. For all of Surace’s willingness to think outside the box, Mendenhall, a special teams coordinator at his previous spot, North Carolina Central, was an obvious choice to take over for Thomas.  No need to reinvent this wheel. 

“In addition to his pre-Princeton experience, Mike worked hand-in-hand with Stephen,” said Surace. “And, in a perfect world, having a linebacker coach run the special teams is a positive because linebackers fill up the coverage teams.”

Weick lost his job at Bucknell with the dismissal of Head Coach Joe Susan, who has a long association–including nine years as offensive coordinator at Princeton– with venerable Tiger Defensive Coordinator Steve Verbit. Susan passed a high recommendation, as did the track record of some excellent Bison defensive units.

Weick also coached Rosenbaum at Susquehanna, more good words said on the candidate’s behalf.  As Bucknell’s decision to make a change came late for the staffers to find other positions, it turned out to be in fine time for Weick when Thomas got the Detroit offer following the NFL season. 

“Perfect storm,” said Weick. “This happened quickly; opportunity was there, a no brainer to accept it.”  

Neither Flinn nor Surace came into their interview cold. They got to know each other during years of Flinn’s participation in an annual seminar at Princeton that Perry helped found and named, “The Meeting of the Minds.”

“It started when I first got there with a really small group of coaches,” said Surace. James’ brother (John, then the head coach at Merrimack, now wide receivers coach for the Houston Texans), my brother (Brian, the head coach at Fairleigh Dickinson. Then guys like Sean, Brian and Kevin Morris (the current OC at Penn) started to come and a group of 15 has now become something like 85, too many to all fit into an auditorium.

“Three or four of the people we just interviewed came from that. We had built a relationship with Brian over the years. Villanova tried to retain him and I’m flattered he looked at us as a chance for growth.”

Growth was what coaching at Princeton has been about, even as Surace was starting 2-20. Freshmen begin here with the understanding of their need to develop. Some of them switch positions to get on the field. Coaches here thrive with the same acceptance, and challenge, of flexibility.

“We didn’t have a prior relationship when I came here, so I’m definitely grateful for Bob’s trust and the opportunity,” said Mendenhall. “I’ve become one more example of his bringing coaches into the program, developing them and then giving them opportunities when he feels it’s the right time.

“Keep working and your time comes. It makes you work harder. The players see it, the coaches see it. This builds the culture.”

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