October 21, 2020

Working Through First Fall Without Football in Memory, PU Coach Surace Keeping Disciplined, Upbeat Approach

MISSING THE GAME: Princeton University football head coach Bob Surace shows his game face during the 2018 campaign. With the Ivy League having canceled the 2020 fall sports season due to COVID-19 concerns, Surace is dealing without having football for the first time in his memory. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Bob Surace struggled to keep his emotions in check this July as he spoke virtually to members of the Princeton University football program in the wake of the Ivy League announcing it was canceling the 2020 fall sports season due to COVID-19 concerns.

“When we found out that we weren’t playing, I got on a call with the parents, players, and coaches and I started breaking up, I was in tears,” said Princeton head coach Surace ’90, who is in his 11th season at the helm of the program.

“My dad was a coach. I haven’t had a fall without football since I can literally remember. I have been on a sideline with my dad. I have been a player. I have been a coach. You are talking almost 50 years.”

In dealing with the crazy year that is 2020, Surace has developed a daily routine to keep him on track.

“I try to keep a really strict schedule,” said Surace. “I think it takes time to figure that out but literally, starting in May or so, I got into that routine. We are only allowed eight hours in the office during the week but almost everything I am doing, I can do from home.”

In a normal season, Surace would be in the office at 6 a.m. from Sunday through Wednesday, leaving around 9 or 10 p.m. on those days. On Thursday, he would come in around 7 a.m. and leave around 8 in the evening and on Friday, he would arrive at 7 and be home for dinner if the Tigers weren’t on the road. Putting in those hours, Surace would feel ready for game day on Saturday.

With no games this fall and working mainly from home, Surace begins his day at 6 a.m. by doing yoga or working out with his son AJ, a freshman quarterback for Notre Dame High football team.

After that, Surace messages recruits for a couple of hours. From 9 to 11 a.m., he watches recruit videos, cleans up his e-mail, and works on other communications. After lunch, he searches social media for inspirational or instructional messages for his players, coaches, or himself. Later in the afternoon, he watches football videos to pick up ideas.

He reserves time to take a daily walk with his wife Lisa, the associate head of school at Princeton Day School. In the evening, there are Zoom calls with recruits. Finally, Surace catches up on his reading, which centers mainly around football, current affairs, or self-help books with an occasional novel thrown in.

True to form, the upbeat Surace is maintaining a positive approach. “From day one, my mindset is that I am an adult, it is different than if I was 20 and I was feeling like I was missing out, but as an adult, I can’t give off a ‘woe is me feeling,’” said Surace.

While there is no in-person recruiting this fall, Surace feels like he and his coaches are still building strong bonds with prospective Tiger players.

“We are building great relationships but we have to do it differently,” said Surace.

“In the NCAA, everything is a dead period here and so right now what people crave is relationships. We are craving responsible social interactions, most of them are by Zoom, phone, or messaging. I am on top of those and our coaches are on top of those. I love in-person so it has forced me to be a better coach to understand how to do things differently.”

In the meantime, Surace is maintaining his close relationship to his current players, whether they are enrolled in school virtually or taking the year off.

“I was doing a lot more big Zooms and team Zooms during the summer and spring,” said Surace, noting that around 15 percent of his squad, or approximately 20 players, are taking a leave from Princeton.

“The players crave small groups so we are really doing way more with the position groups. Our assistant coaches have been great with that. I just want to value their time and what is happening with them. With a hundred players, everybody is going through different things. Some of them are doing fine, some of them are struggling. You are not going to hear about the struggle in a 100-person meeting. So I am trying to be a little more individualized as a player is going through a struggle and having the really deep 45-minute individual call as opposed to a Zoom with everybody on it.”

There are a couple of key areas of concern for Surace as he works through those struggles.

“My two biggest fears are the sense that even though Princeton has the greatest education in the country, they feel that it is not just quite as good,” said Surace.

“We are probably doing it better than anybody because our professors and our faculty and our administrators are so good but they are missing something. It is just
keeping them going to make the best out of that. And then the isolation. The kids who are from backgrounds where they have more money, they can go and live together. For the kids coming from a lesser social economic standpoint, we are all doing our best to help them through it. They need it the most. When a class graduates, I feel so proud of all of them but the kid who really had to dig in and had to overcome more struggles, you just have a bigger smile.”

The Princeton players, though, are digging in when it comes to staying in shape.

“To a person, they love the working out,” said Surace.  “It is truly the highlight of their day to be competing, whether it is on a lift or a run. They feel a connection with that so that part is great.”

The COVID-19 restrictions have not kept the Princeton staff from remaining connected.

“We typically have one staff meeting a week, and then every day I am on the phone with three or four different coaches and then we are on films together,” said Surace,

“The staff meeting covers the big things. Then individually as they are trying to do things, we work through them together. Unit-wise, they are working on schemes. I am worried that we are going to have too many plays. We have never been able to watch college football on Saturdays or NFL football on Sundays because we worked during those times. Now we are watching Mississippi against Alabama and I am ‘oh my god, I am calling the offensive coordinator.’ We are all getting so excited. I told them we can’t do everything, let’s be good at what we want to do.”

Getting to see his son and his daughter Ali, a junior midfielder for the PDS girls’ soccer team, playing their games has been exciting for Surace.

“One of the hardest things about working in athletics as a football coach you miss out on the fall events of your children,” said Surace.

“To be on a call or a Zoom, I can sit and watch a game while I am doing that and then get back to the game and give the full attention to it. I am fortunate that I have a teenage son who wants to be John Lovett, he wants to be a great, great quarterback. In between Zooms, he peppers me with questions and he wants to watch film. Every time AJ comes down the stairs and has football questions, I feel like it is talking with Kevin Davidson or Chad Kanoff.”

Surace marvels at how his children and other young athletes have come through the challenges posed by the pandemic.

“I think every high school or college kid who is playing  right now knows that tomorrow is not guaranteed,” said Surace.

“Sometimes when you do this as long as we have done this, you just assume that there is tomorrow. You coach a game, you win or lose, and then you move on. In mid-March, we realized that it can be taken away. For the kids who are playing right now, I just love their perspective and the kids who aren’t playing who are handling this so maturely. They understand what being responsible is. At my kids’ schools, there is not one kid who complains about social distancing or masks. They had something taken away from them from March through August. With the things that got taken away, they are going to have a different perspective the rest of their lives.”

As he navigates this unprecedented fall, Surace is keeping an even keel in handling his responsibilities.

“We understand the big picture. We can understand why we are not playing, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt,” said Surace.

“What you try to do every day is get into a routine and doing the yoga or hitting the big heavy bag in the morning just gets me going. It is OK, what do I have to do today to get us better.”