December 16, 2020

While PU Football Didn’t Get to Play this Fall, Tiger Coaching Tree Influencing Rutgers Revival

SHINING KNIGHT: Sean Gleeson fields questions at the Princeton University football media day in 2018 in his role as the offensive coordinator for the Tigers. Gleeson, who went on to serve as the offensive coordinator for Oklahoma State in 2019, has returned to New Jersey this fall to run the offense for the Rutgers University football team. With Gleeson employing his fast-paced attack, Rutgers is enjoying a revival. Coming off a 2019 season that saw the Scarlet Knights to 2-10 overall and 0-9 in Big Ten play, Rutgers is turning heads this fall with its potent offense. Playing only Big 10 games in 2020, the Scarlet Knights are 3-5 and averaging 27.4 points a game. Gleeson, for his part, has been nominated for the Broyles Award, given annually to the top assistant coach in college football. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

When Bob Surace sought to become the head coach of the Princeton University football team a decade ago, he aspired to do more than just get the Tigers back on the winning track.

Surace, a 1990 Princeton alum and former star offensive lineman in his college days, looked to follow the example of legendary Tiger men’s basketball coach Pete Carril.

“I admire Pete Carril as much as anybody in my time at Princeton as a student, as an alum, as a coach,” said Surace, who took over the Tiger program starting with the 2010 season.

“You look at Pete Carril’s tree and how many branches it has as other people have had success and done well. When you think of Pete Carril you think of the sweater and the cigar but you also think of the Princeton offense. I remember in my interview I was asked about scheme and I talked about offense. I wanted to do something with a creative staff that was going to be known as the Princeton offense, doing it at a high speed with a beautiful system and all of those things.”

Installing an innovative no-huddle, hurry-up offense, Surace has guided the Princeton program to Ivy League titles in 2013, 2016, and 2018, setting a slew of program and league offensive records in the process, including an Ivy best of 470 points in going 10-0 in 2018.

While the Tigers didn’t get to play this fall after the Ivy League canceled the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, the Princeton coaching tree and offensive approach are on full display just up Route 1 with the Rutgers football team.

As Greg Schiano returned for his second stint as the head coach of the Scarlet Knights, he hired former Princeton offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson to serve in the same role for his program. He also brought in another former Tiger offensive coordinator, Andrew Aurich, to coach the offensive line.

With rising coaching star Gleeson employing his fast-paced attack, Rutgers is enjoying a revival. Coming off a 2019 season that saw the Scarlet Knights go 2-10 overall and 0-9 in Big Ten play, getting outscored 355-51 in conference games, Rutgers is turning heads this fall with its potent offense. Playing only Big 10 games in 2020, the Scarlet Knights are currently 3-5, averaging 27.4 points a game.

Glued to Rutgers games this fall, Surace is seeing a lot of familiar things.

“You root for your friends, it is home more with Rutgers because offensively you could take the 2010 offense that we put together and you are seeing plays that we were running successfully at Princeton,” said Surace.

“You see the throwbacks, a screen going for a touchdown, or the TD they threw to an offensive lineman. I think it is just good proof that if you are a good coach in high school, if you are a good coach in Division III, if you are a good coach in the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) level, you can be a good coach anywhere.”

Surace sensed that Rutgers would benefit by adding Gleeson and Aurich to the staff.

“They are just impressive people, I am not surprised one bit,” said Surace.

“They can go in any room anywhere in the country and be good coaches. I feel I have a staff like that now. I feel like James Perry (former Princeton offensive coordinator and current Brown head coach) is doing the same thing at Brown. We are building this tree.”

Over the years, Surace has developed a connection with Schiano, who led Rutgers to new heights during his first stint as head coach of the program from 2001-11.

“For every job where a guy gets hired, coaches do their homework and they call you,” said Surace, noting that there are 11 people on the Rutgers staff with ties to Princeton, including special assistant to the head coach Joe Susan, offensive assistant Dennis Goldman, special teams coordinator Adam Scheier, and player development assistant Mark Fossati with the first three having coached for the Tigers and Fossati ’19 having been a star linebacker.

“With Greg, Rutgers is right down the road. He had such tremendous success there before and we have two programs pretty close together. We had a relationship there beforehand. I would hope in this case with the success that we have had, when you gauge a recommendation or answer questions, he knows I am telling the truth. He knows that this is coming from somebody who is not going to lie to him.”

It didn’t take long for Surace to realize that Gleeson was the real deal.

“I got to know Sean because James Perry coached him in college at Williams,” said Surace of Gleeson, who has been nominated for the Broyles Award given annually to the top assistant coach in college football.

“Sean shows up early in our tenure here. We are putting together the offense and we are sitting in meetings. Sean would make the drive down from Delbarton where he was coaching and show up. Sean would leave and you would say this is an impressive guy. We say any time you want to, come down. There are a lot of impressive people that come in and I say that too and most of them you might see once a year. Sean comes the next day, he comes the following day. Sean is with us every day, we didn’t have any openings at the time.”

As a result, Surace referred Gleeson to his brother Brian, the head coach for FDU-Florham from 2011-19, who hired the young coach as his offensive coordinator.

“Sean takes a pay cut to work for my brother for two years and then a job opens up at Princeton where I think Sean is the perfect fit,” said Surace.

“I call my brother up and I say I am going to interview Sean, he is perfect for this. Sean interviewed and just the way he is, it was an easy hire. That is how we got him. It was clear that he was a special coach and that he was going to do a great job.”

In Surace’s view, Aurich is another special coach. “The offensive line is my background,” said Surace.

“I love sitting in a room, discussing football and talking with offensive line coaches. Andy is a great coach. The best thing about him and guys like Sean is that they are equally as high character, impressive people as they are coaches.”

The Princeton football clan is proud of the impact that the Tiger products are having on Rutgers.

“I just did a Zoom the other night, it was for the alums who graduated in the 2000s and above,” said Surace.

“Mark Fossati is on that Zoom. We are cheering Fossati on during that Zoom. I tell Fossati you have to get Andy and Andy comes on the Zoom. Everybody is chopping and cheering him on because it is a family. In this profession, you root for your friends.”

Rooting for Rutgers this fall has led to some special family moments for Surace.

“When I watch them play, it is usually sitting on the couch on Saturday night with my son,” said Surace, whose son, A.J., is a freshman quarterback for Notre Dame High.

“One of the quarterbacks who played last Saturday, my son has trained with. So every time he would complete a pass, my son is up and down on the couch cheering for Sean and Andy.”