Bob Surace '90, a key member of the 1989 Ivy League champion Princeton football team, helped Princeton to its biggest turnaround in more than two decades last season. He will be looking for even more when he enters his fourth year as the Charles W. Caldwell Jr. '25 Head Coach of Football at Princeton during the 2013 season.
During his third season, Princeton improved by four games and finished the 2012 campaign with a 5-5 record. The Tigers stayed in the Ivy League championship race until the final day of the season, and they earned the first bonfire — a Princeton tradition for sweeping the Harvard-Yale series — on campus since 2006.
Of course, that doesn’t tell the full story of those two wins. Princeton rallied from a 24-point fourth quarter deficit to stun nationally ranked Harvard 39-34 last October; the Tigers scored 29 unanswered points in the final 12 minutes, with the final touchdown coming on a 36-yard touchdown pass with 13 seconds remaining.
Three weeks later, Princeton scored 29 unanswered points again; this time, a Princeton-record 100-yard interception return ignited the Tigers’ first win at Yale since the 2006 Ivy championship season.
Surace guided a team that earned 10 All-Ivy League honors, including the Bushnell Cup for Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, won by All-America honoree Mike Catapano. The senior defensive lineman and potential 2013 draft pick joined Caraun Reid on the FCS All-America teams.
Surace was hired on Dec. 23, 2009, by Princeton Director of Athletics Gary Walters '67. Surace had been an assistant coach for the Cincinnati Bengals for the prior nine seasons and helped the team to an AFC North title in 2009.
"I'm so excited about coming back to a place that is so special to me," Surace said on his hiring. "I was honored to be a player here, including being part of an Ivy League championship team. I look forward to being the head coach and making this a special place for our student-athletes here at the best university in the world."
Surace has been given the responsibility of rebuilding the Princeton football program, and he saw some impressive performances from his first two recruiting classes. Leading that charge was 2011 Ivy League Rookie of the Year Chuck Dibilio, who rushed for more yards (1,068) than any other true freshman last season. Princeton had the top rushing offense in the Ivy League in 2011, and the Tigers have had 16 All-Ivy League players in Surace's two seasons.
Dibilio suffered a stroke following the 2011 season, and was not able to play in 2012.
The 22nd head coach at Princeton, Surace was a first-team All-Ivy center when he helped the 1989 Tigers to a 6-1 league mark and a share of the Ivy title. In addition to his tenure with the Bengals, Surace was also the head coach at Division III Western Connecticut State University, where he put together an 18-3 record in 2000 and 2001.
"We are thrilled that Bob Surace will be our new head coach, Walters said. "He has experience as a player here at Princeton, as well as in the NFL and as a college head coach. He is also a product of and a believer in the Princeton concept of education through athletics. We will work with the Bengals to accommodate what works best for them and for Princeton through the end of their season."
Surace (pronounced "suh-RACE") had served as assistant offensive line coach for the Bengals for the last six years of his time with Cincinnati; prior to that, he served two seasons as an offensive staff assistant. In addition to his work with the line, he played a key role in the entire offensive staff's game preparation. In 2009, that offense helped the Bengals to a 10-6 record and a sweep of their AFC North rivals, including the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
Under Surace's leadership, Western Connecticut advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division III Championship and won the Freedom Football Conference title in 2001; the win in the NCAA playoffs was the first in school history. In 2000, the Colonials won the Northeast Championship ECAC playoff game. In both of Surace's seasons, the team ranked in the top 25 nationally in the American Football Coaches Association poll.
Surace grew up in a coaching family. His father, Tony, was head coach for his high school football and baseball teams in Millville, N.J.
Surace began his coaching career in 1990 as running backs coach at Springfield (Mass.) College, where he also earned a master's degree in sports management in 1992.
In 1994, when the Canadian Football League fielded teams in the U.S., Surace was with the Shreveport Pirates as the assistant to head coach and general manager Forrest Gregg, the former Bengals coach who guided Cincinnati to Super Bowl XVI.
His wife, Lisa, was a four-time letterwinner in women's soccer at Princeton and is a member of the Class of 1992. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology and is now the Lower School Head at Princeton Day School.
They have a daughter, Alison, and a son, A.J.
Surace is part of one of the richest traditions in all of college football. Princeton was involved in the first college football game ever played on Nov. 6, 1869, and has played a total of 778 all-time games with an all-time winning percentage of .675 and five former head coaches in the College Football Hall of Fame: William W. Roper, Fritz Crisler, Tad Wieman, Charles W. Caldwell, Jr. and Dick Colman.