Coach choreographs new game plan
You might expect a football coach to use a sports analogy when describing what it's like to lead his team. Not Roger Hughes.
"It's like choreographing a Broadway play with 110 players and the stage is moving all the time," he says.
Hughes was named the Charles W. Caldwell Jr. Head Coach of Football at Princeton in January. He'll lead the Tigers in their home opener under the lights at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23, against Lehigh.
For the last seven years, he was the offensive coordinator at Dartmouth, helping to propel the team to a 22-game winning streak and two Ivy League championships. He sums up his decision to come to Princeton in three words: "Commitment to excellence."
"Princeton wants to be the best in everything," he says. "The University wants to do things so that its students have the best opportunity to achieve."
Hughes knows a thing or two about achievement. A native of Crawford, Neb., he earned his bachelor's degree from Doane College, where he lettered in football and golf. He served as an assistant football coach there for a year after he graduated. Then it was off to the big leagues.
He entered a master's degree program at the University of Nebraska and assisted with coaching the varsity split ends and tight ends. The Cornhuskers were in the Top 10 each year and played in two bowl games during his tenure.
Hughes earned his master's degree in physical education and his doctoral degree in exercise physiology from Nebraska. He had opportunities to coach before finishing his terminal degree, but decided to stick with it.
"Although coaching was my dream, I wanted to have something to fall back on," he says. "I also thought having a Ph.D. would add to my credibility in any academic setting."
Before joining the Dartmouth staff, Hughes was the offensive coordinator at Cameron University in Oklahoma and the running backs coach at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
He admits that taking on his first head coaching assignment has been a bit of an adjustment, especially in terms of the increasing demands on his time. However, he says, the plusses outweigh the minuses.
"The neatest thing about my job now is I'm in a position to help people," he says. "I think because of my academic and athletic background, I have a unique perspective on how to advise student-athletes."
From that perspective, Hughes tips the scales when it comes to balancing academics and athletics.
"Academics come first -- end of story," he says. "Students are here to get a great education and we understand that. With that said, the fact that students come to a place like this to play football means football needs to be pretty important to them because there are other demands on their time.
"As a coach, you have to be aware of the high expectations on our students in the classroom," he continues. "Maybe the week of midterms, you don't put in such a complicated game plan, for example. If you look at the sphere that makes up that student, just one small part of it is football. There's academics, social life, personal life. You have to be really aware of how that all blends together."
Hughes says establishing a good relationship with the faculty is the key to helping student-athletes succeed. He plans to make use of a "faculty fellows" program Athletics Director Gary Walters has initiated. He also intends to invite faculty members to team meetings, practices and games.
Hughes calls recruiting in the Ivy League a "huge challenge."
"It's unique because the pool of kids we can recruit from an academic standpoint is greatly reduced and the competition for that pool is keen," he says. "The reward is that the kids who do get in and flourish in the program go on to achieve phenomenal things. They make tremendous contributions to society."
Hughes is interested in encouraging those contributions while the students are still in college. He applauds programs like the one begun in 1991 with the Newgrange School in Trenton. Football players spend Fridays in the spring working and playing with students at the school for the learning disabled.
Hughes initiated an outreach program at Dartmouth through which players spoke to middle school and high school students about issues such as the importance of education, staying off drugs, resisting peer pressure and making good decisions. He hopes to start a similar program at Princeton.
He also plans to make a few changes on the field. He says fans can look for the defense to blitz a bit more. "We're young on defense, and blitzing will give us a chance to match up better with more physically developed teams," he says.
On offense, fans will see a much different approach. "There'll be more formations, more motion and more gimmick plays," he says. "You're going to see the ball in the air 50 percent of the time. We want it to be more exciting. You're going to see a team that plays to win."