Princeton Football’s Best Players of the Ivy League Era: Special Teams

  • July 9, 2019

By Jay Greenberg

(First of three parts)

With Princeton and college football celebrating 150 years this season, princetontigersfootball.com put together a committee of 18 members to choose the best Tigers­ by position of the Ivy League era.  Revealed Monday night at the annual alumni golf outing at the Springdale Golf Club, our list will be published on the website in three parts, starting today with the special teams honorees.

The choices were made by a selection of coaches and players, covering the entire 62 seasons of the formal Ivy League. Jay Greenberg chaired the committee and wrote the thumbnail sketches that accompany each pick.

A separate, smaller, committee is choosing the 1869-1955 honorees, to be announced later. And much more about Princeton’s glorious history in the years it competed for national championships will be posted on this site in the coming months, starting with the story of the first game in 1869. We will culminate our celebration with a weekly ranked list of the greatest triumphs, comebacks, individual performances, heartbreaks and other memorable moments of the Ivy era. They will run once per week throughout the 2019 season. 

We begin here with the special team choices of the Ivy era.  Honorees are listed alphabetically, as will be the defense and offensive selections to follow in two more parts within the next week. Our criteria and methodology is explained at the close of this posting.

The Best Specialists of Princeton’s Ivy Era:  

KICK RETURNERS

Greg Fields ’06

Greg Fields ’06 – Holds the Tiger record for most yardage on punt returns in one season–371. Added another 161 yards as a senior. “Always made the first guy reach for air,” said Roger Hughes, Princeton’s head coach from 2000 to 2009. “A good receiver, but as a returner Greg was just remarkable.”

Doug James ’67– All-Ivy defensive back on the ’66 championship team. He still remains third all-time at Princeton for punt-return yards, five decades after he played.  “Dependable hands,” said former Princeton head coach, Bob Casciola 58, an assistant in James’ time. “Exceptional vision in picking his spots.”

Ron Landeck ‘66

Ron Landeck ’66 – His 27.1 yards per kickoff return remains Princeton’s career high. “There was a sense of confidence and intelligence about him,” said Casciola. 

 “And as sure a thing as you could have catching the ball. “

Michael Lerch ’93

Michael Lerch ’93 – Third all-time in career kickoff return yardage. When eventually given an opportunity on punts, Lerch ran in the first one he ever touched for a touchdown against Harvard. He completed that play by backpedaling the final 20 yards to taunt a trash-talking opponent.  “Fearless, fast and confident that he would score each time he touched the ball,” said Steve Verbit P05, a Princeton coach since 1986.

Jay McCareins ’06 – “Athletically gifted; with a huge will to advance the ball,” said Verbit. He made one of the most clutch returns in Princeton history when he immediately answered a Harvard fourth quarter go-ahead touchdown with a 93-yard run for a touchdown. The Tigers held on beat Crimson for the first time in nine years that game. McCareins also returned a botched field goal at Dartmouth 102 yards for a touchdown. “One of those, ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’ turned into  ’Go! Go! Go!’” said Hughes.

Dré Nelson ’16 –Princeton’s all-time leader in kickoff return yards. Mini-mite (5-5) returned three in his career for touchdowns. Two of those ended up being 100 yarders. “For us to get the ball time after time at the 35 was a huge weapon,” said Bob Surace ’90, head coach since 2010. “Dré changed field position.” 

Marc Ross ’95

Marc Ross ’95. Princeton’s all-time leader in punt return yardage by a significant 105 yards. As a senior, returned two for touchdowns “Exceptional speed that always made him a threat for a house call,” said Verbit. 

Walt Snickenberger ’75

Walt Snickenberger ’75 – Devil-may-care, zero-to-60, style from scrimmage made him an ideal kickoff return man. Broke a 93-yarder for a touchdown against Penn.

KICKERS

Nolan Bieck ’16 – His 70 consecutive successful extra points is a Princeton record. Bieck is also second all-time in Tiger career field goals made with 39. “Playing, coaching and following Princeton for as long as I have, there have not been many kickers of his size (6-1, 190) and, therefore, leg strength,” said Surace. “From the middle of his sophomore year through his senior season, Nolan became really consistent on mid-range field goals and was a tremendous kickoff guy.”

Charlie Gogolak ’66

Charlie Gogolak ’66 – Unprecedented in college football in terms of usage and success. Not only were he and his brother, Pete of Cornell, first to bring soccer-style kicking to the American game, but both generally are credited with being the first kicking specialists on rosters. Charlie held seven different NCAA records at the time of his graduation. His six (of six) field goals against Rutgers in 1965 set a Princeton game record that still stands.  Gogolak kicked a still remaining school-record 54-yarder, one of two 50-plus in his career. As a first round pick in 1966 by Washington (highest ever selection of a kicker at that point), he is Princeton’s top NFL selection by far (Seth DeValve in the fourth round in 2016) “Just an incredible weapon.” said Casciola. “Over the 50 was Go-Go land. In his day, the greatest kicker ever to come along.”

