In Hanover, N.H., a bonfire is not a very big deal. It's special. But it's also a guaranteed yearly phenomenon.
Every single fall during every single Homecoming weekend, Dartmouth's campus flocks to its fabled 'Green' to revel in the glow of a bonfire — no matter how that year's football team happened to perform.
In Princeton, N.J., bonfires are quite a different story — as Old Nassau's underclassmen may need reminding. Since the football team has not defeated both Harvard and Yale in any of the last five seasons, the University hasn't held a celebratory bonfire on Cannon Green since 1994.
Three weeks after his career move from Dartmouth's offensive coordinator to Princeton's head coach, Roger Hughes should remember this. Aside from new offensive schemes and assistant coaches, Princeton football fans would like to import something else from the Big Green — a bonfire. Not every year, but once in a while.
Expectations are never fair. Ivy League championships for the Hughes-led Tigers may be distant thoughts. After inheriting a losing team, only two Princeton football head coaches — Jake McCandless in 1969 and Steve Tosches in 1987 — have returned winning seasons in their first campaigns.
At the announcement of his hiring, it was asked how long Director of Athletics Gary Walters '67 had given him to bring the Tigers back to Ivy League supremacy. Hughes and Walters joked that he had at least until the end of the press conference.
Coach Tosches "resigned" Nov. 23 for the simple reason that his team suffered four straight subpar seasons. Walters hired Hughes to turn Princeton football into a winning program.
In Hughes, Princeton football didn't find an NFL credential or a high-profile name. The Tigers found a man who will connect with his players and most effectively mold a team from the ground up. In Hughes, Princeton football found the right man for the job.
A new coaching staff does not a winning program make. Because of the question marks on the coaching staff this year, recruiting has undoubtedly taken a hit. Next year — Hughes himself told the team Tuesday — the Tigers' success will be solely determined by the current players on the roster.
It has been a learning process for both Hughes to learn what his team can do and the team to learn what they can expect from their new coach.
On his first day on the job, Hughes lauded the abilities of an offensive tackle named "Norman," referring to junior offensive tackle Dennis Norman. After a quick correction, the coach calmly replied, "Oh, Norman is his last name."
Hughes has gotten to know his team. By now, he has their names straight. And the Tigers are impressed with what they have seen thus far.
In the midst of interviewing the team's assistant coaches on his first day, Hughes received a visitor in his new office. Sophomore quarterback Tommy Crenshaw stopped by to chat with his new coach.
During the course of their conversation, Crenshaw said, the team's secretary buzzed Hughes saying that the president of the Princeton Football Association was on the phone. The new coach said that he would call him back. He said he was meeting with "someone important."
At the secretary's persistence, Hughes eventually took that call — and Crenshaw didn't mind waiting. The message was clear. This would be a players' team. Roger Hughes would be a players' coach.
By virtue of a last-second play and two missed PATs, the Tigers fell to both Harvard and Yale this season. And once again, the Princeton campus did not get its celebratory bonfire. By virtue of Roger Hughes' fresh style and ability to connect with his new team, the 2000 campaign could prove to be a positive turn.
When Roger Hughes came down from Hanover, N.H., he brought many things with him. A fresh start for a struggling Princeton program. An inventive game plan that can make the best of limited talent. A new offensive coordinator from Dartmouth's ranks. And Hughes just might bring something else from Dartmouth next fall — the glow of an awaited bonfire, finally in Cannon Green.