When the 2009 football season begins, Roger Hughes, the Charles W. Caldwell Jr. ’25 Head Coach of Football at Princeton University, will enter some elite company. He will be one of only five men who have served as head coach of Princeton football for at least a decade, and he will join a list that includes a trio of College Football Hall of Famers. Those men, Bill Roper (1910-11, 1919-30), Charlie Caldwell (1945-56) and Dick Colman (1957-68), guided college football's most historic program through some of its proudest times, and Hughes has worked hard to bring Princeton back into the Ivy League elite.
An Eddie Robinson Award finalist for Division I-AA (now FCS) Coach of the Year honors in 2006, Hughes led a Princeton squad that was picked to finish sixth in the preseason media poll to a 9-1 record and the 2006 Ivy League title. The nine wins were the most at Princeton since the Colman-led 1964 team and the Ivy League title was the first for the Orange and Black in more than a decade.
Hughes, who has improved Princeton’s winning percentage in six of the last nine seasons and is the only coach in the history of Ivy League football to improve a team by at least two wins in three straight seasons, guided Princeton to the 2006 title despite starting both an entirely new offensive line and linebacking corps. His offense finished first in the Ivies in both passing yards and total yards, and his senior quarterback, Jeff Terrell, became Princeton’s first Bushnell Cup winner (Ivy League Player of the Year) since 1995. Terrell is only the second Princeton quarterback to win the award; the other is longtime NFL quarterback and current Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Princeton rallied to win five games it trailed in the second half, four games it trailed in the fourth quarter and two games it trailed in the final five minutes. The highlight win of the season was a 34-31 win at Yale, when Princeton rallied from a trio of 14-point deficits and threw for 446 yards in a thriller. That win clinched Princeton’s first bonfire in 12 years, a tradition for any team that sweeps Harvard and Yale in the same season.
That championship run followed a brilliant 2005 season, when the Tigers earned their first seven-win campaign since 1995. Under Hughes, 25 Tigers have earned first-team All-Ivy honors, and 57 others have been named to either the second team or earned honorable mention. His highest number came in 2005, when 10 Princeton players earned All-Ivy honors. He also had a pair of All-Americas in Jay McCareins, a Buck Buchanan finalist for Defensive Player of the Year, and Colin McDonough.
Last season, junior running back Jordan Culbreath was one of only two unanimous first-team All-Ivy honorees; Culbreath rushed for 1,206 yards in 2008, the fourth-highest single-season total in Princeton history. In the final game of the season, a 28-10 victory over Dartmouth, Culbreath rushed for 276 yards, the second-most in Princeton history and the fifth-most in Ivy League history.
He has also had significant success helping his players move to the next level; within one month after the 2006 NFL Draft, four members of the Class of 2006 (Ben Brielmaier, Jon Dekker, Jay McCareins and Justin Stull) had signed with NFL teams. One season earlier, three departing seniors were invited to mini-camps, and Zak Keasey would eventually sign and play for the Washington Redskins; he is currently a member of the San Francisco 49ers. 2006 Bushnell Cup winner Jeff Terrell signed with the Kansas City Chiefs within hours of the past NFL Draft.
In 2005, Hughes’ offense led the league in red-zone efficiency and was in the top three in turnover margin and third-down conversion percentage. He specifically works with the Princeton quarterbacks, and his success is evident in the record books. Under his tutelage, three quarterbacks (David Splithoff ’04, Matt Verbit ’05 and Jeff Terrell ‘07) have placed in the top six in all-time passing at Princeton. In 2004, Verbit became the second Princeton quarterback to throw for more than 5,000 yards in his career. He moved past Garrett into second place on the Princeton list. Terrell, among the national leaders in passing offense and total offense last season, broke into the Princeton Top 5 in single-game passing yards (Yale, 445), single-season passing yards (2,445) and single-season total yards (2,717).
Hughes was named head coach at Princeton in January 2000, and he took a team starting 10 freshmen and sophomores to a 3-7 record in his first season. Along the way Princeton improved its Ivy League record by two games, to 3-4, and defeated a pair of 7-3 teams, Brown and Yale. Hughes coached three players in his first season at Princeton who signed NFL contracts, including one, Ross Tucker, who started for the Dallas Cowboys in 2002 and the Buffalo Bills for his last three seasons.
Hughes again went 3-4 in the Ivy League the next season, 2001, and Princeton showed its future potential with a pair of 20-point wins to close out the season. That stretch was a sign of things to come in 2002, when Princeton went 6-4. The Tigers showed poise and resiliency that season, rallying in the fourth quarter to win four games.
Hughes has coached 74 All-Ivy League players, including 24 first-team selections, and several All-America selections. He has also coached nine District II Academic All-Americas, three Roper Trophy winners for the top senior male athlete at Princeton and two of the four winners of the 2000 National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award. During the 2002 season, running back Cameron Atkinson was one of 14 overall winners of the National Scholar-Athlete Scholarship, and he was the lone winner from the Ivy League.
Hughes, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska, came to Princeton after nearly a decade as offensive coordinator at Dartmouth, where he led an offense that propelled the Big Green to a 22-game winning streak and two Ivy League championships. While at Dartmouth, he helped develop Jay Fiedler into an NFL quarterback.
Hughes helped the Big Green to Ivy League championships in 1992 and 1996. He coached players who set 14 of the top 15 school single-game passing and total yardage records, as well as four of the top five single-season totals. The 1996 team went 10-0, one of four teams in league history to do so.
Hughes is a product of the football-mad state of Nebraska, where he grew up in tiny Crawford, population 1,115. A three-sport athlete at Crawford High School, Hughes attended Nebraska Western Junior College on a basketball scholarship. He left after one year to attend Doane College in Crete, Neb., where he played football as a tight end and golf before graduating in 1982.
He began his coaching career at Doane as he began his graduate work at Nebraska the following year. He then moved to Lincoln as a graduate assistant, helping the Cornhuskers to the 1984 Sugar Bowl and the 1985 Fiesta Bowl while working on his doctorate. He continued his career at Doane again, as offensive coordinator in 1987, and he earned his Ph.D. in exercise physiology from Nebraska in 1987.
His career then took him to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where as running backs coach he helped his team to a conference championship and a berth in the NCAA Division III quarterfinals. His next stop was Cameron University in Lawton, Okla., where he spent three years as offensive coordinator and strength and conditioning coach. While at Cameron he also worked with the quarterbacks and the offensive line before leaving in 1992 to join John Lyons’ staff at Dartmouth.