Hall of Fame coach Tony Surace refused to focus on mastering any one particular sport growing up, because he had passion for each one he’d learn to play. When his passion alone wasn’t enough to allow him to keep playing organized sports, he switched his focus to coaching.
“You have your avid golfers and avid tennis players. I just wanted to play sports,” former Millville High School (N.J.) coach Surace said. “From an early age, starting in high school, I knew I wanted to coach.”
At 24-years-old, Surace accepted his first coaching gig for Millville’s basketball team shortly after graduating from West Chester State College in 1969. As a young man trying to secure a foundation for his young family, Surace said it was a tough time balancing work and attaining a graduate degree. But he also said those sacrifices built him into the man and coach his players needed.
“Back then, we started practice September 1st, so I knew I couldn’t get myself nor the team ready if I was a full-time college student,” he said. “I dropped out of class and my wife was supportive enough to allow me to do that. We had one small child (Bob) at the time.”
I don’t thank my wife enough for the support she’s given me to be away from our family coaching two sports for over 20 years.”
Though he arrived at Millville to coach basketball as an assistant originally, the Harrisburg, PA., native rose to regional acclaim as a football and baseball coach. As Millville’s baseball coach (1974-1991), Surace won 262 games, four conference titles and has been awarded as a member of the New Jersey Scholastic Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame.
As the school’s football coach (1972-1996), Surace won 152 games for the Millville Bolts football program. He also coached an undefeated Bolts team to a state championship in 1975 (Millville’s lone state title). For his football exploits, Surace has been inducted into the South Jersey Coaches Hall of Fame and the S.J. National Football Foundation Hall of Fame. He’s been inducted into eight different halls of fame in total.
However, if left up to Surace, he doesn’t believe that he was exceptional — just a man owning up to his responsibilities.
“I wouldn’t say I was a really good player or even a coach, but when they needed an [assistant] basketball coach, I did that as best I could. It wasn’t until a few years later when they needed a baseball coach that I couldn’t keep up with three sports,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate and very blessed to have the unbelievable amount of talent — particularly in football — at Millville. My third year we were undefeated and had four All Americans. Quite frankly, I thought, ‘this is kind of easy.’ But you don’t get those types of teams often.”
Surace has been a great role model to young men in the community, but more specifically to his sons. So much so, that they have followed dad’s passion — and success — in football.
The eldest son, Bob, is the head coach at Princeton University and won an Ivy League championship in 2013. The same year, he finished as a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Jr. National Coach of the Year award and led Princeton to numerous Ivy League offensive records. Bob also coached nine years in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals before joining Princeton.
Brian, head coach at Fairleigh Dickenson University (NJ), is in his fifth season at the helm. He has made coaching stops at Rutgers (1995-1997), Northeastern (MA) (2005-2009), and was named American Football Magazine Offensive Assistant Coach of the Year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (NY) in 2003.
“For my boys, it was fun growing up around football. They always wanted to go with daddy to work. They liked being the batboy and the ballboy and all the stuff they grew up around… It was all on them,” Tony laughed. “They wanted to do it, they were the reason they were so interested in the game. As they got into high school, they knew the philosophies, they had sat in my coaches meetings and they watched a lot tape.”
“Coaching them was easy because they were both outstanding students and hard workers — both voted captains by their peers.”
The patriarch of the Surace family says he encourages young men to take up all sports, but it was football that brought he and his sons closer.
“People ask me my thoughts on baseball and football, I say, ‘I love baseball, but I live for football.’ It’s been my life, and now with my boys doing it, it continues to be my life. I don’t think there’s a better way to raise a family than around football.”
The bond that exists between player and coach is unlike any other bond. You can try, but I don’t think you can duplicate it in business, or other aspects.”