June 24, 2020

Developing A New Game Plan for the Circumstances, PU Football Thriving in Absence of Spring Practice

HELD BACK: The Princeton University football team gets ready to take the field last September for its season opener against Butler. The Tigers won that game 49-7 and went on to go 8-2 overall and 5-2 Ivy League. In March, the Tigers started spring practice looking to build momentum going into the 2020 campaign. But as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ivy spring season was canceled and Princeton spent the last few months of school working virtually. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

For the Princeton University football team, its annual spring practices help build the foundation for the upcoming season.

The 12 sessions spread over a month give returning players a chance to step up and show their development, allow coaches a chance to tinker with schemes and lineups, and help the squad collectively develop chemistry.

But as Princeton got ready to hit the field for its first spring session in early March, head coach Bob Surace was keeping track of COVID-19 and preparing to deal with a new reality.

“I just wanted to make sure that we had a plan in case we need to go to virtual school and they shut us down,” said Surace who guided Princeton to an overall record of 8-2 (5-2 Ivy League) in 2019.

“I had some ideas and we met as a staff and the other coaches came up with some other ideas on how to work through the next few months until June.”

With the students sent home for virtual learning and all spring sports activities getting canceled, Surace and his coaches had to modify their approach.

“I told them this was a time for empathetic leadership, the players are going to have a shock to the system,” said Surace.

“They are going to be scared, you are going to see family members of our team lose their jobs, some of them may get ill, and there may be some tragedy involved. We need to show great leadership and when we meet with them it can’t be solely about Xs and Os. We have to go beyond that.”

Noting that spring practice is key in building bonds on and off the field, the Tiger coaches have focused on building camaraderie virtually.

“In the fall, it is such a sprint, you don’t get to know the players as well as you would like,” said Surace.

“When you hit February, March and April, I get to know the kids. So now you are trying to find ways to communicate with them, to know them, to build trust, to build all of those things that you normally do. Our position coaches, coordinators, and myself have worked really hard to build relationships and work with them in a way that is partly Xs and Os and more than that. It was trying to really find out about each other and support each other.”

While still spending plenty of time on the Xs and Os, Surace tried to keep things light.

“There was regularly scheduled position meetings,” said Surace.

“I would hopefully connect with them more personally. Almost every Wednesday I would send an e-mail and I would ask them questions. It might be silly or something that I got from others. Like one of my friends had posed a question to me if you watched all 10 episodes of The Last Dance, which person in the movie do you most identify with.”

The cancellation of spring practice also meant that the Tigers players lost valuable time in the weight room, forcing them to be more creative in their conditioning.

“The hard part with that is that it is a very diverse team,” said Surace.

“Some guys have gyms in their garage, some guys are in states that were mostly open and then some guys have nothing but a resistance band and bodyweight exercises. Everybody had a backyard or a driveway or a park that opened so everybody had a place to do mobility, agility, sprint conditioning but the lifting had been a little more challenging. The message to the team on the day we had practice canceled and school was going to go virtual was to find a way. Part of life is dealing with a little chaos and figuring it out. We have highly motivated,
highly achieving, and intelligent people. If all you have is a small room, do pushups or take a book bag put something in the bag and squat it. If you have a driveway, do sprints on your driveway and jump. It has been really fun, hearing their stories.”

Welcoming some new faces to his staff, Surace been figuring out how to get all of his coaches on the same page.

“It is a chance in the spring to really get to know people,” said Surace.

“Our three new coaches have been operating in our staff meetings and our recruiting meetings on Zoom and phone calls. It is a little more challenging to build camaraderie but we are finding ways to enjoy it and challenge and push ourselves.”

With no in-person recruiting allowed by the NCAA until at least August 1, the Tigers coaches have pushed themselves to be more tech-savvy in reaching out to high school prospects.

“We can’t see recruits in person so it means we are having Zoom meetings,” said Surace.

“What it has forced us to do is to message them more to find different ways to show them our culture, our campus, our team, our tradition and all of those things. Before March 13, we spent three days coming up with ideas and we came up with all kinds of tours and different ways to show them through technology Princeton while they are not at Princeton.”

Looking ahead, Surace knows that having a 2020 season depends on political and administrative decisions over the next few months.

“At some point, Gov. Murphy has to allow schools to open up and then Princeton is going to have to make a decision on that,” said Surace.

“Once President Eisgruber allows school to come back, then the decision is sports. The key is being safe and being responsible.”

When and if sports does return, Surace is confident that Princeton and league administrators will go the extra mile to make sure that everyone is safe.

“The Ivy League was the leader in concussions,” said Surace.

“As you can see in the numbers, when concussions were handled the right way medically, the Ivy League was the leader. It is the same thing with this. The Ivy League needs to be the leaders on how to do this right and how to do this responsibly. This isn’t about greed or not making $50 million on the strength of our ticket sales or TV contracts. This is about doing this responsibly so our athletes can get a greater education and learn the values they will need to take out into the world.”

In the wake of the racial unrest that has followed the coronavirus pandemic, Surace believes that getting his players back on the field for games this fall would be of great value for the Princeton community. 

“There is no other place on this campus that has 100-plus people who come from every background, every spot on earth, and are racially diverse,” said Surace.

“Right now it would really help our campus to see a united, diverse group come out of some locker room together and in support of each other. It is going to be really important to show how people from all different backgrounds can do this. They come from rich and poor, every religion, different races, and they are truly brothers. A football locker room can show others how you can become close to people even though they may not be the same as you or they may not look like you. They can be brothers and in other sports, sisters. It will be important but we have to do it safely.”