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Monday, November 21, 2005

A Vote Of Confidence

The head coach's record is 26-33 over six years. His teams have had two winning seasons, three losing seasons, and one .500 season in that span. This past year, his team was 7-3 and finished second in its league. The league: Ivy. The team: the Princeton Tigers. The coach: Roger Hughes.

This year's Princeton was picked to finish sixth in the Ivies. Many pundits figured that if the Tigers were to bear out that prediction, and finish something like 3-7, Roger Hughes would be out of a job. The prediction had some merit, as the Tigers had lost three-year starting QB Matt Verbit and star LB Zak Keasey, both of whom were in NFL training camps this summer (Miami and Washington, respectively).

The Tigers, though, paid little heed to what was written, and they knew they had a lot to prove. They got off to a good start, and they had two key mid-season wins that showed they were more than just fodder for other programs. They beat Harvard at Harvard, the first time in nine tries they had beaten the Crimson, and then they beat Penn at Penn, the first time in ten years they won a game at fabled Franklin Field. Led by DB Jay McCareins, who always seemed to make the big play, is the nation's leader in interceptions and is a candidate for the Ivies' player of the year award, the Tigers went into their game against Yale a few weeks ago tied for the Ivy title. Win out, and they were assured for nothing less than a tie for the title with Brown.

They took it to a tough Yale squad early in that game, leading 14-0 with a few minutes to go in the first half and the ball in the red zone. Then their game fell apart. The Tigers coughed up the ball, and they weren't the same. Instead of going into the half leading 21-0, the lead was 14-0. And the coaching staff lost its creativity, and the offense started turning the ball over. Seven times in all, and a few times in the final minutes that enabled Yale to score two touchdowns in the final two minutes to defeat the host Tigers and leave the hometown crowd breathless. Some longtime Princeton observers, like TigerHawk, called for Coach Hughes' firing. The game clearly was a lead balloon.

This past weekend Princeton played Dartmouth at Dartmouth, always a tough place for the Tigers, and especially in late November. The Yale loss had to be devastating for Princeton, not because they lost to a gritty Bulldog team but because of the way the game was lost. The championship was within their grasp, and they let it slip away. Literally. A lesser team would have mailed it in, and a lesser team would have wilted, but the Princeton Tigers regrouped and pasted the Big Green, 30-0. I, for one, thought that this was a great showing of character for a team that simply blew its chance for a league title the week before.

I also thought it said a lot about Roger Hughes. On the one hand, I didn't think that Tiger AD Gary Walters did a good job when he hired Hughes. I was looking for someone with a track record as a head coach, and the most successful coaches in the Ivies had that track record before arriving on their campuses. Penn's Al Bagnoli, an outstanding coach, had an excellent run at DIII Union College before coming to coach the Red and Blue. Harvard's Tim Murphy coached at Cincinnati, and Yale's Jack Siedlecki coached at his alma mater, DIII Amherst College, before moving on to New Haven. That's the type of coach I was looking for.

Instead, among the finalists for the Tiger job were an assistant at someplace like Colorado, former Tiger WR and NFL assistant John Garrett (Jason Garrett's older brother) and Roger Hughes. At the time, Hughes was the offensive coordinator at Dartmouth, which, after having enjoyed much success, including in the early 90's with QB Jay Fiedler, had fallen on hard times. Distant observers would have scratched their heads in bewilderment, whereas insiders in the Ivies knew that some of Dartmouth's problems lay at the hands of an unsympathetic admissions office. Hughes has a PhD, seemingly is a good guy, and got the job.

It didn't seem to be the strongest pool, and some football alums were mystified at what AD Walters was thinking. Where was the next Bagnoli? The next Siedlecki? They had to be out there somewhere, and they hired not a head coach but a coordinator. It struck me at the time that the Princeton faithful expected a hire with more pizzazz than Coach Hughes.

And he hasn't done that great at Princeton. After six years, Tiger fans might have expected a little more. Two winning seasons in six is no ringing endorsement, but this year by all accounts was a good year. My view is that the alma mater should be in the conversation for the first division of the league every year, finish in the top half two years out of every three, contend for a title once every five years and win a title once every ten. Hughes hasn't done that, and he's been in Princeton for six years (Columbia fired its coach, Bob Shoop, over the weekend, and he was 7-23 in three years). The question is, how patient should Princeton be?

The positives are that Roger Hughes is a good man who has engendered some good feelings among the alumni. It appears as though the players like playing for him, but I'm not certain whether they feel inspired by him. The team did have its best year under him this year, and they showed a lot for an expected also-ran. To replace him would mean several years of rebuilding, and he only should be replaced if the school can hire a better coach. Based on this past season and the other factors I cited in this paragraph, I think that Coach Hughes should be retained, at least for another year.

Gary Walters, the Princeton AD, played basketball for Princeton in the mid-to-late 1970's, when Princeton was part of the national hoops conversation. Put simply, he likes to win, and he might get very formulaic here and terminate Hughes simply because he's had only two winning seasons in his six in Tigertown and has only contended for a title once in six years. Some would support the decision, and it certainly could be considered by the book. But that wouldn't make it a wise decision in the least. Ironically, Walters' own track record in hiring a football coach would work against him. If he doesn't like Hughes' performance, what's to say that he'd hire someone better than the person he hired in the first place? You cannot guarantee it.

I talked with a former football player about Coach Hughes' future. On the one hand, the Yale game frustrated him -- he thought the coaching that day was terrible. On the other hand, he likes Coach Hughes, thinks he had a good year, and thinks that the kids respond to him. As we are wont to joke, it's the Ivy League, and it shouldn't be totally about winning and losing. Yes, winning is important, but there are more nuances to Ivy League football than there are in the next two conferences combined. He opined that there's something about Coach Hughes and his comportment that warrants another season at the helm.

I agree. Coach Hughes showed a lot this season by shaping a team that had a great run. It would be a shame to terminate a coach after this good a season.


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