Princeton University football coach Bob Surace was worried.

The Tigers had opened this season with a 29-28 loss to Lehigh University. Surace, a 45-year-old Millville native, wasn’t as concerned with the score as he was by the lack of chemistry among the players. The Tigers had led 22-3 at halftime.

“I got the sense that there was no trust, no belief,” Surace said last week in a phone interview. “We had to find a way to get better.”

His 10-year-old daughter, Alison, provided the solution.

Alison had attended a summer camp hosted by Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, who was Surace’s teammate at Princeton in the late 1980s and remains a good friend.

“Ally came up to me and reminded me of something she had learned there,” Surace said with a laugh. “She told me to remind the players to ‘always hold the rope.’ Which means that no matter what happens, you always stick together. The next week, we lost the lead (against Georgetown) and wound up scoring 50 points (in a 50-22 win). So I guess it worked.”

It worked very well.

Princeton wound up enjoying its best season in seven years. The Tigers finished 8-2 overall and posted a 6-1 record in the Ivy League to win a share of the conference title for the first time since 2006.

“We wanted to win the title outright, but we lost our final game to Dartmouth,” junior Spenser Huston, Princeton’s All-Ivy League left tackle, said in a phone interview. “But we were still able to do some awesome things this year because of Coach Surace. Besides being a fantastic coach, he’s also a great motivator and great leader.

“He gets pretty fired up. When we lost that lead to Georgetown, he came into the locker room at halftime and let us know that we weren’t playing up to his expectations. We came out and played like our hair was on fire.”

That attitude enabled them to light some special flames at the end of the season.

Their eight-game winning streak during the season included victories over Yale and co-champion Harvard. As a result of beating those rivals, Princeton got to stage a “Big Three Bonfire” on campus as part of a tradition that began in the late 1800s.

“I want you to look out there at all these students and alumni and faculty and staff and University and town coming together coming together because of what you did,” Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber told the team at the bonfire on Nov. 24. “Thank you for beating Harvard. Thank you for beating Yale. Thank you for letting us light this bonfire tonight.”

This season’s accomplishments marked another step in Surace’s quest to make the Tigers a powerhouse.

They also justified his decision to leave a promising coaching career in the NFL to coach his alma mater.

A former standout center at Millville High School and at Princeton — the Tigers won the Ivy League title in 1989 — Surace eventually spent eight years (2002-09) as an offensive line coach with the Cincinnati Bengals.

When the Tigers were looking to replace 10-year coach Roger Hughes, Surace didn’t hesitate to apply for the job.

“Some people thought I was crazy for leaving the Bengals and the NFL,” Surace said. “But Princeton has been a part of my life for so long. I played there, my wife (Lisa, Princeton class of 1992) also went there.

“I absolutely loved the job I had with the Bengals, but Princeton was the one place I’ve always wanted to be, and I always said that if the opportunity ever came up to coach there that I would pursue it. I’ve always regarded the Princeton job as my dream job. I feel like I had a bigger purpose.”

The first day he met with the players, Surace wrote down a set of standards and goals in the locker room that he expected them to adhere to and achieve.

Four years later, the list is still there.

“Even when we went 1-9 that first year, the goals didn’t change,” said Tigers senior cornerback Phillip Bhaya, a Haddonfield native who was a co-captain for the Tigers this season. “Coach Surace always wanted us to have our eyes on a bigger prize.”

Surace has traveled throughout the country in search of players who could help Princeton attain greatness.

This season’s roster featured players from 28 states. Junior quarterback Quinn Epperly, who is favored to win Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year on Monday, is from Nashville, Tenn. Top receiver Roman Wilson hails from Broken Arrow, Okla. Running back Di Andre Atwater is from Duluth, Ga.

Because he played for Princeton, Surace is well aware of the difficulty of balancing football with the school’s tough academic standards. The players he recruits are more likely to someday own an NFL team than play for one.

“At Princeton, you’re not only dealing with some top-level college football players, but they are also terrific students who are striving to attain some balance in their life,” Surace said. “They want to be the best football players they can be, but in addition to that, they are also preparing and looking forward to the next stage of their life.

“It’s a matter of finding guys who are great football players and are also great students. Instead of recruiting the so-called ‘five-star athletes,’ I look for guys who have strong character, are tough and are willing to work. I’ll take 30 of the toughest kids in the room over players who are more athletic every day of the week.”

Having grown up in Millville and played for his father, Tony Surace, at Millville High School, Bob Surace knows that some of the toughest, well-rounded players are in South Jersey.

This season’s team had four players from that area, including top defensive standouts Bhaya and junior linebacker Mike Zeuli (Marlton, Cherokee High School). Zeuli led Princeton with 72 tackles to go with 41/2 sacks, two fumble recoveries, a blocked kick and an interception. He is majoring in economics.

Bhaya, a history major who is headed to law school next fall, was second with 65 tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. He returned an interception for a touchdown in the Tigers’ victory over Yale.

“The hardest part of our last game against Dartmouth was not losing,” Bhaya said. “It was knowing that I would never be playing football again for Coach Surace and Princeton. I know it’s time to move on and find something to fill the void, but I’m going to miss it. The good part is that we have a brotherhood that doesn’t end when you stop playing.”

Contact David Weinberg:

609-272-7186

I've worked at newspapers since 1985. Mostly in N.J., but with an eight-year pit stop in N.C. I've been at The Press since 1997.