Brothers in Brainstorming Are on Opposite Sides Now
BY JAY GREENBERG
Of the 15-person list of possible assistants that then-Princeton Athletic Director Gary Walters ’67 was handed by Bob Surace ’90 on the day after his December 2009 hiring, the new coach had a previous relationship, or at least some past personal connect, with all but one.
“When I was coaching Western Connecticut and following the Ivy League religiously of course, I would read about this James Perry, who every week was throwing for 400 yards for Brown,” recalls Surace. “I did know a little his brother John (now with the Houston Texans), who coached a number of places.”
“Brown wasn’t a successful program until Mark Whipple came (1994-97) and then Phil Estes took over in James’ years (1997-99), when he won the Bushnell Cup. They remained a good program when James came back (in 2007) as the quarterback coach, so this was a guy I at least wanted to connect with to see if he had interest in the offensive coordinator’s job.
“I came to my job interview with the (Princeton selection) committee with a list of (potential) assistants but it never came up. The day after I accepted the job, I was in Gary’s office when he asked me who I was thinking about.”
Walters had complimented Perry on the field following a game against Princeton, engaged in sporadic contact with him since, and conveniently had a cell number. He dialed it with Surace still in the office, and found the about-to-be candidate driving with his wife Abby on I-95 in Central Jersey on the way to spending Christmas with the in-laws in Baltimore.
No time like the present. And no time to be wasted. Not true is any story Perry detoured without first a huddle with Abby, or that the turn signal he put on at Exit 8 actually was a fake to 8A. Nevertheless this young coach of ambition was in Surace’s office in about an hour. And once pleasantries were exchanged, Surace knew this conversation wasn’t just running clock.
“He blew me away,” said Surace. “We discussed offense and creativity but the thing impressing me as much as anything was his aggressiveness.”
“I knew right then and there we were on the same page as far as building this program.”
Right here and now, a decade later, Surace will tell you that Brown football is back on the upswing, because Perry has returned to his alma mater as head coach. Surace would prefer to see tangible results for the 1-3 Bears in the win column begin next Saturday, not this one, when the 4-0 Tigers travel to Providence. But having seen, in the Princeton coach’s words, Perry’s “integral effect on the foundation and culture” during the Tigers’ ascent, Surace believes the corner will be turned by a Brown team that hasn’t won a league game since 2016.
“This is great for the league and Brown,” said Surace. “Phil did an incredible job (115-94 with three Ivy titles) but when it came time to hire, who was better than one of the great players in the history of the league who happens to be in my estimation a great coach?”
“In an offensive coordinators position, toughness gets lost in the shuffle sometimes behind intelligence, speed and feel. James combines all of these.”
“I have hired staffs here who have worked very well together. I can guarantee you that James’ staff at Brown has his same mindset. Our two programs are analytically driven, and both are going to be aggressive about going for it on fourth down when it is smart to do so.”
“James wasn’t just drawing up all these creative plays in the dirt on Mondays. His preparation was off the charts. We have lot of shared values that way.”
Also binding were shared frustrations during a 2-20 start before the Tigers won championships together in years four and seven. The good players they had inherited practically all got hurt that first miserable 1-9. Scant games were competitive. To recruits with other Ivy options, Surace and his staff could pitch the school and all that Princeton obviously means. Football recruits also had to be made to believe they get in on the ground floor of a turnaround, which really meant Surace and his coaches were selling their sincerity. They came up with a remarkable first full recruiting class.
In it were two quarterbacks, a pocket thrower named Connor Michelsen and an option-type named Quinn Epperly, the latter with tools to make himself useful when the need arose for a running back one day at practice. When it came time to take Epperly out, Perry had a better idea. A good set of legs is a terrible thing to waste. especially when you are coming off 1-9.
“The wheels started turning in James’s mind,” recalls Surace. “This is how I remember it: he started to put in a series with Quinn in the backfield.”
“A quarterback can catch the ball. They do it every day when they play catch with each other, so we started to use Quinn in the slot. If we had two good athletes, why would I want one of them standing next to me?”
“Who cares if somebody had never seen two quarterbacks in the game at the same time? Or never seen such a thing as taking out the quarterback who just passed you down inside the five in favor of one who can both run and throw, in order to expand your options down there?”