Rob Goodwin ’88 – Hit 98 per cent of points after touchdown for his career. Made one of the most clutch field goals in school history, drilling a 37-yarder as time ran out to complete a two-minute drive to beat Lehigh in 1987.

Patrick Jacob ’12 – Sixth all-time at Princeton in field goals made with 29, despite shortage of opportunity on consecutive teams that went 1-9.  “If we could get it to the 25 he would make it every time,” said Surace. “And they didn’t just inch in; were right down the middle.”

Derek Javarone ’06

Derek Javarone ’06 – Princeton’s all-time leader in field goals made, totaling 45 (in 61 attempts). Also made 78 of 85 PATs. Against Cornell in 2005, he notched a 32-yard kick to send the game in overtime. He then won it with a 35-yarder that still remains the last game-winning kick by a Tiger 14 years later. “We had a lot of fun in practice, squirting water and throwing things at him to try to distract Derek,” recalls Hughes. “Made him a football player, the best compliment I can give him.”

Chris Lutz ’91 – Rare Ivy first-team All-American (1988), when he set the Princeton record for most field goals made in a season (19).  ‘Tremendous athlete in other sports as well,” said Surace. Was 32-for-50 in his career.

Taylor Northrop ’02– Few Princeton kickers have doubled as punters and none did both as well as Northrop. He is tied with Gogolak in kicking points made in a career and third all-time in field goals made with 38 (out of 51). Averaged 38.4 yards per kick as a punter. “Taylor had a confidence problem when I got there and, to his credit he changed his outlook and became not just a great kicker but a punter, too,” said Hughes.

Alex Sierk  ’99 — Made 18-of-21 FGAs in 1997–including 15 consecutively–the best percentage of success during a season all-time at Princeton. Second in field goals made in a season, fourth for a career.  Nailed an 18-yarder on the final play of the season at Dartmouth in 1995 to give the Tigers a 10-10 tie and an outright Ivy title.

PUNTERS

Hank Bjorklund ’72

Hank Bjorklund ’72 ­– Star running back who remains the only Princeton player ever named first-team All-Ivy in the same season at two different positions. Averaged 37 yards per kick as a junior. Was second-team All-Ivy punter as a senior.   

Bill Berkley ’67 – Averaged over forty yards per punt, with good hang time, in the ’66 championship year. During the undefeated 1964 season, Berkeley’s perfectly-placed quick kick and Doug Tufts exquisitely-timed hit knocked a Harvard player into the ball, enabling Pizzarello to fall onto it into the end zone in the Tigers’ 16-0 win.

Ken Buck ’81– First-team All-Ivy in 1979. Averaged 37.2 as a senior and hit a 55 yarder. Played defensive back.

Joe Cloud ’13  – Third-highest average per punt (40.5) in a Princeton career. The one he hit at Columbia in 2012 for 68 yards just came down. “Every times it was 40 yards with five seconds of hang time,” said Surace. “He had a knack for hitting the sweet spot, just beautiful to watch.”

Matt Evans ’99 – First-team All-Ivy three consecutive years. Punted for Princeton for a rare four. His 44-yard average yard gained per punt in 1998 is the highest for a season in Princeton history. “The most talented punter I’ve ever been associated with,” said Steve Tosches H83, H88, head coach from 1987 to 1999. “Got the offense out of a hole and gained field position for us at both ends of the field. For three years I never had a worry in a punting situation.”

Ryan Coyle ’09 – His 41.4 average yards gained per punt is the highest career mark in school history.  “Could get if off quickly and was very reliable,” said Hughes. “Just excellent.”

Colin McDonough ’07

Colin McDonough ’07 – Had the job four years, resulting in the second most punts in Princeton history, and had the fourth greatest career average (39.6).  “He was more of a football player than a kicker, one of the toughest I ever have been around and one of the most reliable,” said Hughes.  “If you had to kick it here or there, that’s where he kicked it.  Became the leader of special teams, which is unusual because it’s usually a big hitter.”

Bill Powers ’79

Bill Powers ’79 – After Bjorklund, probably the best all-around athlete to ever punt at Princeton in the Ivy era, as Powers also played defensive end and became a starter at safety.  Averaged 39.7 yards per kick as a senior, when he was named first team All-Ivy and never had one blocked in his career. Was excellent directionally, too. In 1977 unbeaten Harvard had just scored to cut the Tigers’ lead to 13-7 in the fourth quarter when Powers powered an incredible 70-yarder out of the end zone. Princeton went on to one of sweetest upsets in the rivalry. Also had a 72-yarder during his career.

