(Photo by Bill Allen/NJSportAction)
It was a question that gave Roger Hughes pause as he interviewed six years ago for the Princeton football head coaching job.
After praising his organization and focus, one of the members of the selection committee hit Hughes with a doomsday scenario.
"He said to me say if things don't go your way, the alums are upset, Gary Walters isn't talking to you, you lose your players, and your wife leaves you, what would you do then?" said Hughes, recalling the startling inquiry. "I thought for a minute. I said that's a good one and that I would find a quiet room and get on my knees and pray."
During the course of the 2003-2004 seasons in which Princeton went 7-13 overall and lost six games on the last play, Hughes found himself frequently seeking divine guidance.
"I wore out my knees the last three years," said Hughes, whose hair has taken on an increasingly gray tint as the losses mounted. "I questioned why things went the way they did."
Things finally went Princeton's way this fall as the Tigers went 7-3, putting together the program's finest season since 1995 when it went 8-1-1 and won its most recent Ivy League crown.
Although the Tigers fell short of their ultimate goal of an Ivy crown as they finished 5-2 in league play, tied with Harvard for second behind champion Brown, Hughes saw this fall as sweet redemption.
"I think this year we saw that our approach worked," said Hughes, who was working this fall under a one-year extension to his original five-year contract and now has a 26-33 record in his Princeton tenure.
"The seniors and the assistant coaches saw the rewards of our vision. It was great for the kids to see what we could accomplish. There was a family feeling."
That family feeling was forged well before the season started. "During the offseason, I talked to other coaches around Princeton who have had success and they all said senior leadership was key," said Hughes.
"I tried to learn what they did to foster that. Back in training camp, we did things to make it more fun and you could see special bonds forming."
Although Princeton got off to a 2-0 start, it wasn't until the Tigers dismantled Columbia 43-3 in game three that Hughes really believed that family feeling was going to translate into a memorable fall.
"The way we shut them down and executed, I was thinking that maybe something special was happening," recalled Hughes.
"It was our third win over an undefeated team. So much came from the focus on one game at a time. They didn't get ahead of themselves. The season went so fast."
While Hughes didn't have much time to savor things, two wins stand out. In late October, Princeton went up to Harvard and won a 27-24 thriller, ending a nine-year losing streak to the Crimson.
Two weeks later, the Tigers traveled down to Philadelphia and ended Penn's nine-year hex in emphatic fashion, thumping the Quakers 30-13.
The senior class, which included such standouts as defensive back Jay McCareins, linebackers Justin Stull, Rob Holuba, Nate Starrett, and Abi Fadeyi, receivers Greg Fields and Derek Davis, tight end Jon Dekker, offensive linemen Ben Brielmaier, Dave Szelingowski, and Paul Lyons, and kicker Derek Javarone, will clearly be missed.
But Hughes is already working on keeping the family feeling alive in his corps of returning players.
"During the last week of the season, I told the juniors and the other underclassmen that this is going to be your team," said Hughes.
The Tigers figure to welcome back key performers like quarterback Jeff Terrell, running backs Rob Toresco and Cleo Kirkland, receiver Brendan Circle, defensive backs Tim Strickland and J.J. Artis, defensive linemen Michael Meehan and Peter Buchigani, and punter Colin McDonough.
Before Hughes moves on to 2006, however, he has taken the chance to pause and reflect on what this fall meant to him.
"It was very gratifying," asserted Hughes. "The head coach gets too much blame when things go bad and too much credit when things go well."
Yet, after enduring some cruel twists which made him something like the Job of Ivy League coaches, Hughes deserves credit for keeping the faith.
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