Rogerson’s Personality Could Turn on a Dime. So Did the Program
BY JAY GREENBERG
First of Two Parts
Sixteen years without a share of an Ivy League title begged Princeton football for new energy. One win in the last 18 tries against Yale had the alumni demanding it.
“This is the way it used to be,” recalls James Petrucci ’86, an All-Ivy defensive lineman. “My class started with 65 recruits and graduated with just 22 still playing football.
“That was the normally accepted rate of attrition. It was ludicrous. The program was steeped in mediocrity. My first three years, Princeton football was not fun.”
Frank Navarro, who became the coach in 1978 after going 28-11-1 at Williams and 16-36-2 at Columbia, had produced three consecutive winning seasons from 1979-81 but three losers followed. Among eight first-or-second team All-Ivy selections from Princeton in 1984 was a quarterback, Doug Butler, who broke school passing records. But the team went 4-5.
“I’ll say this for Coach Navarro, he was a good recruiter,” recalls Anthony DiTommaso ’86, an All-Ivy linebacker. “But we couldn’t get enough wins and, looking back on it, his staff was woefully inadequate.”
After going 29-37-3 at Princeton, Navarro resigned under pressure following that 1984 season. For a replacement, Athletic Director Bob Myslik dreamed big, inquiring about the availability of Jim Mora, who had won two championships in the three-year life of the United States Football League but took the New Orleans Saints head job, and Sam Rutigliano, fired eight games into the 1984 season by the Cleveland Browns. Instead Rutigliano pushed one of his assistants, Jim Garrett.
Myslik advised Rutigliano that Garrett should accept his offer from Columbia and he did, taking with him three talented sons–quarterback Jason, wide receiver John and running back Judd–who either were at Princeton or about to enroll.
Brought to Old Nassau for an interview was Chris Palmer, for seven years the offensive coordinator at Colgate and the receivers coach for the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. Old guard Princetonians wanted Homer Smith ’54, a former captain, fullback, and class president who had been head coach at Davidson, Army, the University of the Pacific, and gained innovative renown as the offensive coordinator at UCLA and Alabama.
But Myslik and his boss–Tony Maruca, the Princeton Vice President for Administrative Affairs–went to a New York meeting with the alums to present essentially a list of one.
Ron Rogerson had a pedigree from having worked under Tubby Raymond at perennial I-AA power Delaware and had won an unlikely championship in 1982 as head coach at the University of Maine, a longtime stepchild of the Yankee Conference. Two more losing seasons had followed however; Rogerson’s track record for four years with the Black Bears was a less than eye-catching. 19-23-1. But it wasn’t going to be his resume that would get Rogerson the Princeton job.
“Ron and his assistants had driven down from Orono (ME.) on January 2 in a two-three car caravan and arrived running,” recalls Myslik. “It had been love at first sight for me.
“He was infectious, a wonderful combination of tough and gentle. I always say coaches recruit in their own image, bring in players who share their values and enthusiasm and his recruiting had been very good at Maine, a tough place to get players to come because of its remoteness and lack of previous success.
“He also made clear he bought into the idea of academics and athletics not being mutually exclusive, which of course is a Princeton parameter.”
Rising captains-to-be, Petrucci and DiTommaso, plus the just graduated Kevin Guthrie, had been appointed by Myslik to the search committee and sat in on the interviews with Palmer and Rogerson. “Ron just blew our doors off with his passion,” recalls Petrucci. “I ran back to the dorm room to call [Myslik] and tell him, ‘You gotta hire this guy.”
Recalls DiTommaso, “I think Ron asked as many questions as he answered. There was a genuineness about him that connected with a young man. We looked at him and said, ‘This is somebody we would like to play for.’”
When Myslik and Maruca made their pitch for support of Rogerson to alums in the board room of a Park Avenue bank, the big movers were not shaken.
“To say the reaction was lukewarm would be an exaggeration,” recalls Myslik. “I remember one guy, a very powerful one, saying, ‘That’s a pretty sad report; we have a bunch of guys more exciting than the one you are representing to us’.
“After the meeting he said, ‘We have branches in Maine, would you mind if I do some poking around?’ After he did, the same guy helicoptered down to Princeton when we did the second round of interviews. By the time the process was over, the guy had convinced himself that he had discovered Rogerson.
“We wanted someone with head coaching experience. But a lot of them don’t jump at an Ivy League opportunity because of the impact of academic standards on recruiting. Ron wanted Princeton regardless.”
And when Ronald Albert Rogerson wanted something . . .
Adopted at age four months, his childhood was burdened with scarlet fever and then polio. “His (adopted) parents were told that he would either live through the night or would not,” said Ann Rogerson, Ron’s wife. He made it through that night and through sweaty, stinky, summer days working in the Brewer, Maine sewers without a complaint. His scarlet fever did not progress into rheumatic fever, permanently damaging his heart, and setbacks didn’t break it. Hardly the most gifted of athletes but the hardest worker, Rogerson started on the offensive line at Brewer High, again at Maine until a broken leg suffered during his sophomore season ended his playing days.
