He Is a Dear John to Surace

  • October 10, 2019



About some guys, you just know. As Bob Surace was building a resume at Springfield College, Maine Maritime, Shreveport of the CFL, RPI, and Western Connecticut, John Garrett ’88 didn’t need to pry any deeper for recommendations on this coach.


“When I was a senior at Princeton, Bob was a starting sophomore center,” Garrett said. “That should tell you something right there about his love for the game, his work ethic and ability.


“He was very fundamentally sound, with traits that were really important for an interior lineman and especially a center–like lateral quickness and explosion to a short area. And he also was very smart.  He knew the protections, indentified the fronts.  As a sophomore he was the leader of the offensive line, making those calls.”


Because a coach never forgets a good football mind, Surace remained in Garrett’s as he went his separate way after Princeton to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Virginia, Richmond, Florida, Oregon State, the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals.


One year, when Jason Garrett’s roster spot as the Cowboys’ backup quarterback seemed in jeopardy, John called Surace in Shreveport to see if he could put in a word there for his brother, just in case.   When John interviewed for the Princeton head-coaching opening in 2000, Surace’s bag practically was packed to join Garrett as an assistant but Roger Hughes got the big job instead.


What you know gets you places in life. Who you know gets you in the door. Surace says thanks to his friend for both. An unpredictable business where people move on to new challenges will make lifetime friends, Garrett and Surace enemies for a night when Lafayette visits Friday. There may be some irony in that, and perhaps a little bit of fate, but mostly it was three decades of mutual respect. And Princeton.


John had been with the Bengals for a year as an offensive assistant when he was promoted to coach the tight ends. He suggested to head coach Dick LeBeau he fill the opening with Surace, who had just completed his second year as head coach at Western Connecticut.


“The traits you look for when you bring anybody into an organization are focus, dependability and love of football,” said Garrett “Based on the impression Bob made on me during our time at Princeton, it was easy to recommend him.”


Surace took the call in a meeting, said he was interested in coming to the NFL even before he could call back 10 minutes later. He was on the plane the following day to Cincinnati. “The athletic director said he would fire me if I didn’t’ take the job,” he recalls.


John’s wife Honor hooked up Lisa and Bob Surace with the realtor who found them a house in the same neighborhood as the Garretts.  John and Bob rode to work together for two years. Until John left to become receiver’s coach at Virginia, Surace learned almost as much from his friend in the car, on buses, and on planes as he did in meetings and projector rooms.


“The conversations form you,” said Surace. “They make you.


“I learned how to scout thanks to John. What I look for now on film is because of him. I watched before, but not at the level I needed to coach in the NFL.  He got me to the PhD level. That’s what the NFL does if you are with the right people.”


“It’s not so much offensive or defensive theory. I still can learn new plays from watching high school films. What I learned in Cincinnati is attention to detail. You can’t afford a mistake in that league. If Carson Palmer, a $100 million investment by the owner, got hurt, the assistant offensive line coach, who became me, was going to be fired.”


“You learn from dealing with mature players. Willie Anderson, who should be in the Hall of Fame, would go through a year giving up one sack, so you talk to him about technique, constantly pick his brain.  The stuff I had been teaching linemen in college wasn’t technical, didn’t work at that level. I brought what Willie, who is still a close friend, did to Princeton for our guys.


“But I wouldn’t even say the most important thing I learned in Cincinnati was about football. That first year we lost our first eight games. I was worried about getting fired. Driving to work every Monday John would say, ‘We’re getting better. We are going to turn this around.’  And we did.”


“He was always the same guy.  By the time I got to the office, I was a positive person again, not thinking about the negatives. You live and die with the results as a coach, but guys like John and Marvin (Lewis, who replaced LeBeau) still were so positive.  You lost a game and they had such energy that everybody fed off it. If Marvin was losing his cool, screaming and yelling and being overbearing, that would have set a tone for the organization.”


“I try to learn for the better that way, take some of the emotion out of it, get ready for the next opponent. That’s especially important at [the college] level where the guys are 18-22, not grown men, not yet professionals. If you are doing it wrong, it can turn their confidence. Being precise with words matters.   When I say things out of emotion sometimes, it put us in the wrong direction when the only direction is the next game.


“We think about Lafayette this week. There are no distractions.”


This includes coaching against a good friend who, in his third year of a rebuild, seeks a signature win over Surace’s formidable Princeton Tigers. It is twist, perhaps, that the mentor is trying to get a program to the level attained by a student, but in their business, careers always turn.  After serving in so many different functions at higher levels of football, the right head job at the right school opened up and Garrett took it. The now-accomplished pupil is convinced it is only a matter of time until his teacher builds at Lafayette what Surace now has at Princeton – three championships in six years and 13 consecutive victories.”


It did not start well, but the only thing comparable from Surace’s second 1-9 season at Princeton to the first was the record.  The Tigers had more talent, were in more games and, once they learned how to get out of their own way started to win.  Coming off a 3-8 second season that concluded with a rout of arch rival Lehigh, Lafayette’s 0-5 start is largely a reflection of its schedule. The Leopards gave Penn a 28-24 game two weeks ago and will start the Patriot League season next Saturday 0-0, with only Georgetown having a winning non-conference record.”


“I look little at results when I watch films,” said Surace. “Lafayette is as good a team as we have played this year, in certain areas better than Columbia, in others maybe not as experienced.


“Maybe they make an error here and an error there.  But knowing John, coming off a bye week their mistakes have been cleaned up.   We’re on a short week. I will be shocked if this isn’t a dog fight and if they are not in contention to win the Patriot title.”


Princeton first played Lafayette in 1883, which is even farther back than Surace and Garrett go.  “When you heard the three Garretts were transferring to Princeton (after their father Jim was fired as head coach at Columbia), there was so much anticipation that were almost mythical figures,” said Surace. “And then the year they had to sit out, we had a really talented freshman team so once our season was over, adding us to the Garretts made for a pretty good scout team that season.”


They turned the program around, even if John only had one year of eligibility remaining and Surace alone was playing when Princeton won its first Ivy title in 20 years in 1989. You are accepted at Princeton for not only four years but forty. Small world that Garrett greatly expanded for his rival-for-a night, helping make him the coach he is today. Princeton thanks Garrett again for his ongoing service.




  • Princeton is 43-3-4 against Lafayette and has won the last 10.
  • Kickoff is at 7 pm (ESPNU, WPRB 103.3 and streamed).
  • Tigers have moved up to 19th in the FCS coach’s poll,  21st in the STATs media poll.
  •  They are the only Ivy representative in either rankings after three games.
  • Princeton’s 13-game winning streak is second current in the FCS, behind North Dakota State’s 26.


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