Criteria and Methodology

A committee of 18 selectors was chosen to provide knowledge of all players dating from the beginning of the formal Ivy League era in 1956 through 2018. The members were picked primarily because of their intimate knowledge of players of their time–either playing with or coaching them–but ideally the selectors had stayed close enough to the program after leaving Princeton to be of help with comparing performers over many years.

To provide a starting point–and refresh the committee members’ memories–each was given a list of every Princeton first and second-team All-Ivy honorees. Nominations were begun without a specific number of choices at a position as a goal, hoping a fair cutoff between the average and the excellent would become clear as we added.  And it did.

Quickly almost everyone on the committee became in agreement that something more inclusive than a list of already-repeatedly-honored All-Americans should be the final product. The greatest of the greats could have been chosen without a committee: the strong consensus was to make 150th anniversary celebration of the program inclusive of the best players of every period.

Hard choices were inevitable and would have been exacerbated by the task of designating first-teams, second-teams, and third-teams. That idea quickly was dropped out of concern for too many bruised feelings by people important to the program. So the lists are alphabetical, the thumbnails making it clear who were the greatest of the greats, just in case anybody doesn’t already know.

After the obvious picks were quickly completed, the committee moved on to the next group, one which composes the majority of names on our lists: Players who excelled in their time.  And that’s where the committee did its best work in steadfastly excluding a third level consisting of solid performers, good teammates and lifelong friends. When subsequent challenges developed over names on or off the list, a further vetting process was begun both inside the committee and out –many of the members making extra calls to contemporaries of the players being discussed and soliciting confidential opinions.

The number of players at each position may seem arbitrary. But gradually, our early cutoffs of, for example, 30 offensive linemen became unsustainable and, in the end, counterproductive to producing the most credible lists. At any point in the process, a round number was used more as a cutoff than as a quota.  And the farther the committee proceeded, the goal morphed into picking the best players, not a pre-set best 20, 30 or 40 at a position.

If upon further examination, it turned out a tight end didn’t quite measure up, there was no necessity found to replace him just to bring the number back to 10. When some obvious oversights of offensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs came to attention late in the process, the result was an unrounded, better list in our belief.

Throughout, we had to balance what was too many against too few. At first blush, 192 total honorees just since 1956 sounds like everybody is getting a trophy but that number averages just three players per year, inclusive of what was wanted—again, the best players of their times. Throughout, there were healthy cautions against getting carried away and some pressure to pare our lists further. Ultimately there were too many good players too close in abilities to make harsh cuts that would have been unfair and diminished, rather than enhanced, the quality of the lists.

Because there are as many opinions as there are persons in the world, inevitably there will be disagreement over some of the selections. But the effort was to distinguish between picks that might be debatable and ones completely unsustainable following closer scrutiny.  In the committee’s opinion, that standard was held. For instance, a defensive back that was left off may been have been a greater contributor to a certain team than a linebacker we selected. But teammates had to keep in mind that we were judging players against others at their positions, not on the same squad.

We had other challenges – like weighing the more dominant position of two-way players from the one-platoon days before 1964, and changing natures of positions over time–like quarterback (a blocker in the single wing days) fullback and tight ends. In avoidance of the pressure to balance lists, we chose not to separate centers, guards and tackles or designate outside linebackers or distinguish between safeties and cornerbacks. Wanted were the best offensive linemen and secondary members period.

For players at the skill positions, their statistical places on Princeton’s all-time lists were, of course, a significant factor. But in that light, an attempt also was made to consider contexts like fewer balls thrown and fewer plays per game in the fifties and sixties.  As another example, excellent running backs may have had their numbers suppressed in years Princeton had great throwing and receiving weapons. The committee tried to take all that into account, as it did team success. No disrespect was meant towards the ample excellent players on this list who were born at the wrong time to be a part of glory years. But of course, the better the team one played on, the more opportunity to make big plays. No losers on this list. But playing on winning teams necessarily carried weight.

As a player’s inclusion on an All-Ivy team only was a starting point in our evaluations, not a bottom line, there are scattered first-team selections who did not make our list.  Conversely, there were a few players who only achieved honorable mention All-Ivy but with the benefit of time and perspective become almost no brainers for our selectors. Thus, the head coaches who vote for All-Ivy annually were only our grand jury. Superior Court Judge Bob Surace insisted no current player, his work unfinished, be selected, although some excellent current candidates will have appeal in 2069, when the 200th anniversary teams are honored.  

The commitment of our committee to the process was even beyond expectations. The members’ willingness to work as a team was fully reflective of what they accomplished on the field and in life. These gentlemen, some who earned places on these lists, showed their love for Princeton and a deep respect for its history. Never did anyone push a good buddy over a better football player. Disagree as you likely will over some names on–or not on–this list, be assured that this was a sincere and painstaking attempt to separate the outstanding from the average. And that is a Princeton thing to do.

Coming Thursday: Princeton Football’s Best Players of the Ivy League Era: Defense