“If it makes sense, why live in fear of being criticized for it? Why not be the first to do it, get ahead of the curve? Columbia now uses two quarterbacks. Dartmouth uses two. Everyone in our league is doing it.”
“I wanted to play fast. James wanted to play even faster than I did. We occasionally argued like brothers will argue and I loved the fact that we would disagree and still come up with the best solution. With every assistant I ever have had, I want to be able to have those discussions. James came up with things that work. His reasoning made sense. And we came up with an offense that was scoring more points than anybody in Ivy League history.”
It was inevitable that this be noticed. When Perry left Princeton following the 2016 championship to take his first head job at Rhode Island’s Bryant University – where he would go 6-5, and 5-6 – a return to his alma mater as the head coach seemed inevitable.
“No, I had a terrific job at Bryant,” said Perry. “Brown is nostalgic for my wife and I; we met there, like Bob and Lisa met at Princeton. But I had a great job and wasn’t coming unless [Brown} was doing the things it takes to win.
Football facilities are being upgraded, like they have been at Princeton. Every coach who takes a job talks about hard work and patience, but at some point there has to be a reward. And it helps to have been part of 2-20 turning into two rings, even if now he can’t wear them.
“Of course it helps to have been through that,” he said. “Something new is hard and I explain that to the kids.”
“Obviously they haven’t won a lot here recently, but being able to harken back to what we established at Princeton and what I did (starting fresh) at Bryant, it does help.”
“But each place is unique. We have some numbers, but we need to build, and one year of recruiting was not going to solve our roster depth. We are able to take transfers, which has had a super immediate impact. That wasn’t the case then at Princeton.”
His brother from another mother, now coaches on another side. Relatively speaking, it is better for Perry to have on his team, a nephew, E.J. Perry, a transfer from Boston College who is termed by Surace the most dangerous two-way quarterbacking threat the Tigers will see this year.
Last year’s freshman starter, Michael McGovern, is on the field in one of the packages with Perry, of course. Two offensive coordinators later, Princeton continues to use a goalline quarterback, Zach Keller, who runs over people while providing the threat of throwing over them, too. Déjà vu all over again.
“Quinn was our best back and best player,” recalls Perry. “He would have been our best linebacker if we put him there, and John Lovett could have been All-Ivy as a safety.”
“It made sense to do what we did with the quarterbacks. With a righty-lefty we could roll always to the handedness of the quarterback and do some effective pass plays.”
“But the No. 1 thing that made it work was that the kids were awesome. Once they understand they are competing to be one the top 11 players, not just the No. 1 quarterback, they’re fine. We were lucky at Princeton with a string of kids who knew how to compete. If they were not the starter, they still wanted to get onto the field.
“Framing things properly to them is important. If you are playing up tempo, running more plays, needing to give starters a rest, there is so much more opportunity to get on the field.”
“Thinking outside the box wasn’t a chore, we tried to have fun with it, and the kids embraced playing that way. We could do some neat ball-handling things and Princeton still is doing them. It’s a fun way to play.”
The coaching hours are so brutal during the season that Surace has designated Sunday night as family night, ordering in food at dinner hour for staff and kin.
“In addition to the football, the lesson I learned most from him is to put your family first,” said Perry. “And he made it easy to do that.”
“There are some really great [coaches] in the world who are fun to be around, and then your kid has a birthday party and you can’t go. That’s not the way Bob operates. So it’s an awesome environment that I have tried to bring here, too.”
“Our wives are good friends. Our kids are good friends.
Families that ran together saw their Dads have a good run here together. People like working for Surace, in part because they feel like they are working with him.
”Bob is really smart,” said Perry. “We have similar eyes for talent. I like looking at things analytically and we shared an aggressive mentality to complement the analytics.”
“I’ve wanted to be a head man my whole coaching career, but working for Bob was really critical. I learned a lot, long-term-vision wise. It’s an aspect of being a competitor that you want things now. And the whole time I was with him, I saw the long game serving him well. “
“If I had become a head coach before I spent time with Bob, I would be a lot worse coach today.”