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How a rising star in the NFL coaching ranks saw a rising star in Princeton OC Mike Willis

A Notre Dame fan in his youth and an Ivy League champion as a Princeton player, Mike Willis now is helping guide the Tigers' offense to new heights

The day, all these years later and with an ascendant career unfolding in the NFL, still resonates with Jim Salgado.

Now the Buffalo Bills’ safeties coach, Salgado recalls being informed by his then-head coach that Princeton’s defense was losing a key assistant coach.

“I still remember the day that head coach Bob Surace told me he was taking Mike and moving him from defensive assistant and putting him on the offensive side of the ball,” Salgado, who spent seven years on Surace’s Princeton staff, said.

So, who’s Mike?

That’s Mike Willis – Princeton’s second-season, third-year offensive coordinator and one of the chief architects in a Tigers’ offense that has prominently perched itself among the top offenses in college football – at any level but especially at the Football Championship Subdivision, where the Tigers have won 27 games and a pair of Ivy League crowns in the past three seasons.

“I’m really fortunate to work with an unbelievable staff that makes my job easier because they’re so creative and talented,” Willis, an offensive lineman on Surace’s first Ivy League title-team in 2013, told FootballScoop. “I learn from being with them every single day, and our job is getting the best 11 players on the field.

“It’s a lot of fun for me and to get to do it at Princeton, with all these great athletes and players from all over the country, really all over the world, is an incredible opportunity. I’m very fortunate for the mentors that I’ve had.”

Promoted to the role of Princeton offensive coordinator in winter 2020 but delayed his first season as play-caller for 20 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Willis already had nearly traversed an entirely different path.

“I had thought I wanted to be in sports administration, and had gotten an internship at the NFL,” said Willis, who interned directly at NFL HQ with fellow Princeton grad Hans Schroeder, the COO of NFL Media, and had started a job at an New York sports law firm. “He had been great to work for and there were great people at the league office.

“I guess I had something of a quarter-life crisis because I was 22, and I sat in my chair that fall and wanted to attack this unbelievable opportunity, but I felt like something was just a little off.”

Somewhat absentmindedly Willis began to draw on random pieces of paper.

What he found when looked down were Xs and Os; he was diagramming plays when he wasn’t helping construct documents as a legal assistant.

“What was off was how much I missed football,” Willis said. “I was living with two former college teammates, and I turned to them sometime that fall and asked them, ‘Do you spend a bunch of time thinking about football, drawing plays on scrap paper?’ I realized how much I missed football, of being part of a team, and I knew I wanted to impact young men, wanted that opportunity to teach because some of the most impactful people to me have been my coaches.”

Opportunity dovetailed with Willis’ restlessness; Surace welcomed back Willis into Princeton football as an entry-level, quality control coach who also helped the football program revamp its former players’ database.

Undaunted, Willis attacked the role with the genuine fervor he initially had tried to manufacture for a life outside of football. He transitioned from that ground-level post into a spot as the Tigers’ tight ends coach.

“I must admit, I was sad,” Salgado, a 2022 FootballScoop Minority Rising Star honoree, said of Willis’ coaching transition to offense. “I knew Mike was going to be a great coach, and didn’t want to lose him, but I was also happy for him and knew he would do a great job on offense.”

Eventually, Willis added junior varsity offensive coordinator duties, but it was his role as Princeton’s recruiting coordinator -- officially applied in 2019 -- that helped stamp the Willis name on college football’s radar across the sport. He helped Princeton in 2018 sign a class that was rated as the nation’s top FCS haul per 247Sports – and the Tigers also polished off the program’s first undefeated regular season since 1964 with an accompanying No. 8 national ranking. The program has continued to recruit at an elite FCS level now for several consecutive years.

Mike Willis helped lead Princeton to the 2013 Ivy League crown as a player, and has since helped the Tigers win three additional conference titles as an assistant coach, including in 2021 in his first year as offensive coordinator. 