No blow, Rogerson’s ambition had been to become a coach at powerhouse Dexter (ME.) High School. Brewer put Rogerson and his obvious leadership capabilities to work as a coaching assistant for the freshman team, then, upon the recommendation of head coach Harold Westerman, was recommended for a graduate assistantship at Colorado State under head coach Mike Lude, who had worked with Westerman at Delaware.
Rogerson’s first fulltime coaching position was at Lebanon Valley College, and then the Delaware connections helped him land a job on Raymond’s staff as a defensive backfield coach. One of his players was Steve Verbit, who stayed on as a graduate assistant and then a fulltime coach of the secondary while Rogerson coached both Blue Hen lines, according to need, over ten seasons in Newark.
“He wanted to learn everything,” Raymond would say. So he was ready for his first head job, at Maine, which had but three winning seasons out of the previous 16 when it turned to a 39-year old alum with boundless enthusiasm.
Rogerson wanted to take Verbit with him to Orono. “I told him ‘I love you to death, but there is no way my wife and I are going to the frozen tundra,’” laughs Verbit. “Give me a shout out when you get a position a little further south.”
The two remained so close that Verbit scheduled his wedding on the night before a Maine-Delaware game in Newark so Rogerson could be there. They coached against each other hours later, perhaps, not in as, uh peak condition as their players, but it was doubtful they noticed, so fiery were these two young coaches.
Maine was home for Rogerson and a homey place, besides, tough to leave for a Princeton program long past its glories. But maybe the only thing as beloved to Rogerson as his wife and four boys was a test.
“He knew the power and greatness of a school like Princeton,” recalls Ann. “He wanted that exposure for himself. He pursued the job vigorously.
“He had recruited All-Americans for Delaware, gotten players to come to Maine, the most remote spot in that conference, three hours from Boston. Challenges had been a big part of my husband’s life from an early age. They were not intimidating to him.”
Princeton would open up for Rogerson a national recruiting base and the help of a network of hugely successful alums. “He knew he could sell one of the top schools in the country,” recalls Greg Rogerson, Ron’s oldest son.
“I was 16 when he got the job, I said, ‘Wow, there must be something pretty special about my Dad, all the people who had to be applying for a prestigious position. He had to be really impressive.”
Rogerson brought with him from Maine his 31-year-old offensive coordinator, Steve Tosches, linebacker coach Bob Depew, defensive line coach Mark Harriman and wide receivers coach Mike Hodgson. Craig Cason was hired from Dartmouth to coach the freshmen. And Verbit was all in this time, as promised, even though he was leaving a premier 1-AA program in Delaware.
“One of those years we beat Princeton 61-8,” he recalls. But the opportunity to work with his friend and get in on the ground floor of a turnaround won Verbit over. Recruits got the same pitch from Rogerson: Princeton football was on its way back. If you can get in, you should want in.
“My Dad was a high school coach (in Millville, NJ) so football was going to play a role in my decision, probably as big a role as academics,” recalls Bob Surace’ 90. “There was a lot of negative recruiting then as there is now; schools telling me, ‘You don’t want to go to Princeton, they have smoking jackets for the weekend and don’t play (serious) football there.
“I was looking at Penn. My guidance counselor said, ‘If Princeton wants you, you are going to visit; it’s the best school in the country.
“Ron and Bob Depew came to the house. Depew was professorial, statesmanlike, gave the good speech with the information parents and students needed to know about Princeton.
“Then, over spaghetti in our kitchen, Ron started to talk about what Princeton was going to do in football. He rolls up his sleeves like he said they are rolling up their sleeves at Princeton. He is salivating spaghetti and sauce and talking in this thick Maine accent that made it hard for me to understand what he was saying but I understood the passion.
“He was selling the opportunity to do something special, a creation that is going to last. There was no mention of any other players who had committed; all he sold was what Princeton was going to do as a team.
“I had met with all-time Ivy coaches like Carm Cozza at Yale. But Ron was the only one who had me on the edge of my seat. When he left the house I was going to Princeton and wanted to go play that very day. When I got there for camp freshman year I found out I was not the only one who had pretty much the same recruiting story.”
With spaghetti spit and hair standing on the edge of his exposed forearms, Rogerson created an initial recruiting class of eight future first-and-second team All-Ivy players, plus three more honorable mentions.
In the meantime, it wasn’t too late for a lot of Tiger guys sick of losing to get in on the ground floor, too. The new coach was a passion magnet.
“Gruff demeanor, not the kind of guy you would picture as an Ivy League coach, but a phenomenal leader, motivator, and a great judge of talent,” recalls Dean Cain ’88. “He loved his players and they loved him.
“He would fight for you and, as I would find out probably more than anybody on that team, also fight with you if he had to. Not the most eloquent of speakers, but whenever he spoke, it had great weight.”
Hard as Rogerson was, he was a welcome change for players tired of mediocrity. Rogerson would dress you down one minute; pump you back up the next with a sincerity that never was questioned. “A personality that could turn on a dime,” recalls Tosches, and getting it to turn was motivation in itself. Rogerson quit on none of his players, even ones who went to him to announce they had had enough of football. He would not hear it.
“Double camp sessions in full gear and an unbelievable amount of contact compared to what we do today,” recalls Verbit. “The players thought he was out of his mind.
“But no matter how hard he worked you, you were so excited about being part of his team that you wanted to come back onto the field for a third practice. He drove them, yet in the setting of a smaller group he would be unbelievably positive. The love and energy for the game made everyone around him better.”
With Depew as a contrast–probably a healthy one–the young assistants doubled down on Rogerson’s relentless energy. A fiery young Verbit took on the headstrong and very talented Cain. “He lived in my socks,” laughs Cain. “I had almost left Princeton after my freshman year. When they came in, it was a different ball of wax.”
Two of the disillusioned who had quit—Eduardo White and Bobby Henriquez—came back to play their senior years. The talent proved deeper than initially believed, growing from this sudden depth of belief.
“Ron inherited some good bones,” recalls DiTommaso. “We had three All-Ivy players coming back–Butler, Petrucci, me.”
A defense free to tee off after years of passive reading and reacting joyously dominated Dartmouth, 10-3, in the opener at Hanover. It meant so much to the seniors that Petrucci sat at his locker crying.
But the offense struggled early with the newly installed Wing T the coach had taken with him from Delaware to Maine to Princeton. Rogerson, who had worked in a sewer, was down-and-dirty with his offensive linemen in demonstrations during practice. You could pass, too, out of the Wing T, he insisted. But as a trench-warfare kind-of-a-coach, Rogerson wanted to establish the run.
“When you have an all-time quarterback coming back like Butler, they should have waited a year on the Wing T,” recalls DiTommaso. “My conversations with [the coaches] after I graduated were that they agreed it was a mistake.
“Turned out we really had enough to challenge for the title that first year.”
A 17-0 loss at Brown in the season’s third game put the Tigers behind the 8-ball in the league, but Butler adjusted and the offense got going. Rogerson’s first Princeton team went 5-5, not on the surface a dramatic turnaround, but three of the losses were out-of-conference and wins over Yale and Harvard stoked a bonfire for the first time since 1966, 19 frigid years.
“To our seniors, it saved our whole football experience at Princeton,” says DiTommaso.
The next year’s senior class was not as strong. The Tigers went through three quarterbacks in going 2-8 in 1986. A lot of things that could go wrong did during routs by Cornell, Lehigh, and William and Mary, but a win over Harvard at least gave Princeton a shot at Big Three bragging rights for a second straight year.
At the Yale Bowl, the Tigers led 13-3 with less than three minutes remaining, but a 62-yard bomb and Princeton’s failure to secure an onside kick enabled the Bulldogs to escape, 14-13, on a last-second field goal. “An absolute nightmare,” Rogerson called it. “I’m heartbroken for the kids.”
He was heartbroken for him too. “I’ve never seen a coach as devastated as Rogerson was that day,” recalls Matt Whalen ’88, All-Ivy linebacker and captain-to-be.
“Unfortunately, sometimes those seasons are necessary to re-set some determination.”
Nobody ever wanted to go 2-8 again, especially under this coach. Further inspiration was provided by the imminent eligibility of the three Garrett brothers who had followed their father to Columbia. All three were transferring back after Jim Garrett was fired following just one season.
“I had made friends my freshman year that are still my best buddies in the world,” recalls Jason Garrett. “I had a much more difficult decision pulling myself away to go to Columbia than coming back.
“Coach Rogerson being there was a huge bonus. He was such an authentic guy who cared so much about his players; had so much enthusiasm for teaching. You didn’t have to talk to him for even 10 minutes to feel that.”
After doing nothing but practicing for two years, Jason was returning as a junior and John as a senior. Judd was joining an exceptional sophomore class that was going to be challenging for starting roles.
Surace, watching practice after the freshman finished their separate drills, saw Rogerson banish the starting center to the field house one day after botching a snap. “I said to myself, ‘That’s not going to be me’ when we have the one spring practice we were allowed in those days.
“Without the no-tackling policies we have now, those Tuesday and Wednesday practices were slugfests–games really. We heard stories about (pre-season) camp, about players being thrown into ice tubs from heat exhaustion.
“After the spring practice, Coach Rogerson called me upstairs–first time I ever had been there–and said I was third on the depth chart. I went back to my dorm on Cloud Nine. It meant I was close to getting to play.
“I never worked harder in my life than I did that summer. I was going to kill that mile-and-a-half conditioning run. In my time at this school, there have been only two coaches–Ron Rogerson and Pete Carril–who could create a bond with you by pushing you beyond what you had thought had been your physical limits.
“When the (6-game) freshman season was over, we had been allowed to practice against the varsity. I watched Jason pick those guys apart. You knew this thing was about to turn around.”
Coming: Out of Death, the Tigers’ Success Was Re-born.