Mike Willis helped lead Princeton to the 2013 Ivy League crown as a player, and has since helped the Tigers win three additional conference titles as an assistant coach, including in 2021 in his first year as offensive coordinator. 

Andy Aurich helped chair the Princeton offense to an 8-2 campaign in 2019 and then departed for a post on Greg Schiano’s Rutgers staff. That set the stage for Willis to take over the offense at his alma mater.

Then everyday life as everyone once knew careened into the unknown with the onset of COVID-19. Willis got to conduct a single practice as offensive coordinator before basically everything shut down.

Though Football Bowls Subdivision found a way to play a truncated, largely crowd-free ’20 campaign, the Ivy League abstained from play.

With his recruiting backdrop and an insatiable desire to grow his football knowledge that was rooted in the family’s fandom of Notre Dame, where his late father, Tim, had graduated from in 1984 and spent the final eight years of a distinguished professional career, Willis & Co. prioritized the season-less fall for personal development, team building and studying potential prospects.

“What was really unique about that team and that season in Ivy League football, and hopefully it will never be replicated (because of the pandemic), we had an entire group of guys that had lost what was supposed to be their senior season,” said Willis, who along with his wife, Maggie, and their young son, Campbell Timothy, were among the family at his father’s bedside when he passed in May. “They were so inspiring to me because we had 17 seniors who would have graduated who had to take a gap year to preserve their eligibility to come back and play.

“It was an exercise in team-building in abnormal circumstances, bonding through Zoom meetings, activities on Zoom but that lack of a season functioned as a bit of a redshirt year.”

In addition to his new role as offensive coordinator, Willis helped welcome in new assistant coaches on the same side of the ball at both the running backs and offensive line positions, as well as new quality control coach.

“It really allowed us to gel,” Willis said. “We were able to research and meet people and to build what we hope is an impactful class coming in this fall. We spent a lot of time teaching situational football, building the mental side of the game and the teaching progression. We were able to really work on our self-scout and to build on our techniques and expand on schematics.”

The base upon which Willis has set to expand the Princeton offense, which seven times last year scored 31 or more points and paced the Ivy League in scoring, remains a stretch-the-field, tax-the-defense-with-tempo system. They hung 27 on rival Cornell in the first half before torrential rains turned the second half into a slog.

The Tigers will get their wideouts vertical while also varying the paces at which they operate.

“We want to be fast, physical and together in everything we do, and Coach Surace sets that tone,” Willis said. “Fast comes from both tempo and the type of players we recruit. We want that tempo to be non-negotiably fast.”

It’s not the Tigers’ no-huddle offense, of which Willis points out there are many across college football, but rather its multiple sets and willingness to glean contributions from up and down the depth chart.

“I think what is unique is the number of formations we will package in a game week, especially, operating at warp speed as often as humanly possible,” Willis said. “We really try to stress out the defense and put a fast, talented, smart offensive team in position to succeed.

“Our vertical pass game, from a base philosophy perspective, we want to throw the ball downfield as much as possible.”

There is satisfaction, certainly, when that happens.

But Willis, even with those scrap-paper plays from his brief days as a New York businessman, eyes a greater purpose in Princeton’s holistic approach to football.

“By being together and by joining a football team, as a coach, a player, administrator, whatever you’re doing, whatever role you’re filling, you’re acknowledging you can sacrifice individual good for the good of the team,” Willis said. “Everyone’s job is to be the MVP of their role and maximize their ability, whatever it is, to help win the game each week.

“It also means celebrating each other’s successes. You might be competing for a position, and you want to win the starting tight end or left tackle, but you can never be satisfied with what that job is. If you win the job, you honor your teammates you beat out and are lining up alongside by playing incredibly hard. If you’re the second-team tackle, you might get 25 to 30 snaps game, or if you’re the fourth team tackle, you’ve still got to be the MVP of your role.”